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'Blazing Paddles' event to bring 600 watercraft back to the Cuyahoga River

Blazing Paddles 2021
Ronald A Skinner
About 380 teams signed up for last year's "Blazing Paddles" event. This year, registration had to close early so the river could accommodate the 600 teams that signed up.

Canoes, kayaks and paddleboards will take over the Cuyahoga River on Saturday morning as part of the annual "Blazing Paddles" event.

About 600 watercraft will take over a stretch of river where they usually have to intermingle with large, industrial vessels. The event’s founder, Jim Ridge, said Blazing Paddles has grown rapidly since 2018 due to word-of-mouth in the paddling community.

Ridge said he’s expecting nearly twice the number of participants compared to last year, with people coming from 16 states to take part in what he called a "full-blown photo op for a revitalized city that was defined by its river in an unfortunate way."

"Now, we hope to change that narrative," Ridge said. "Folks are going to say, ‘That's not the Cleveland that I thought I knew. It is a waterfront city.’”

This year’s “Blazing Paddles” includes races as well as a recreational paddle. Participants will get an interactive map showing 16 points of historical interest along the route, such as Terminal Tower and Irishtown Bend.

Ridge added that they’ll also provide a connection to history for visitors with an interactive map as they pass Terminal Tower or the Anthony J. Celebrezze fire boat, pumping its water cannons.

“We'll paddle underneath that rainbow of water,” he said. “That’s the boat that doused the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire. After the paddle, they can click on [the map] and say, ‘What is what is the story behind Standard Oil? What is the story behind the Columbus Street bridge?’”

Like many Great Lakes cities, Ridge points out that Cleveland’s growth also led to the fouling of the Cuyahoga.

“Rivers flowing with pollution were a sign of a city's economic prosperity,” he said. “There was a time when cities and businesses turned their back on the river and used [it] as a pipeline for raw materials to get to their plants and then to get rid of the byproducts of manufacturing. Now, these recovered rivers are conduits for recreational tourism.”

A “pre-paddle” is being held on Friday night, and details are available at the Share the River website.

Kabir Bhatia joined WKSU as a Reporter/Producer and weekend host in 2010. While a Kent State student, Bhatia served as a WKSU student assistant, working in the newsroom and for production.