The Cuyahoga River runs an unruly 100-mile zigzag through northeastern Ohio that changes in its nature and in the creatures it supports.
It’s as if the river has three different characters as it follows its path through Geauga, Portage, Summit and Cuyahoga counties.
Near its headwaters in Geauga County, the upper section of the Cuyahoga River flows slowly until it hits Burton.“This river is flowing on top of an old lake bed that is in turn on top of this sand and gravel valley fill,” says Geauga Park District Senior Naturalist Dan Best. This causes the waters of the upper Cuyahoga to run slow and sluggish over its gravel base.
“Most days you can paddle upstream and downstream without any real difference in effort to paddle,” Best says.
This gravel base is a great area for mussels to thrive, which are an indicator species for the health of the water and other animals inhabiting the bottom of the stream.
“They’re not exciting creatures. They’re not glamorous creatures. They’re not the poster kids for wildlife, but they are very important as far as indicators of the health of the river system.”
Best says that freshwater mussels are in the biggest trouble when it comes to bad water conditions.
“They can’t get up and fly away or swim away,” Best said. “Whatever the water conditions are they have to contend with it.”
A lot of freshwater mussels depend on gravel bottoms so when the water is mixed with silt, they are in trouble. The biggest factor in the destruction of these creatures is storm water that brings silt from construction sites and farm fields that then coats the riverbed with silt.
“That’s a major water quality issue and stream quality issue in Ohio.”
Photos by Melanie Nesteruk
The waters of the Upper Cuyahoga are also characterized by its swampy habitat.
A swamp is a wetland that is dominated by trees or shrubs and has both swamp forest and swamp thicket. The swamp is there because the slow-running river does not have a high oxygen content — the water isn’t aerated as effectively as in the high rapids areas.
The temperature of the water also has a great effect on what fish will inhabit the water. The upper Cuyahoga River is a warm water habitat, meaning it is usually between 60 and 70 degrees.
”The fish community is pretty good for what they consider a warm water habitat,” Best says.
The upper Cuyahoga River is a unique area that has returned to a relatively stable state with a vast ecosystem. A few returning native species include birds like bald eagles, peregrine falcons and great blue herons. Other water creatures such as otters have slowly made a return, with two showing up in the Cuyahoga River in 2013, while the spotted turtle is a rare find.
Amphibians that inhabit the water and surrounding areas are the usual: bullfrogs, green frogs, toads, spring peepers and leopard frogs. Best even has a peeper taking refuge at the West Woods Park. Animals like the northern water snake, painted turtles, snapping turtles and common musk turtles also inhabit the area.
Aquatic mammals like the beaver are abundant around the river, where they don’t build dams, but bank lodges. “If I”m at the river at twilight or dusk that’s when they become very active and they smack the tail on the water when they are annoyed and sometimes you don’t anticipate it so it’s like somebody threw a big flat rock in the water,” Best says.
Muskrats and mink are also present, but the river otter is a unique returning native species to the Cuyahoga. River otters were considered extirpated, or absent, from Ohio a hundred or so years ago until 123 otters were brought back to Ohio from Louisiana and Arkansas.
The North American beaver also disappeared from Ohio around 1830 after the fur trade wiped them out. According to an article written by Jennie Vasarhelyi from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a map from 1755 marked a trading post called the French House that traded fur along the Cuyahoga River.
Unlike the otters, beavers returned to the Cuyahoga River without much government intervention. Instead, beavers returned to Ohio from other states in the 1890s after states with remaining beavers passed stricter game laws to protect the ones they had left.
The main habitats around the swamp forests are made up of silver maple, red ash, american elm, black willow and swamp white oak trees. Button bush is also very common as well as sneeze weed and smart weed.
“There’s also a hell of a lot of poison ivy that grows in the swamp forest, too,” Best said.
Near Burton in Geauga County, the river picks up speed because of the grade changes at Cuyahoga Falls.
Around Cuyahoga Falls, the river falls a greater distance than Niagara Falls as it hits a valley with currents and rapids, Ohio EPA Environmental Supervisor Bill Zawiski said. The middle river begins around where the rapids pick up in transition between Kent and Munroe Falls with the rapid grade change.
The middle Cuyahoga River flows northeast of Akron and into parts of Portage, Summit and Stark counties. The sewage problems of Akron are no secret, and this part of the river has been hit hard by sewage in the past.
“A lot of rubber companies — Goodyear, Firestone — they don’t discharge the stuff that they used to anymore,” Zawiski said. “The city of Akron has a lot of overflows from the sewage treatment plant and the sewers and that’s what both Ohio and the U.S. EPAs have spent decades and legal battles with Akron over that.”
However, to say that just this part of the river has been affected by sewage overflows and industry is incorrect. Sewage issues abound all around the river from Geauga County to Kent to the city of Akron and beyond.
The Ohio EPA can gauge the pollution levels by looking at fish population. Fish like the invasive carps, the bullhead catfish, and different minnows like the creek chub tolerate or like dirty water. If the water is more polluted, more of these fish will show up in the river.
Other fish such as darters like clean, flowing water and are attracted to the upper stream. There are between 60 and 65 kinds of fish in the Cuyahoga, Zawiski said.
“A lot of things are getting better though, the Cuyahoga as a stream is way better than it was 10 years ago,” Zawiski said. “There are fish that are back, even through the industrialized section, that we would have never thought would have made it back to the Cuyahoga.”
Fish like the red horse, which is a sucker species, are very sensitive to pollution and have returned. The river chub and the common shiner also have been found. All of these fish are very sensitive to pollution.
Habitat also plays a major factor in what fish are found.
“We are getting rid of the places for fish to hide out,” Zawiski said. “So even if they are living in the best water in the world, if there’s no place for them to do fish things they are not going to be there.”
Erosion and stream bottoms whose rocks are covered in silt turn fish away. Even if the water is clean, fish don’t like it. Runoff from cities and energy plants can also cause changes in the stream that push fish out of their habitat.
The rapid middle river flows into the lower section of the Cuyahoga River through the Cuyahoga National Park. Here the water movement changes back to one that is slower and lake-like before it meets Lake Erie in the Cleveland Flats area. Purple loosestrife inhabits the surrounding river area, altering the soil and pushing out native plants. This invasive species is a nuisance that volunteer groups work to eliminate.
The last five plus miles are called the “ship channel.” This part of the river was dredged down to a depth of 23 feet, Zawiski said. Fish don’t usually inhabit this area since it’s stillness and depth create oxygen problems. Even with gills, fish still need oxygen in the water to survive. When it rains, this area flows a little more, and fish from the upstream will start to appear. The Flats area also has lingering steel industries that discharge from both sides of the river.