When it Floods in Cleveland
or, My Experience with Child-proof Locks
by Riviera Ratt
Hot off the presses! This article (with slight editorial modifications) appeared in American Whitewater, 5/6-1999.
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Well, I learned something.

I mean, I could’ve figured it out, had I thought about it. But it had never occurred to me to think about it. Given their scruffy, itinerant nature, many paddlers have no doubt known it for some time, from personal experience.

What did I learn? I learned the following:

You can’t open the car doors from the back seat of a police cruiser.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? But, as I said, it hadn’t occurred to me. Here’s how I know. This is a story about creeking. It’s a story about fun. It’s a story about access.

Tinker’s Falls at low water. (26 k)

Friday night, January 22, the TV was flashing its little “fun logo” at me. You know the fun logo. You’ve seen it, plenty of times. The curious thing about the fun logo is that they use code words. Instead of simply saying “fun times ahead,” which would be obvious to anyone, they say: Flood Warning.

Sometimes they even get a reporter on-screen, next to a raging river; maybe a flooded car or two shows up. For some reason, the reporter is never in drysuit and PFD, holding a paddle and grinning like a Barnum&Bailey chimp. Go figure.

But we know what they mean, and I suppose that’s good enough. I went to work. I emailed the emailees, and I phoned the cyber-free Neanderthals. I had checked out Pigeon Creek, and it was looking very encouraging indeed.

Now, Pigeon Creek isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of hairboatin’. It’s a little drainage ditch that runs through my property. It’s runnable when there’s been a heavy rain (yes, I have a First Descent to my credit!), but it’s only 50 cfs of quickwater (when it’s flooded), and there’s nothing resembling a rapid for the quarter mile between the unrunnable bridges in people’s backyards. No, Pigeon Creek is only an indicator.

An indicator of fun up North. Bedford, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, is the home of Tinker’s Creek. Tinker’s Creek is the largest tributary of the Cuyahoga River, and despite its decidedly urban character, it has to be the funnest whitewater in Ohio. When it’s running, that is; it only comes up about a dozen times a year, when the TV is issuing those cherished flood warnings. This little honey drops at over 100 feet per mile (the topo is hard to read in that region, but it’s steep) through a deep gorge for about a mile. Before the steep mile is about a mile of playful Class-II warm-up; following the solid Class-IV steep section, it peters out into Class III, then finally II, with more playful waves and holes than I’ve ever had the energy to do justice to. In short, this is one fun run, comparable in difficulty to the Middle Fork and Big Sandy Creek in West Virginia. And it’s less than 30 minutes from my house. You get this kind of gradient, true beauty within the gorge, and infrequently runnable flow, and you can understand what I’m talking about. I’m talking “Tinker’s is running today—can’t we celebrate Grandma’s 80th birthday tomorrow?”

George Carroll surfs a wave in the warm-up rapids. (26 k)

But…I digress. You want to know how I ended up in the back seat of the cruiser, don’t you?

Brent Laubaugh surfs a wave next to the bridge in the warm-up rapids. (25 k)

See, the Cleveland MetroParks authorities really don’t like the idea of kayakers running this little creek. They seem to have some idea that it’s dangerous or something. Don’t know how they got that idea; maybe it’s the dozen or so kids that, rumor has it, have drowned in Tinker’s in the past twenty years. Of course, these kids were either rock-climbing or deliberately swimming, with no PFD’s and no knowledge of whitewater, but the authorities’ concerns are understandable. And this stream has some very real hazards, in the form of undercuts and big-ol’ logs, and one nassssty waterfall. The logs are the biggest concern. I always know where Tinker’s Falls, a 5.1 on a par with Big Splat, is, so I can eddy out above it and scout or portage as I wish. But there are numerous trees in the river. There could be a new and scary strainer, literally around every corner. You have to be on your toes.

Ratt Boy runs Tinker’s Falls, 9/96. Photo by Ron Whitney. (Click for 29-k photo by Jasons Zukerman.)

Strainer action: lest you think I’m exaggerating, understand that this creek has a ton of wood on its best days. The river, or at least its present course, appears geologically new. The riverbanks are very unstable, crumbling shale; on any trip, you could quickly lose count if you looked at the bank, trying to count all the card-carrying members of Future Strainers of America. How unstable is the riverbank? Picture yourself running the river on a high-water day, a day when runoff is pouring into the gorge from both sides, all the way down the river. Picture yourself surfing a wave next to a 200-foot vertical cliff; picture little bits of shale falling on the water, your boat, and you from 200 feet up. I’ve experienced that phenomenon more than once on this river. Picture yourself being glad you’re wearing a helmet.

Since they don’t like our running this stretch of river, we generally do the Stealth Put-in. We get dressed at a gas station, miles from the river; we then drive to the put-in, hide our boats in the brush, and run shuttle. Boats on your car are Rangers’ Red Flag; you don’t attract the rangers’ attention, you don’t get hassled. One time, I was taking out with the Possum King (a local legend who introduced me to the obsession that is Tinker’s Creek), and a ranger happened along. “Where’d you put in?” He asked. The Possum King told him. “Dangerous!” expleted the ranger. “Well,” shrugged the Possum King, “beats bowlin’!”

This time, I was sitting in my boat, trying desperately to stretch the skirt on the cockpit rim in the 33-degree weather, and I heard a toot. Dave looked around and informed me that it was a ranger’s vehicle. I briefly considered pretending ignorance (I wear earplugs when boating in the winter, and don’t hear well with them on), but thought better of it and approached the ranger. Dave was a Tinker’s Virgin, so I felt it was incumbent on me to handle the situation.
“I can’t let you onto the river. It’s too high. ”
“Really?” I responded. “This is a perfect level.”
“No,” he wasn’t buying it, “we don’t let people run this river.”

A short discussion ensued, in which I tried to assert our right to float a navigable river. He didn’t care. It didn’t matter to him whether we put in on park property or on public property; if we floated through park property, he told me in no uncertain terms, there would be consequences. I tried to point out the right of navigability, once we had legally accessed the river. It was evident that my persuasive powers were not meeting the challenge. At one point, he suggested that I didn’t understand.

I understood very well. I understood that this ranger didn’t know the law regarding river access. I also understood that this was neither the place nor the time to assert our right by violating an order issued by a law enforcement official. Further, I understood that our day of major fun was in serious jeopardy. I asked to speak with his supervisor.

He couldn’t speak with his boss on the walkie-talkie, so he offered to head back to the station and make a phone call. I asked if I could be a part of the phone call, at which point he offered me a ride in the patrol car.

I sat in the back, staring at the big-old shotgun on the floor of the front seat. We spoke cordially. “We’re not out to get you, you understand,” he offered, “We don’t even allow rafts on this river.” You can imagine the points that made with me. I shuddered at the thought of a big-ol’ raft negotiating the very technical rapids. I’m sure some rafters can make it, but in places, they’d need all their faculties. But I understood his position; he doesn’t make the rules, he just enforces them. And he doesn’t want to be searching for bods in the riverbed in the middle of January. We introduced ourselves by name, and spoke a little about the river. I tried to be very civil with him. “I don’t want to be creating problems for you,” I assured him, “I mean, you’ve got that gun, and all I’ve got is this paddle.”

We got into the station. At that point, he told me that he’d have to come around and let me out. The childproof locks, of course, are necessary when you consider the unsavory characters they encounter (some of whom, incidentally, are not boaters). He spoke a little with me to clarify my position, taking care not misrepresent me to his boss. He dialed (well, he pushbuttoned; nobody dials anymore). The conversation went something like:

“33 calling 125. Yes, Sarge, we have a kayaker who wants to paddle Tinker’s Creek. He says he believes that he should be able to float on the stream through the park, as long as he has accessed the river from public land, not park property…uh-huh, uh-huh…really? Okay, I’ll tell him.” Then, to me: “He says you can put in on park land, but it’s at your own risk.”
This was better than I’d been dreaming of. This meant we wouldn’t have to put in upstream, right by the waste treatment plant, and paddle two miles of flatwater. Ranger Bob asked, “Is there anything you’d like to say to him?” “Yes,” I replied, “tell him ‘thank you very much.’”

Oboyoboyoboy, oh boy! I was thinking on the way back to the put-in. I told him about the Keel-haulers Canoe Club, how we run rivers all over the country, and I assured him that we did not take Tinker’s lightly. He told me that he would inform the other rangers who patrol the park that we were allowed to access at our own risk. To me, this doesn’t sound like an official policy; we could be denied access any time, but that’s a fight for another day.

Brent Laubaugh (r) and George Carroll (l) set up to put in below Tinker’s Falls. (22 k)

Once Ranger Bob let us go, we played down the playful warm-up stuff. Dave seemed a little tentative; he didn’t appear to want to play every last wave and hole, and he didn’t go for any but the biggest eddies. It was clear that he was nervous about Tinker’s Falls downstream. Well, we walked Tinker’s Falls (I’m still nervous about that one after a solid trashing last year) and put in below, heading toward the Tunnel.

The view from inside the Tunnel. (20 k)

The Tunnel. Ain’t nothing like it nowhere. The river goes under a very high railroad bridge. The Tunnel is 512 feet long, 20 feet high and 40 feet wide; it takes a bend to the left halfway through, so there’s no straight path for light to the end. Better stay upright through the reflection waves in there, as it’s pretty shallow. It gets a bit dark, and it slopes downhill, so you’re accelerating all the way. When you emerge, you face a steep water slide, shoving you inexorably into a huge wall-o-water hole. This is the fastest you’ll have been in a kayak, if you haven’t run Oceana. Luckily for you, the hole isn’t a keeper. The whole thing carries the same aura as any Class-V drop.

George Carroll (l) and Brent Laubaugh (r) emerge from the Tunnel. (23 and 20 k)

Ratt Boy peels out to run the first slot below the Tunnel. Photo by Brent Laubaugh. (28 k)

Tinker’s never fails to exceed expectations. George Carroll and Brent Laubaugh on Saturday, and Dave Broer on Sunday—all were astonished by the continuousness of the rapids, the beauty of the gorge, and the experience—the adrenaline rush—of the Tunnel.

Ratt Boy peels out from the eddy below the Tunnel. Photo by Brent Laubaugh. (19 k)

Ratt Boy gets fed into the Slot Hole from the eddy. Photo by Brent Laubaugh. (23 k)

After the Tunnel is the work. The Ledges section has tight drops, with fast water, nasty rocks, boiling eddies (at high water), not to mention the omnipresent threat of a vicious strainer around every blind or obstructed bend. On Saturday, Brent had attempted an attainment right next to an ugly rock. (Blame me; I believed he’d be better off upstream in the eddy, better set up for a ferry, so I motioned him to make the attainment.) When the squirrelly eddy flow flipped him against the rock, he bailed after two roll attempts. George and I practically lost our paddles recovering his boat in an eddy full of telephone-pole-sized logs. They chose to walk the next rapid, which had a few tree-fingers hanging down in critical spots; I managed to avoid the Tickle-fingers of Death, and took out in the eddy below to avoid the nasty river-wide log that’s been there since 1996. At that high water level, I didn’t want to try limboing it; call me a wussy-boy. Knee-deep snow complicated the portage.

Dave Broer evades the Tickle Fingers. (20 k)

Brent Laubaugh puts in below the Strainer Action. (22 k)

Back to Sunday with Dave, eddied out after the Tunnel: I scouted to assure myself that there were no bad unexpected “twigs” in the blind drops and discussed options with Dave. Then we got busy. I ran the first and second drop, and caught the screwy eddy to watch Dave. I managed to catch him on film before he got mauled by the diagonal hole. He took his time rolling up, but (thankfully) rolled up about three boat-lengths above the river-wide strainer. Sunday had lower water than Saturday, so he was able to limbo it. I still hadn’t caught up to him as getting out of the screwy eddy was not immediate, so he ran the next two drops by the seat of his pants. He managed two more flips and rolls before he found an eddy to his liking. He was huffing when I caught up with him. Now, those were combat rolls.

David Hammond handstands at Shale Hole, 4/98. (32 k)

There’s more twig action after that, but the gradient starts getting gentler, and we could relax and play to our hearts’ content. You gotta check what’s downstream of every wave, every hole, to be sure you won’t get swept into another log or pourover. But the play kept coming at us, beckoning, as it always does, and this play following the adrenaline gave me my usual endorphin high which lasted several hours following the river.

Dang, I’m not sure who this is surfing a wave in the cool-down rapids. (19 k)

Brent Laubaugh and Ratt Boy in Surfin’ Safari. Photo by George Carroll. (24 k)

At the end of the trip, Dave mused with a touch of irony, “You know, my feet are freezing. I can’t feel my toes. I think I’ll sue the Cleveland MetroParks for allowing me on the river in the cold.”

Except as noted, all photos by Ratt Boy. Background photo: Recon Ron Whitney runs Tinker’s Falls. All photos and content © 1999 RattTronics. All rights reserved.

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