Words and photos by Everett McMillen Cislo

There were people with decades of paddling experience as well as those who were renting a canoe for the first time. From homemade cedar-strip canoes to newly purchased kayaks, from custom stand-up paddleboards to dragon boats with crews of over two dozen paddlers, the 2016 Ohio River Paddlefest lived up to is status as arguably the largest paddling event in the U.S.

The diversity of boats and skill levels is one of the major draws of Paddlefest. There are no requirements made about a person's paddling background, no expectations or boundaries for what type of paddlecraft are allowed. If you are holding a paddle, you are welcomed. Perhaps this is a testament to why Paddlefest has become a staple summertime event for the residents of the Ohio River Valley for the past 15 years.

"Paddlefest is meant to celebrate the region's most important feature: the Ohio River", said Brewster Rhoads, one of the founders of Paddlefest.

Fifteen years ago, Brewster, along with a handful of friends, decided to host a gathering for paddlers on the Ohio River.

According to Rhoads, the initial idea was simple: "Wouldn't it be fun to get some friends out on the river and show them what we love?"

That first year of Paddlefest drew 99 people. Now, a decade and a half later, over 1,400 paddlers registered for the August 2016 event, and more unregistered "pirate paddlers" jumped in along the river route. Seven local paddling liveries rented out around 425 boats. Rental canoes, kayaks, and SUPs were in such high demand that most outfitters had all craft reserved a month before the event took place.

For 2016, the Paddlefest route was shifted to two public boat ramps on the Ohio side of the river. The 8.9-mile route was chosen to allow people a more scenic view of the Cincinnati and northern Kentucky waterfronts, to give participants access to two Ohio River tributaries, and to pass underneath a variety of historic bridges.

Safety precautions and practices have also been evolving. Paddlefest safety manager, Larry Stulz, who served as an event representative of the United States Coast Guard Auxiliary (USCGA), has been with the Paddlefest organization for ten years. During that time he worked to plan and prepare for a diverse range of scenarios and keep the local emergency personnel, both on and off the river, in open communication at all times.

The schedule of Paddlefest has expanded as the years have progressed. While the main event was held on Saturday, August 6, paddlers began gathering the day before. With space made available for tents, nearly 100 people registered to camp. Musicians performed all evening, a fleet of various food trucks parked on the perimeter, and a paddling gear swap booth provided space the trading of equipment and stories. A group of large baseball fields were dedicated to serve as overnight storage for those who wanted to drop off their boats and gear a day early. The USCG was on hand offering free vessel safety inspections and certifications to anyone who wanted them.

Saturday’s events started as early as 6 a.m. with a shuttle taking paddlers to the put-in. There was also an early SUP race for a segment of the course. For the main 8.9-mile paddling event, participants had the option of stopping on the northern Kentucky waterfront for a halfway-point rest. Food trucks, music, water refills and vendors offered entertainment for those who wished to stretch out and explore.

The final take-out location was a park which offered more opportunity for celebration after paddlers loaded up their equipment. Vendors, food stands and breweries were all on hand to help people conclude their day on the water.

For Rhoads, Paddlefest’s goals are threefold: To expose people to the Ohio River as a venue for recreation, to create a yearly event to celebrate the local region, and to raise money for the Outdoor Recreation Club of Greater Cincinnati. This year’s Paddlefest brought in about $60,000, said Rhoads, which is about twice as much as recent years.

Paddlefest is important for the area, Rhoads believes, and he works every year to keep the momentum of previous years going. The numbers he offers show promising signs of success. Taking every year of Paddlefest combined, he estimates, the event has "introduced about 20,000 people to paddlesports." For Rhoads, Paddlefest is a positive, transformative event, and one to be proud of. “It offers the areas of northern Kentucky and Cincinnati bragging rights," he said.

Info: www.ohioriverpaddlefest.org

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