Rowing into Spring on the Cuyahoga

Condoms, syringes and fingers leave crew members less than satisfied with the conditions of the Cuyahoga River


Robert Valerian

Though from a distance the Cuyahoga River completes the Cleveland area, crew members know what goes on above and below its surface. “I think it’s in a good spot — it’s very beautiful, the views from the river are pretty — but it’s pretty polluted,” senior crew captain Genevieve Fortin said.

The Cuyahoga River is known for being unsanitary —  it has caught on fire 13 times since the first incident in 1868. And no students experience these conditions more than the high school crew teams, who spend their outdoor seasons practicing on the river.

“I’ve seen a lot of plastic water bottles floating in the water, tampon applicators, dead fish —  just a lot of trash and debris and sticks and other dead objects,” freshman Aine Jameson said.

“The grossest thing I’ve ever found —  probably condoms, syringes,” senior crew captain Genevieve Fortin said.

“[I find] garbage, plastic water bottles, logs, leaves and dead fish,” freshman Bridget Yusko said.

“Well, sometimes you’ll see a big cloud of trash just floating down,” junior Lincoln Luzar said.

The sport is one of the more recent additions to Shaker’s collection. The women’s crew team was formed 20 years ago, and the men’s team was launched in 2012. In the spring and fall seasons, the team practices on the river after school each day, traveling via bus, and on Saturdays, carpooling themselves.

The water is especially unsanitary in the coming months.

“Especially as the ice melts in the spring, dead rats, fish and other small animals are seen floating in the river. It’s really gross because their bodies are bloated,” said sophomore Lia Snyder. “They are so decayed. Other than that, some balls, general trash and debris is typical,” 

Sophomore Cecilia Zagara said she once saw a finger floating in the river. “We rowed past this purply-white thing and, as we got closer, it was a finger,” Zagara stated in a text message.

We rowed past this purply-white thing and, as we got closer, it was a finger

— Cecilia Zagara

Crew coaches also notice the the river’s plentiful pollution. “Probably a sunken boat, I’d say, is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen on the river. Over the course of two days —  a boat went from above water; next day it was a little bit lower; the third day it was below the water,” assistant crew coach Kyle Dohlen said.

The Cuyahoga River has been so chemically polluted that it has burned 13 times.

The fires are not just harmful because of the waste; they damage businesses along the river. “An oil slick on the Cuyahoga River —  polluted from decades of industrial waste —  caught fire on a Sunday morning in June 1969 near the Republic Steel mill, causing about $100,000 worth of damage to two railroad bridges,” according to a Cleveland Historical website.

Crew members know that trash is typical, but underneath the water’s surface lies much more.

“I’ve seen hundreds of dead, small, five-inch fish floating in the river. There are areas on the river where these dead fish completely cover the entire water surface,” Zagara wrote in a text message. “I have seen many plastic water bottles floating up and down the river. You can find freighters on the water, and after they go past, the water that comes out behind them is absolutely disgusting, an even murkier brown.”

But, according to freshman Kate Hahnenberg, the objects floating in the water don’t affect practice much because the teams are not there for sightseeing. “When I see gross things in the water, it kind of just grosses me out. It doesn’t really affect practice because if we’re on a certain drill or doing a certain thing that the coach wants us to do, then I don’t really pay any attention to the water,” Hahnenberg said.

The stench of the river is not pleasant for crew members, either.

“Generally it’s not too bad until you get really close to the sewers and the open water lines —  oh, then it’s bad,” Jameson said.

According to Fortin, one part of the river, dubbed “stinky culvert” by teammates, smells especially bad. “It’s like sulfur, chemicals, dead fish,” she said.

However, over the past couple of years, the smell has improved, according to Luzar. “It actually smells a lot better. I remember freshman year, it was a lot more gross, so I guess whoever is cleaning it up is doing a good job.”

I remember freshman year, it was a lot more gross, so I guess whoever is cleaning it up is doing a good job

— Lincoln Luzar

Dohlen said the Cuyahoga River now has a significantly smaller amount of waste from industrial plants, since most of it is no longer going into the river. New regulations send the waste into wastewater control plants before it goes into the river, reducing pollution.

“I think it’s in a good spot —  it’s very beautiful, the views from the river are pretty —  but it’s pretty polluted,” Fortin said.

In November 2017, Cleveland law enforcement removed a dead man from the river, according to Crew members, however, were not especially startled by the discovery.

“I was both surprised and not surprised because the things we find in our river on a daily basis are gross, so it makes sense as to find something like that there. But at the same time I was surprised because somebody was willing enough to dump a body into our river,” junior Isabel Ortman said.

The crew teams practice year-round with spring and fall seasons. In the winter, both the men’s and women’s teams practice on rowing machines in the basement of the high school. This year they will start practicing on the river March 26.

Jameson said, “We get splashed with the water a lot, and I’m not looking forward to be splashed with it now” that a body was found. “I wasn’t to begin with.”

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