Boating and rivers reborn in downtown Fort Wayne
By Joseph Ditts | South Bend Tribune
Three sluggish rivers converge in downtown Fort Wayne with a constantly muddy look that makes you wonder if they ever come clean. Truth is, the naturally silty water is clean and starting to thrive. Not just with smallmouth and largemouth bass, or the swallows that pack dozens of nests under the bridges.
Every week, Margarita Monday easily draws 40 to 60 kayakers and canoeists onto the water — often newbies to paddling, or those looking for camaraderie. They launch downtown at 6 p.m. near the boat rentals at Fort Wayne Outfitters & Bike Depot and cap it off with a stop at a nearby Mexican restaurant.
Cara Hall and her husband own the outfitters shop that leads the floats.
“When we first opened (11 years ago), people thought we were a little crazy, because the water wasn’t being used,” she recalls.
Old notions of stinky, dirty rivers had lingered from decades ago.
Traffic was light at first. But for the past five years, Hall says, business has grown steadily, causing the shop to fully rent out all of its boats each weekend. If you miss that, you can always hook up with social paddles led by the city parks every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.
The gentle current makes it easy to paddle out and back in any direction on all three rivers: the St. Marys and St. Joseph (not our St. Joe), which feed into the Maumee. They pass city skylines, the sprawling urban Headwaters Park, the Historic Fort Wayne that recounts life in a centuries-old fort and levees covered with riprap rocks.
On any given day, you may also see people touring the rivers in an airboat with a huge wind propeller, or in a canal boat, or in the city’s 20-person dragon boat.
It’s all part of a concerted effort in this city to rebirth itself by embracing its neglected rivers.
I’ve just launched my kayak downtown when a pontoon boat streams by, piloted by the wiry, passionate Dan Wire, on yet another tour. Descended from sea captains, he grew up on the rivers here, worked on different boats (towing, fishing, dredging) and led a 33-year career as a high school shop teacher. Through those decades, he’s advocated to clean up these waters and get more people to appreciate them. In January, the city hired him to mind the health of the riverbanks and watershed as its new riparian maintenance supervisor.
I caught up with him later, and he proudly told me what the large cranes are doing downtown on the south bank of the St. Marys. Promenade Park, due to be finished next summer, will boast a large pavilion for events, a new band shell and launch sites for tour boats. An educational rain garden and bioswale will keep water from draining off. In a separate feature, kids will move doors that regulate water as it recirculates, splashing over rocks and into pools.
On the wooded north bank, an extra 150 trees will be planted, and a treetop trail made of metal and wood will rise 20 to 30 feet in the air. The public canoe/kayak launch by Fort Wayne Outfitters will be made handicapped accessible. Track the park’s progress at riverfrontfw.org.
Turtles and herons may lure the kayakers. Economics lure big projects like this, where the $26 million cost is born mostly by companies and private foundations, Wire says. Near it an apartment project worth $67 million will rise.
“Big businesses need talented employees,” he says. “This is a draw.”
Last year, the local nonprofit group Friends of the Rivers launched a newly built, 54-foot canal boat called Sweet Breeze, a replica that pays homage to the former Wabash and Erie Canal that flowed here in the mid-1800s. With room for about 40 passengers in rows of chairs or with tables, too, the sleek blue craft can host either natural history tours or cocktail parties while traveling 3 to 6 miles.
Its mission, says Wire, who has overseen that project, too, is “to get people on the river so they understand how usable the rivers are.”