Cleveland had never jumped to the top my paddling bucket list. Or even landed anywhere near the bucket. The images that jumped to mind were drab Rust Belt industry, "the mistake on the lake" (a lake on fire, at that), hometown fans wearing brown paper bags, maybe a music museum as the lone draw.

Nothing about meandering adventures through dense woods, a national park at doorstep distance, empty urban touring opportunities, whitewater cascading through rocky banks and into Lake Erie.

And certainly nothing about the colorful and genuine local characters ready to show their favorite backyard adventures to a couple of out-of-town paddlers with two days to explore every on-water option that the Cleveland area had to offer.

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Like biker bars. The glistening Harleys lined up outside the Iron Horse Saloon certainly caught our attention. We'd headed south to explore the primary waterway that defines the Cleveland region -- the Cuyahoga River -- and landed in the town of Burton, Ohio at a biker-friendly bar and grill that shares a lot with Crooked River Adventures, an outfitter with guides like Matt Tyrrell eager to shuttle our canoe 3.5 miles upriver to share his favorite section of the Cuyahoga.

Spring was ready to explode with trees budding and warm sunshine flowing down through the open canopy. Recent rains also provided high water levels, allowing us to leapfrog from the main current out to a maze of flooded timber. The area begs the imagination to take the path less traveled.

That urge to explore certainly kept Tyrrell interested in the densely forested landscape a mere 35 miles east of the downtown Cleveland bustle. Brimming with smiles and stoke, Tyrrell relayed his experience organizing an annual paddle-camping trip over Memorial Day weekend with musicians playing on kayaks, canoes or along the banks of this lively section of the Cuyahoga. As he kayaked alongside, sharing stories of life and adventure, the waters calmly pushed us back to the grassy banks of the eclectic outfitter-meets-saloon stop on the river.

Our exploration of the Cuyahoga routed us southwest toward Cleveland, though Cuyahoga Valley National Park. We launched a pair of SUPs, relying on a little local knowledge gleaned from the Boston Store to point us to nearby primitive access. The staff here are eager to share information and have area maps to buy.

This permit/fee-free DIY adventure calls upon the curiously adventurous ambitions. Warmth from the sun's rays continued to shower the river as we dipped our paddles in the rippling waters. Swifter, more technical waters quickly turned into a mellow float as we navigated wild banks and fallen trees, the promise of spring beckoning at each bend.

Midland painted turtles launched from the banks, warily poking their heads above the surface to investigate our passing. A bald eagle perched on a treetop ruffled its feathers as we floated around tiny midstream islands, while the occasional whitetail deer would break its natural camouflage along the wooded banks with the flick of an ear or a flared-up tail to signal its retreat from the river.

We finished the quiet, scenic tour immediately after the Chippewa Creek inlet at the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad Brecksville Station parking lot. Don't miss this recognizable takeout as a low-head dam lies downriver. Plus, the lot offers picnic tables and open grassy spaces to unwind.

For a change of pace, we headed to Cuyahoga Falls, hoping to experience the short and sweet section of Class IV-V whitewater opened with the 2013 removal of a pair of 100-year-old dams. Just at the edge of downtown, gradient increases in a steep half-mile, 100-foot-deep gorge section of the river where whitewater cascades over a handful of rapids and vertical rock-ridden drops.

We'd planned our travels to coincide with the third annual running of the Cuyahoga Falls Kayak Race, but the same spring rain that'd had us exploring flooded forests postponed the race, leaving us heading the 30 miles back north to the larger urban hub of Cleveland proper.

That is, we went right downtown; the terminus of the Cuyahoga into Lake Erie. We parked at Wendy Park to launch our city tour, eyeing freighter traffic into the city docks. We easily pushed upstream in mellow currents, with urbanites active on riverside walkways, parks, and restaurants. We shouldn't have been so surprised to connect with other fellow paddlers.

As we headed through the heart of Cleveland’s cityscape under its iconic iron bridges, we paddled right into Jane McKelvey and Stefanie Spear, who made their case for The Forest City.

"One of my favorite things to do in the summer is to paddle up the Cuyahoga to listen to concerts at the outdoor amphitheater, Jacobs Pavilion," said Spear, a local environmental activist. "We joke about having backstage passes since we hang out on the water behind the stage. We are also very fortunate to have a vibrant waterfront scene on the west and east bank of The Flats, as we call them.”

We got a taste of that scene finishing our impromptu city tour together at Rivergate Park (the preferred launching spot for locals) with the recommended Melvin's Wharf restaurant feet away. We sat on the dock watching high school rowing crews sweep up and down the river, and chatted about this thriving and lively paddling community.

Having kayaked and SUP-ed Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga for over a decade, Spear noted how the number of paddlers has "increased immensely" over the last three years, as has user interest in advocacy and access. "It's very rare to be out on the water and not see a familiar face," she added. "I've traveled to many places with my board, including Florida and New England, and I'm always surprised to find that the paddle community in Cleveland is stronger than in many other places."

Spear wasn't the only one surprised. Though the buzzing lake-side city scene was a contrast from the serenity of the National Park just upriver, we found ourselves once again finding thriving paddlers in an unexpected place, proud of their home waters and ready to spontaneously share an adventure before the spring season had even truly begun.

RESOURCES:

American Whitewater: Cuyahoga Falls Class V Whitewater

National Park Service: Plan your Cuyahoga Paddling Trip 

Paddle Cleveland: Metro Parks Guide

MORE FROM C&K:

Paddling on the Cuyahoga River

North America’s Best Paddling Towns