Mahoning Valley na-tives might be surprised to hear that Trumbull Canoe Trails, a group of paddling enthusiasts, gave out more than 150 canoe and kayak rides to the public at the third annual Mahoning Riverfest on June 7.
Mike Danko, president of Trumbull Canoe Trails, said quite a few passengers were astonished by how pleasant their ride was.
"One of my members had an older gentleman in his mid-eighties and the guy kept saying he'd been there all his life, lives near the river, and never thought he'd be paddling on the river," Danko said. "It never crossed his mind."
To those who grew up during the river's fall from grace, the Mahoning still recalls images of industrial stagnation caused by dams, leading to lifeless waters.
"Some of those stories are true," Danko said. "There are parts of the Mahoning where the water is still very dirty, but it's all on the bottom."
But, both Danko and Chuck Miller, another member of Trumbull Canoe Trails, stressed that the river as it stands is perfectly fine for the activities they are publicizing.
"You could use the river now in its current state without spending millions of dollars," Miller said. "You'll never get every bad chemical out of there anyway. It's not a swimming pool."
The stories persist today, but events like the Riverfest are changing minds, one ride at a time.
"The awareness of the river is really coming back, and people are surprised," Danko said.
While eyes have been away from the river, members of Trumbull Canoe Trails have been busy keeping up the Mahoning River Water Trail, a stretch recognized by the state in August 2012 that is 22 miles from Foster MetroPark to Packard Park in Warren
"Our goal is to keep it clean and keep it clear," Danko said, which means cutting up fallen trees to keep the river safe for traversal. The club also maintains areas that require special attention for traversal and placed the mile markers along the trail.
In February 2013, Lowellville tentatively received a $2.4 million grant from the Ohio EPA through a river-restoration grant to remove the First Street Dam, the last dam on the river before the Pennsylvania border. The current plan is to remove the First Street Dam and dredge 10,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the bottom of the river surrounding the dam.
Currently, boaters traveling through Lowellville pass through a breach in First Street Dam, which was created naturally by the river over time. Danko said this area of the river in Mahoning County takes a bit more skill to paddle through than the Mahoning River Water Trail because of the number of dams and rapids.
Miller, also a member of Friends of the Mahoning River, another group formed to advocate for the river, said enthusiasts are finally pulling the right strings to get the river cleared so that it can be enjoyed with less danger. The first big effort resulted in a trestle being removed by FirstEnergy, which amounted to more than 30 semi-truck loads of debris.
"It took six weeks last summer, and what they did was literally amazing," Miller said. "I titled their efforts the first major step to cleaning up the Mahoning River."
But a trestle isn't a dam, and the First Street Dam project has been in the works for a while. In fact, Danko said they asked towns about removing their dams all the way down the river until they got to Lowellville.
"Out of every municipality, Lowellville was the only one to step up," Danko said. "Everyone else looked at us like a bunch of dummies."
Lowellville Mayor James Iudiciani said groups like Trumbull Canoe Trails and Friends of the Mahoning River showed up to meetings and proved the river's utility despite its inconveniences.
"It's an exciting time," Iudiciani said. "There's a natural resource there that nobody's really used to its potential."
Iudiciani said Lowellville is still in the process of taking control of part of the property to be cleaned up, but that there were no objections from adjacent land-owners at a public hearing.
"By the third or fourth quarter of this year we should see (work begin)," Iudiciani said.
Iudiciani sees the project for what it is, an investment in the environment on behalf of the Ohio EPA. But, he also welcomes any tourists who will want to pay a visit once the work is done.
"I hope it can revitalize downtown Lowellville as well, by having more people travel there," Iudiciani said. "(Groups) have talked to us about some campsites, whether we or any property owners would be opposed to it."
Any talk about reclaiming the river seems to brings speculation about what comes next. Miller, for instance, said that he'd like for the potential Youngstown amphitheater to be be built in proximity to the Mahoning.
"The joke has always been with Rockin' at the Amp already and potential for an amphitheater in Youngstown ... There should be that stream by them so that boaters could float by and watch the shows," Miller said.
Danko said his dream is to have a whitewater park on the Mahoning river, like has been done in Springfield on Buck Creek.
"They have a man-made whitewater park in a river that was worse than the Mahoning, and now it's the whitewater capital of Ohio," Danko said. "I would love to see one in Warren, right next to Perkins Park. We have a perfect setup right there."
Danko said a whitewater park is always a tourist attraction wherever they are built, and one built on the Mahoning would be a draw to keep people in the area.
In the short term, though, both Trumbull Canoe Trails and the Friends of the Mahoning River are pushing to have docks built wherever it makes sense to encourage use. One in particular is planned to be built in Girard off of Front Street. From there, one can boat to the B&O dock in downtown Youngstown, which was refurbished last year.
Danko said that the Ohio EPA will be watching how the Mahoning reacts to the removal of the First Street Dam in Lowellville, and if things go well, the EPA said all the other dams will become a real possibility.
"This isn't an overnight fix," Danko said, however. "This is a good five- to 10-year project."
Years have been kind to the Mahoning, though. Danko said he could point out four different bald eagle nests near the river "without batting an eye." Bald eagles mostly prey on fish and and are picky with their habitats, so their endorsement of the river is an excellent sign of its recovery. He has also spotted a river otter nest and some beaver dams.
Still, the club has way to go in convincing locals to explore the Mahoning, the same river that they were once taught to avoid. For now, they are happy to gather testimonials from those who aren't initiated into its history.
"At Riverfest, I had a couple who was in from New York City, and they were flabbergasted at how pretty the Mahoning is, and how it's in our back yard," Danko said. "If you talk to anyone from the Mahoning Valley, we'll say "Yeah, whatever.' But to them, it was like a gem, like something they'd never seen before."