Elaine Marsh Interview, 2008

Elaine Marsh of the Friends of the Crooked River talks about growing up in Cleveland and moving to Independence as a teenager in 1959. She recalls canoeing on the Cuyahoga River, camping with her family, sleeping in deserted areas of the Cuyahoga Valley on the hottest summer nights, hiking in the area at a time when its limited access afforded privacy. She became active in the Sierra Club as a young adult. Marsh describes the beauty and mystery of the night sky as viewed from Virginia Kendall. She relates her early 1980s work in Friends of Crooked River to clean up pollution, including pulling out 113 abandoned cars from the river, planning the first River Day, initiating the first multi-experiential annual event at Boston Mills Crossing, and persuading Goodyear to allow the group to ride in the Goodyear Blimp to undertake an aerial survey in the early 1990s.

Participants: Marsh, Elaine (interviewee) / Culley, Joe (interviewer)
Collection: Rivers Roads and Rails: West Creek and Cuyahoga River
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Joe Culley [00:00:01] So, I guess we'll go ahead and get... We're recording, everything's great? Okay, my name's Joe Culley. I'm the interviewer, and today we have?

Elaine Marsh [00:00:13] Elaine Marsh and most known for my work with Friends of the Crooked River.

Joe Culley [00:00:19] Okay, well, we're going to start off with just some background information about you, and kind of the purpose of this interview or the kind of the gist that we're kind of going after is your story. We want to know your involvement in the project and everything, but your story, kind of the personal stories that have come out in your journey and involvement in the river and the park.

Elaine Marsh [00:00:44] Mm-hmm.

Joe Culley [00:00:45] And because, you know, a lot of history, they kind of do all the surface, but we want the human factor and that's... So anything, anecdotes that you can think of, anything that's kind of connected to this would be wonderful.

Elaine Marsh [00:00:59] Okay.

Joe Culley [00:01:00] But we're just going to start off with some background information. So, give us your kind of your birthdate and the place where you were born.

Elaine Marsh [00:01:09] I was born in 1945 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Joe Culley [00:01:14] Okay, and what was the date of that?

Elaine Marsh [00:01:18] 1945.

Joe Culley [00:01:18] What month?

Elaine Marsh [00:01:19] [...]

Joe Culley [00:01:20] [...]. Okay. So how long have you lived in this area?

Elaine Marsh [00:01:25] I've lived in Northeast Ohio all my life.

Joe Culley [00:01:30] And so what has made you decide to stay rather than go in other directions?

Elaine Marsh [00:01:39] It's my home. And you know, I mean, I think people can define themselves in a number of ways, but place is very important in defining a person, I think, and, you know, family and friends and roots and habitat and environments and the Cuyahoga River.

Joe Culley [00:02:00] Oh, okay. So your family has a lot of roots in this region?

Elaine Marsh [00:02:04] Yes, it does, at least my father's family does. My mother's family was from Pennsylvania. And interestingly, many of them immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio. My grandmother came here, I think, in the late '20s or early '30s, and several of her adult children followed her here.

Joe Culley [00:02:29] And why did she immigrate here?

Elaine Marsh [00:02:34] She was looking for a job, she lived in Pittsburgh and she was looking for a job and she was a baker and she couldn't find a job in Pittsburgh. And someone she knew told her there was a job at St. Vincent's Hospital looking for a baker. So she came here to be baker.

Joe Culley [00:02:51] And is that where she met her husband to be?

Elaine Marsh [00:02:55] She already had a husband at that point.

Joe Culley [00:02:56] Oh, okay.

Elaine Marsh [00:02:57] But he was disabled and so he could not work, and so she is the person who had to find work.

Joe Culley [00:03:06] What was his disability, may I ask?

Elaine Marsh [00:03:09] He was in an accident. I didn't know him very well. You know, so I'm not exactly sure of the full extent of his disabilities, but he couldn't work for whatever reason it was.

Joe Culley [00:03:23] Okay. So you consider this place your home, and you said the river.

Elaine Marsh [00:03:29] Mm hmm.

Joe Culley [00:03:31] Okay. Why the river? Why do you consider this your place?

Elaine Marsh [00:03:36] Well, when I was a kid in Cleveland, we lived not too far from University Circle, and we used to play in Wade Park all the time. And we would very often go down Wade Park and you could see at the bottom of Wade Park, Lake Erie, you couldn't get to it at that time. There was a freeway and railroad tracks in between, but you could see the lake and I just always was attracted to the lake. It was so big and immense and you couldn't get to it. And then when I was about 14, we moved to Independence, Ohio. And when we moved there, we were very close to the Cuyahoga River in the canal, and we used to go down and throw stones, and eventually we got a canoe and we canoed the river and the canal. The river at that time, even in Independence, was really very dirty and scummy. But it was the only river we had, you know, I mean, I don't know that we knew it was polluted. We knew that it smelled and that there was a lot of debris floating on it. But it was sort of our river. And so I learned to canoe pretty young and enjoyed canoeing and learned to canoe and spent a good deal of my 20s canoeing and kayaking in rivers around northeast United States. Boundary Waters, Algonquian were particular places that I loved. And and what you learn when you paddle a river sooner or later are issues related to water quality. And you can either continue paddling and learn about conservation and restoration or you stop paddling because you just get so connected to water quality. So that's sort of how I became connected to environment was through water and parks. When I was a kid, and I remember this very distinctly, we lived not too far from several parks and I would go to those parks and I would sit there and I would wonder and I would say, isn't this really great of these people to plant these trees? I mean, I, as an urban kid, thought that the city was the natural way of things and that everything was provided by man. I had no idea. And even though I studied what they told me to study and read what they told me to read, it was not clear to me that the natural order, that the planet came to us with all these natural amenities, I thought we provided them as part of the streetscape. And I don't know how old I was when I learned that wasn't the case. I think around eleven or twelve and my uncle and aunt—I had two cousins that were my age—and they would take me camping, and that's when I learned that the world was a natural place and that it had animals and plants and that that was the natural order, not streets and buildings. So... But I was, you know, so I was kind of a combination of being an urban kid that had interests in what was beyond the urban landscape and then as I got older, got very interested in the outdoors, and then in the '60s when I was in college, is when the whole environmental movement really started.

Joe Culley [00:07:48] And where did you go to college?

Elaine Marsh [00:07:50] I went to Kent State.

Joe Culley [00:07:51] Okay.

Elaine Marsh [00:07:53] And so, you know, that was when I really started to get interested in environment when I learned the relationship between public policy and environment. So... So that's sort of why I ended up interested in rivers and came mainly from my recreational interests and just sort of my intellectual musings about things.

Joe Culley [00:08:22] Wow. Now, what was your major at Kent State?

Elaine Marsh [00:08:24] Philosophy and English literature.

Joe Culley [00:08:29] [Laughs] I can tell because of the way you describe things—very poetic about the paddling and then the little description that Jennie Vasarhelyi gave me was "Watched the landscape of the Valley change from deserted space to living history." I thought that was really, really a beautiful way of kind of describing it.

Elaine Marsh [00:08:48] Right, right. So one of the interesting stories I think I have is I was, after I graduated from college, I had a job in Cleveland teaching and then I moved here to Akron because there was another job teaching that seemed more interesting to me.

Joe Culley [00:09:12] And what year was that when you graduated?

Elaine Marsh [00:09:14] I'm not sure. I think it was like '67 or '68.

Joe Culley [00:09:18] Okay, so this was before the shootings.

Elaine Marsh [00:09:21] Right. Right.

Joe Culley [00:09:22] You weren't there.

Elaine Marsh [00:09:22] No, I wasn't there when it happened, but at any rate, so I moved to Akron and I was living with a couple other women in this house and it was very hot in the summer. We were on the top floor and it was very hot. And I used to throw my sleeping bag in the trunk of my car and go down into the Valley and pull off the road and sleep in the park. Well, it wasn't the park at the time. It was just really deserted, a deserted place at the time. And so that was sort of my first introduction to the park, was sleeping there on hot August nights when it was too hot in the apartment to sleep. And more than once I was kicked out by policemen who were afraid for my safety. [laughs] But... And I used to hike in the area, I mean, and the interesting thing to me was there would be a few footpaths here and there, particularly along the river. But for all that deserted space, there were hardly no people who used that deserted space. Kids, occasionally you would see occasionally people with dogs. But it was very unused and very second growthy and uncared for and totally unappreciated. But it was very available for people who wanted to use it. And it felt immensely private. I mean, you would not have believed you were within ten miles of 1.5 million people in Cuyahoga County, and I think Akron was about 250,000 then. So you would not have believed that just because there, there was no access. And, you know, when there is no access, there are only sort of the adventurers and the kids that you see there. So those are my earliest memories of the Valley.

Joe Culley [00:11:35] And a lot of the people that we've interviewed have called it sort of like the secret garden. Did you take your friends down?

Elaine Marsh [00:11:44] There were some.

Joe Culley [00:11:48] Or was it like a real sacred kind of space?

Elaine Marsh [00:11:50] Well, it was mainly personal for me, but there were a couple of people I knew. It wasn't really until I got involved in the Sierra Club that I... And that... I was in my late 20s, early 30s when that happened, when I met people who had those interests. You know, prior to that time, most of the people I knew, if they were interested in environment, it was an intellectual pursuit. It was something to do with public policy. It wasn't really because of their connections to the landscape. So, but then in my late 20s and early 30s, I did start meeting people that I didn't have to travel long distances to paddle with, to experience, to have friendships in the wilds of the Cuyahoga Valley.

Joe Culley [00:12:45] Mmm. I was just writing down... What philosopher and writer would have been for the person that kind of really gets you fired up about this nature, thinking like the aesthetics of the heart that has really influenced you?

Elaine Marsh [00:13:02] Well, I think my very favorite is Wordsworth, William Wordsworth. And, you know, he talked about nature as being sort of a metaphysical place that gave meaning to deeper thought and experiences that really freed us, a very metaphysical kind of thought, and I, especially as a young person, was very taken by that. I also, of course, and the reason I got involved with the Sierra Club was the writings of John Muir, who, you know, whose life was so defined by wilderness and talked about wilderness as being a spiritual experience, as well as an interesting recreational and physical one. And it is something that we are losing over time. We can have appreciation for wildness, but it is almost impossible to experience it. And when we do have that opportunity, everyone responds to it universally. I think that's a very interesting thing. And so that we are preserving this park with the closest thing we can to wilderness is probably preserving spirituality for the for the future of people. And, you know, the person who understood this better than anybody was John Seiberling. When he was... I'm trying to think if this was the Alaskans Land Act [Alaska National Interest Lands Act of 1980]. When was that? Was that before the park was established? They might have been close to about the same period of time, but, you know, he was one of really three people who was responsible for Alaska getting the designation. And he wrote this beautiful piece. And I wish I knew it by heart, but essentially what it said was people really don't understand wilderness. Wilderness is not about a place. It's about who we are and where we come from and what is important to our existence as physical beings. And that wilderness is an opportunity for us to really understand our relationship to our past and our existence on the planet. And he just really said that really beautifully and I... It was a newsletter that he wrote when he was a representative in Congress, which. I remember reading that and thinking, you know, is this what politicians usually talk about? I think this is my politician! [laughs]

Joe Culley [00:16:10] Now, I'm assuming you've had some of these metaphysical spiritual times when you were in the woods. Can you recall any of these specific times?

Elaine Marsh [00:16:24] Mmm. I'm going to try to remember those specifically related to the Valley, and there was one night when my husband and I and my daughter—and she was quite young at the time, I don't remember maybe seven or eight—and some friends of ours, we had we had gone out to dinner. It was in the summer, and it was unseasonably cool and so therefore, it was very bright. It was an unbelievably bright night. I think it was like in August or September when you never see stars. And so we were we left a restaurant. We could see stars and we we went out to Ledges and, in Virginia Kendall, and walked that little trail and hiked up to the outlook there. And this was, you know, I think, was quite dark. So it had to be like 10 or 11 o'clock. And so we got there and there were 10 or 15 other people there at 11 o'clock at night, you know, in the middle of the park, and everybody was just silently experiencing this gorgeous, beautiful night where you could almost see the Milky Way, it was so bright. And we actually did see that night some northern lights. And it was sort of like I always felt like the northern lights were a gift to all of those people who, you know, wandered out together to experience it.

Joe Culley [00:18:07] Amazing.

Elaine Marsh [00:18:07] Yeah, it was amazing. It was a very amazing experience.

Joe Culley [00:18:10] What colors did see?

Elaine Marsh [00:18:11] Red.

Joe Culley [00:18:13] Red.

Elaine Marsh [00:18:13] A red drape, which lasted a good 15 minutes. And it's the only northern lights... Well, I have seen them sort of vaguely in the distance, the greenish colors. But this was a drape that actually went down from above down, you know, about halfway to the ground from the, from the sky. And it was pretty exciting.

Joe Culley [00:18:38] How did that movie internally?

Elaine Marsh [00:18:44] It's a... It's a connection. It's just a kind of a leaving of the self, you know, just feeling totally part... And totally... Undefined.

Joe Culley [00:19:08] So, let me see, so how many children do you have?

Elaine Marsh [00:19:13] Just one.

Elaine Marsh [00:19:13] Just one.

Joe Culley [00:19:14] And you're married?

Elaine Marsh [00:19:15] Yes.

Joe Culley [00:19:16] Okay. And... What... How old is your child now?

Elaine Marsh [00:19:21] She's 28.

Joe Culley [00:19:22] Okay, and your husband? What's he do?

Elaine Marsh [00:19:27] He's retired. He was a chemist with Goodyear, a research chemist, and we very much enjoy the same things. I don't think I would be married if it weren't... If I had not met my husband who was so interested in wilderness and in rivers and... And that is really what attracted me to him was that he really loved these things and did these things, and we are an exquisite paddling team.

Joe Culley [00:20:11] [Laughs]

Elaine Marsh [00:20:11] We are! I mean, people have said when they watch us paddle, our paddles enter the water at exactly the same heartbeat. I mean, we really are a terrifically paired team and have paddled all sorts of water. We were... We paddled the Yakagany in an open boat. And we were like... At that time, there were like only 200 people who had paddled the Yakagany in an open boat. You know, now it's thousands, maybe millions. But at that time, there were not that many people. And even now in an open boat, I don't think anybody does it without flotation. But at any rate. So my husband and I are true soulmates in the wilderness.

Joe Culley [00:21:03] How did you meet?

Elaine Marsh [00:21:04] Oh, it was a kind of a chance thing. A friend of mine wanted me to go to this mixer with her, and she said she wouldn't go if I didn't go. And so I said, okay, I would go. And that's where I met him. It was a thing called the Rap Pack. It was a group of singles who didn't like bars and they got together and met in their homes. And so that's where I met him.

Joe Culley [00:21:36] And was that first conversation about nature?

Elaine Marsh [00:21:39] No, it was about faith healing. [laughs]

Joe Culley [00:21:48] [Laughs]

Elaine Marsh [00:21:48] And I didn't remember him. [laughs] But the second conversation was about nature.

Joe Culley [00:21:57] So tell me about your role in all of this, the park and the preservation.

Elaine Marsh [00:22:05] Well, when when my husband and I got married, we were living in Greentown and I had a job in and Canton. I was working at Aultman Hospital School of Nursing.

Joe Culley [00:22:19] And this was around what time?

Elaine Marsh [00:22:20] Oh, let's see, this would have been... I got that job, I think in '70 and this... We got married in '77. And so from the time we got married and we decided we were going to have a kid, we decided we had to move because our house was very tiny, 400 square feet, and it was the perfect house though. You could clean the whole thing in less than two hours and I mean it would be spit shined. And, but at any rate, so we knew we wanted to live around the newly formed park because the park had just come into being and we had taken a lot of interest in it. My husband was a member of the Sierra Club as well. He at that time went mainly to the Northeast Ohio meetings and, or no, I went to the Northeast Ohio meetings and he was going here to the Portage Trail group meetings. But we both ended up in the Portage Trail group. So we were involved with the formation of the park. But we said, well, if we're going to buy a house, let's make it close to this park. And so we bought a house right on the edge of the national park. We are adjacent landowners. And so, you know, we're right on the edge of the park. Then when the park started up, we were interested and followed things. And and then I'm trying to think when this happened. But it was about four or five years. No, it wasn't that long. Maybe two or three years after the park got started, they got together, a group of volunteers called which was called the Trails Council. And what they wanted to do was define what the trail system should be in the park. And so for about three or four years, there were this group of, I don't know, a dozen, 15 people who were out roaming around the park deciding where what kind of trails should be. And my husband was very involved in that. I was less involved because my daughter was just born at that time. But we were very interested in trails way back then. And we stayed involved with the trails. We would help build the trails as they came online, and eventually the Cuyahoga Valley Trails Council, an actual organization, came to be. And they're still in existence at this time. So that was... That was our original involvement. And then in the late '80s, right not too long after John Debo came here, he talked about the Cuyahoga River, which we paddled all the time. We knew every inch of that river from stem to stern. And he made a statement in the Akron Beacon Journal that—someone asked him about water quality because water quality was such a huge issue—and he said the river has no constituency. And so I called him up and I said, well, that's not true. The river does have a constituency. And he said, well, I don't know anything about it. And so there were a number of us who got together in response to that. And about a year later, Friends of the Crooked River was formed. And so that's about 19 years ago now. It'll be 20 years next year. And it was very cool. I mean... And it's interesting, I've heard most organizations start this way. It was around our kitchen table, and we were eating, of course, and probably drinking beer. And we said, well, if we were going to... If we were going to have an organization, what would we do? We wouldn't want to just have an organization. Because my experience with many organizations was I don't want to go to a meeting every month. You know, I want to actually accomplish something, and that was sort of the tenor of the people around the table, and...

Joe Culley [00:27:01] Do you remember who was that table?

Elaine Marsh [00:27:04] I do. I do. There were there was this woman called Kathleen O'Neill from the Cleveland area. She was... She was an arts person and she was interested in us being in the arts. And there was Donna Bolton from Kent State and she was a teacher, and so she was interested that we develop curriculum and teaching. And she also was part Native American, and so she was very interested that we develop Native American history and ethics in whatever we did. And then there was Kathleen Pettengill, and she was just an outdoors person and thought we should be involved in outdoors things. And Peggy Bobel, of course, who at the time was Peggy Schneider. Or was she? Yes. Yes. No, she was Peggy Bobel then. And she was just interested in getting the group organized. She didn't tell us that. We wouldn't let her at the table if we knew she was just trying to get us organized. And... You know? [laughs] And anyway, so we made a list of 19 things that we would like to do.

Joe Culley [00:28:29] Just... I'm sorry to interrupt, but how did you... How did you meet these people? How did how did you, you know... [inaudible]

Elaine Marsh [00:28:35] Well, you know, I think it was... We had... We'd had a couple of meetings before this and somebody said, oh, well, you know, Kathleen O'Neill, she's really interested in cultural things related to the environment, is looking for a project. Oh, Donna Bolton. So it was just kind of brainstorming from the, you know, the original people who sat around the table to get these people to to come out. I mean, we had had a couple of meetings at that point, but this was the meeting where we actually decided we were, in fact, going to become an organization and...

Joe Culley [00:29:13] At your kitchen table.

Elaine Marsh [00:29:14] At the kitchen table. And we had a list of 19 things. And, you know, I haven't looked at that list in a while, but I think we've checked off about 13.

Joe Culley [00:29:25] Wow.

Elaine Marsh [00:29:26] And...

Joe Culley [00:29:28] In 19 years.

Elaine Marsh [00:29:30] Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well. Still some pretty big things.

Joe Culley [00:29:35] Yeah, do you remember some of the highlights... [inaudible]

Elaine Marsh [00:29:38] Well, I mean, the first thing the first thing we decided to do was to have a river day, a celebration. And it wasn't just gonna be a clean up. It was gonna, you know, there were going to be some things accomplished. We were going to get some things done. And we thought, you know, what would be a nice way to start out would be... We got all these cars that were used for riverbank stabilization down around Jaite. And it'd be nice to convince some people to get those cars out of the river bank. And that would be a wonderful thing to do. So, thinking, you know, well, maybe the park would do that. So we went and met with John Debo and we said, you know, those cars, they're just right upstream of your headquarters here, parked cars, you know, that are just in there chained to the river bank in order to stabilize it. It's an eyesore. It, actually in the 1950s, and these cars were all 1950 cars, some 1940, but that was considered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Soil and Water Conservation District to be a best management practice at the time. And the best management practice, by the way, did not say you should empty out all the oil and, you know, fluids that are in the car, in the cars. But they did. They were there. And so John said to me, well, how many cars do you think are there? I said, Well, gee, I don't know. Well, we have to go count 'em, but I think it's around 30. So then we went down to the riverbank and we counted 'em and it was 72. And then when they actually got the heavy equipment in there, they ended up removing 113 cars.

Joe Culley [00:31:36] Oh my!

Elaine Marsh [00:31:38] So anyway, I mean, so our first River Day was in April, I think was April 27th, and it was in the 40s, and it rained the whole day. And so anyway, we got out. We had 26 different events around the watershed, and it was... We had never heard of this kind of event where there were so many different venues. It was... We thought we invented it. Now, I mean, I think other people may have done it before us. But as far as we were concerned, we invented this idea of a multi venued, multi experiential sort of event. And the center was the cleanup in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. And we met down, right at the train.... I'm trying to think of the name of the road. Right across from the ski area. And so the train came in and this was such a big event that we got the Secretary of the Interior and...

Joe Culley [00:33:01] Are you talking about Boston Mills?

Elaine Marsh [00:33:03] Yes. Boston Mills, thank you very much.

Joe Culley [00:33:05] Mm hmm.

Elaine Marsh [00:33:06] And so the Secretary of Interior and the director of the National Park Service and John Seiberling and, I don't know, a number of other quite big dignitaries came in and they came in on the train and they stopped to talk to us. And they talked to us for 45 minutes in the cold and in the rain. And so, I mean, there we are standing around, everybody shivering and freezing. And then we got on the train and were taken to various places along the river via the train, which was unheated. And so by the time people got to the place where they were picking up trash, they were almost all hypothermic. But we collected a tremendous amount of trash that day. And then after it was done, we were taken up to the Canal Visitor Center for an outdoor hot dog roast and concert. And that was all in the cold and the rain. And I'm surprised some people didn't die that day [laughs0, it was so cold. But all in all, it was immensely successful. And we got unbelievable media coverage. And that was sort of the first River Day event. And we've had 19 since then. So we have kept that up through thick and thin and but nothing will ever be as monumental or as memorable in terms of its absolute agony [laughs] as that first one. But one thing that I learned was it doesn't hurt to ask. I mean, I didn't think the that John Debo was gonna say, yes, we'll take those cars out. I really didn't. I mean, I thought, my God, how much is it going to cost? Heavy equipment coming in, destabilizing the river bank, which, by the way, is still destabilized to this day. So those cars performed some function, as awful as it was.

Joe Culley [00:35:21] So there's mass erosion now?

Elaine Marsh [00:35:22] There's quite a bit of erosion there. It's a very soft place along the river and it's a very sharp turn. And so, yeah, there, it is a problem now that is causing problems to a bridge in the area and they're gonna have to look at it. I don't think they'll put cars in, though.

Joe Culley [00:35:44] Now who funded the removal of the cars?

Elaine Marsh [00:35:44] Apparently the Park Service did. And they worked with Cleveland Metroparks because that was Cleveland Metroparks land and but, you know, 113 cars. And, you know, when we paddle the river, there are still some crank cases and some transmissions that we come upon to this day. So had we not gotten those out, there would be a lot more big heavy pieces of metal downstream in the river. So it was absolutely the right thing to do. And it was a great way to establish relationship with a park as well.

Joe Culley [00:36:34] Wow. Wow. So that was number one on the list.

Elaine Marsh [00:36:36] Mm hmm.

Joe Culley [00:36:36] [Laughs] That's quite huge!

Elaine Marsh [00:36:40] Well, we didn't think it was huge, you know, I mean, sort of, and this has always been my experience with people who want to accomplish something. You think, if I can think about an end and I can clearly define the end and it is within the scope of things to get to that end, then it can be accomplished. And you don't necessarily have a business plan about how you get from point A to point B. If you did, by the way, you would probably never do it. And I mean, the business plan has to come into effect at some point in the process or you won't get done either. But the goal, you know, eye on the prize. What is the prize? What is the end? What do you want to do? If you can clearly define that, you can accomplish absolutely, or at least virtually, anything.

Joe Culley [00:37:40] Hmm.

Elaine Marsh [00:37:40] So... That's, that's my experience and really great things can be accomplished. For example, one time we were sitting around and one of the things on our list was to do a sort of a survey of the river and we'd all... And one of the... Another thing was to paddle from the headwaters to the mouth and...

Joe Culley [00:38:04] An actual geological survey?

Elaine Marsh [00:38:05] Well...

Joe Culley [00:38:05] A map survey?

Elaine Marsh [00:38:06] Yeah.

Joe Culley [00:38:08] Okay.

Elaine Marsh [00:38:08] Some kind of mapping, some kind of picture, some kind of understanding of more than just paddling. What the... What the lay of the land is and what the quality of the river is. And so we said, well, you know, the best way to do that would be from above, you know, because then you could you could see better. And so I had a friend who had a plane and I said, you know, would you would you take us, you know, so we can take pictures? He said, you know, I can take you. But it's a terrible way to take pictures unless you have a very special camera because of the vibration of the plane. He said, I've tried any number of times and he had a very good camera for his company. He said it doesn't work. He said, you know what you should do? You should talk to the Goodyear blimp because they travel very slowly. So I said, well, okay! [laughs] So I met with a couple of people and said, well, you know, who should we talk to? And there was this man from Goodyear who was on the Cuyahoga Remedial Action Program that I was a member of. And he said, well, this is what you should do. He said, by the way, I don't think you should plan on it happening, but this is what you should do. And I can help because he was the... He was the environmental engineer. He was the head of their environmental program. And he said I could I could help for this. He said, but, you know—and this was in the early '90s—he said, we don't use that blimp for much other than, you know, goodwill and covering sports events. So I wrote a letter, and a couple of months later I wrote another letter, and then he wrote a letter, and then I got a phone call, and then I had a meeting. And I would say, all in all, I had about 100 hours of time in communication with Goodyear. And then there was a second meeting. The first meeting was with a kind of a big group of people. I never knew who they were. They never introduced themselves to me. They just said hello. You know, I think they told me your name, their names, but I didn't know who they were. And then there was a smaller group of people. And this guy whose name I don't remember from the Remedial Action Plan and...

Joe Culley [00:40:43] [What's the] Remedial Action Plan?

Elaine Marsh [00:40:44] Remedial Action Plan is a group that was required in order to correct toxic hot spots around the Great Lakes. Cleveland was defined as one of 43 toxic hot spots around the Great Lakes. And so the Remedial Action Plan was to address that.

Joe Culley [00:41:03] Is this any relation to the EPA?

Elaine Marsh [00:41:06] No, the EPA was on it. But the interesting thing about this meeting is that so we're sitting and we're talking. And so this guy said, well, who would come on this trip? The guy from Goodyear says, well, who would come on this trip? And I said, well, you know, it would be somebody from our organization and somebody from the park. And I said, and I'm sure that the EPA could use this information as well. And he said, the Ohio EPA? You mean the people who regulate us? And he didn't say that [laughs] but he just said, you mean the Ohio EPA? And I said, that's right. So he looked at this guy and he... They kind of had this interesting query and we left. And it was like a week after that they told me that we were going to get to go up in the blimp. And so since then, once every two to three years, a group of people who are associated with water quality in the Cuyahoga River get to go up because somebody said, well, what could it hurt to ask? You know, how hard could it be? 100 hours. It's a long time.

Joe Culley [00:42:27] Did you go on that first flight?

Elaine Marsh [00:42:28] No, I didn't. Our daughter was on vacation and we had planned to visit my father and mother-in-law in Arkansas. So I didn't even get to go!

Joe Culley [00:42:42] Have you gotten to go?

Elaine Marsh [00:42:43] Yeah, I have, yeah, in 1997. I was up for six hours and it was, it was quite wonderful. And it did all of those things that we expected an overhead flight would do. You really saw the condition of the river and especially in terms of the impacts of the landscape and the watershed on the river. So it really was absolutely the only way to get a total picture of what the impacts, threats, and potential restoration of the river would be.

Joe Culley [00:43:28] Now, having a bird's-eye view, how can you see that? Like, what did you see in terms of how it had affected the landscape and the watershed from that view?

Elaine Marsh [00:43:41] Well, in the first place, you're you are about, I don't know, maybe five, six hundred feet up and you're traveling at only 30 miles an hour. So you really do get a view and a slow view. And you can see how close to the river development is occurring. You can see where the river has been channelized and ditched. You can see where there are parking lots right next to the river. You can... You can see where the banks have been reinforced artificially and really do get a total understanding of exactly how either healthy or unhealthy the watershed is in relation to its water quality protection.

Joe Culley [00:44:41] Hmm. And spending all those years paddling up and down this area and then being up in the blimp...

Elaine Marsh [00:44:50] Right.

Joe Culley [00:44:51] And, you know, it's sort of like, is it Edward [Edwin] Abbott's Flatland, and you're just seeing, you know. What was once the most jarring or shocking things that you noticed about the river from the blimp?

Elaine Marsh [00:45:09] How much of the watershed was developed. I mean, you can look at a map and I've always.. My work has always been involved in working with maps. And so I could have told you what percentage of the watershed at that time, in 1997 anyway, I could have told you what percentage of the watershed had impervious surfaces. I could have told you what percentage of the watershed was in forest, agriculture, urban. But actually seeing it was a much different experience than looking at those numbers and looking at maps. It was... It was very revealing and highly visceral. I think that's the main difference is when you're looking at it, it's visceral. It's real. When you look at a map, when you look at numbers, when you look at those kinds of things, it's intellectual. But when you see it, it's visceral and... Visceral is what counts to human beings. I don't care what anybody says, if it doesn't hit us in our gut, it doesn't hit us.

Joe Culley [00:46:28] Hmm.

Elaine Marsh [00:46:28] The information age that has all of this stuff just, you know, swirling around us and cramming into our heads and our ears and every part of our being is pretty meaningless unless it somehow gets through to our gut.

Joe Culley [00:46:45] Hmm. Mm hmm.

Elaine Marsh [00:46:46] And makes a connection to who we are.

Joe Culley [00:46:49] So when you got out of that, got out of the blimp, where did you head to? What were you... What were you thinking?

Elaine Marsh [00:46:55] Uh. Well, in the first place, when we got out of the blimp, the landing was very difficult. It was very scary and one of the guys from the EPA got sick. [laughs] So it was really shaking around, you know, that gondola, it rocks back and forth. Now, I thought it was great! [laughs] You know, I mean, I am a whitewater person. I love sailing. I love that fast, difficult movement. But it felt a little scary even to me. What they have to do is they have to equilibrate... When they're coming down, they have to equilibrate the air in these different bladder sections. And so, you know, at one point we were at about a 40-degree angle and the wind was blowing. And then we came up and then that angle was reversed. And so anyway, it was... it was really something. So we were all kind of happy to be on the ground. But we just... It was... That was at Wingfoot Lake, and Wingfoot Lake is surrounded by several quite large wetlands. And I didn't know that. I mean, I thought all the wetlands in the Portage Lakes were pretty well gone. And so when we landed and I was looking sort of in the direction of where the wetland was, and I got in my car and headed out to find it. And I did find it and pulled off and went and looked at it. And I was remembering what it looked like from overhead and from overhead, it was very impressive, but looking out at it, you could see how some developer would say, Hey! This is just swamp. But from overhead, you could see its size, you could see its functions, you could see all of those things. So that's what I did when we came down.

Joe Culley [00:49:05] You... Okay. Did it light you up? Did you have a clearer vision of what you wanted to do?

Elaine Marsh [00:49:13] Sure. In relation to wetlands, I mean, I think that was one of the things that said we should be more involved in wetlands because they're much different than just swamps. You know, they really do have a tremendous amount of a function. And to see it from overhead in this very populated part of the watershed, that it could exist and could exist healthily said we should be preserving wetlands.

Joe Culley [00:49:45] Mmm. Wow. So where do you see this project going? What's your vision?

Elaine Marsh [00:49:51] Well, we have a number of goals right now. We're working on dams. We're working on... We've partnered with other organizations in removing dams on the river, so we're working on that. We would love to see the Gorge Dam come down. And that is a 56-foot high, 400 feet wide hunk of concrete owned by a private company, FirstEnergy. And they're not interested in taking it out. As a matter of fact, they're interested in reestablishing hydropower there. And so our goal first is to work with Summit County Metro Parks, who has opposed the project. And we're so grateful to them because if they hadn't opposed that project, it would be licensed and getting ready to be in operation right now. And then, you know, it'd be nice to think about getting that dam out. Now that...

Joe Culley [00:51:02] That's your next vision.

Elaine Marsh [00:51:03] Well, that's a, that's a vision we've had that was on the list of 19 things.

Joe Culley [00:51:08] Ah, okay.

Elaine Marsh [00:51:08] And I never thought we would get to it because it's such a huge, huge undertaking. But who knows? We are looking at that. And also the other thing that we're very interested in is sewers. We're very interested in the combined sewer overflow problem and have been for some time. So those are the... Those are the two things that we're going to be working on in the future. And we... One of the list of 19 things which we have begun discussion about is to do a recreational use book of the river to talk about the river and its various sections and talk about what the recreational uses are there. And we think this would be a good time to do it because we think that would help spur the City of Akron to be more proactive in its cleanup of the sewer problem that it has.

Joe Culley [00:52:15] Right. So, how do you see making that balance, that equilibrium between human beings going into these areas, and, you know, people just abandoning them, because I can see that you're bringing them in to kind of preserve the area, but at the same time you're bringing them in and you're getting kind of like human... more human impact?

Elaine Marsh [00:52:40] Well, I mean, I think that's a huge question, and it has a very simple answer. What we have is people have to learn is that everything we have believed about culture and organization and development has to be rethought. We are a living planet. And our goal has to be to preserve living systems. What we have clearly learned in the last century is that when you obliterate living systems, you obliterate the planet's ability to heal itself and to care for people. I mean, I think we've always known that when we destroy nature, we destroy systems and keep the natural system from replenishing itself. But what we have learned lately is that if we do that, we are destroying the actual basis of our own existence. And so what we have to do is learn to develop—and I believe that's what this century is going to be about and I believe we will accomplish it—is that we have to preserve living systems on the planet to preserve our own future and. We have to learn how to do that.

Joe Culley [00:54:19] Well, you're quite an incredibly inspiring and interesting person, and I could ask questions from now till... [laughs] Till next week. We've gone about an hour. Do you have anything that you'd like to add?

Elaine Marsh [00:54:35] Well, you know, I just did want to add this.

Joe Culley [00:54:38] This is your soapbox. [laughs].

Elaine Marsh [00:54:40] Yeah. The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is absolutely the savior of Northeast Ohio in every possible way. I mean, it's 33,000 acres of contiguous natural land in an otherwise megalopolis, and it would be a megalopolis were it not for the park. Park provides tremendous opportunity for people to use it to recreate, to look at the region as a living region. I mean, we are so beleaguered in terms of economy, in terms of job loss, and that we have this system of parks—not just the national park, but the other system—really is the hallmark of the region. And, you know, it's the hallmark that will save the Cuyahoga River, I think, eventually. And so, you know, it is, you know, the sort of preservation of those living systems that will preserve us. And I had this wonderful dream, it was about, I don't know, three weeks ago, maybe four weeks ago now, and I dreamed I was living in a living house. And every part of the house was alive. And that the lighting in the house was provided by bioluminescent plants. You know, it was engineered. Don't get me wrong. It wasn't the wilderness, but it was all natural plant material, plant and animal materials that provided the shelter itself and that provided the energy to the house. So it was the most wonderful dream. It was really a great dream. And anyway, it was a very cool dream. And I think someday that's all we'll all live. If we survive. [laughs] And by the way, I believe we will.

Joe Culley [00:57:01] Well, especially with people like you.

Elaine Marsh [00:57:03] Well, and you.

Joe Culley [00:57:08] Ronnie, do you... I bet you have about a hundred things that you'd like to add.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:57:11] As you were talking, being a canal myself...

Elaine Marsh [00:57:15] Ah! Wonderful! You'll have to come on our trips.

Rhonda Yaxley [00:57:18] Yeah. I've been... I've been to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Elaine Marsh [00:57:21] Wow!

Rhonda Yaxley [00:57:21] So you know, some of these things, and I was just thinking... I said something to Jennie today, too, is we've got this wonderful system on the Towpath and I was thinking, my sister from Wisconsin, when she comes, it's like, wait a minute, where do these people stay? You know, if we bring 'em in, I'm not familiar with. I'm sure there's there bed-and-breakfasts, but I'm wondering, how do you feel about that? Like putting some lean-tos to encourage people to do the overnight trips and things like, you know, on our river as well as in the Towpath.

Elaine Marsh [00:58:01] Mm hmm. Well, we do have an opportunity to develop a water trail along the Cuyahoga River. And we have water trails on other rivers in the state. And what that requires is a partnership effort from the various park districts along the way to agree to have trailheads and parking areas for through paddlers, and I think that it's going to be a difficult sell. We can do it in the upper... In the headwaters, but it's going to be a difficult sell until two things happen. One, we get that dam out, [laughs] and the other that the water quality is better downstream of Akron. It's just too... The water quality downstream of Akron, sewage, of Akron period, is not predictable enough in order to encourage canoeing. Our own organization does not encourage people to paddle that section of the river. In fact, we don't lead trips there anymore because we're so concerned about that. But I think eventually we'd love to have the Cuyahoga become a water trail. And it is one of the list... One of the things on our list is to establish a recreational... It as a recreational paddlable river, and that eventually will happen. But we have to get that water quality downstream of Akron more predictable, I believe, before we can get the Park Service involved. And until we can get them involved, we don't have any place to have parking or to have camping in that section.

Rhonda Yaxley [01:00:04] I guess I have one other question. I think I've used this for all of mine, but I'm a person that has certain places that I have to go that, you know, they speak to me or touch me or something, or when I'm having a bad day, I generally will drive to that spot and just sit and enjoy it.

Elaine Marsh [01:00:22] Mm hmm.

Rhonda Yaxley [01:00:22] Is there a place—and I know you know the river much better than I do—that you would be your special place that maybe even, you know, like a sort of a secret, or maybe you've shared it with people?

Elaine Marsh [01:00:36] I think...

Joe Culley [01:00:36] Yeah, yeah. Or if you were going to take Ronnie and I to a place...

Rhonda Yaxley [01:00:39] [Laughs] Where would you go?

Joe Culley [01:00:41] Yeah.

Elaine Marsh [01:00:42] It would be... In March, in late March on the upper Cuyahoga River on Sperry Pond. And just after the ice melts, the ducks migrate through. And it is an unbelievable experience to experience that migration. And then later in the spring would go a little bit downstream of there to experience the warbler migration in the upper river. And then in the summer, probably the place would be... Walking along the Towpath is a great place to experience the river. For myself, there are a couple of places that I really love. One is in Cascade Valley Park along decommissioned Peck Road. And one reason that is so beautiful is because when, when... That actually is a park that a number of us worked on establishing. It was land that was owned by the City of Akron, but there were several houses back there, and it was a dump. I mean, it was this beautiful stretch of river, but it was a dump. There were cars and trucks and couches and literally acres of just junk that people had dumped there. And then the Cascade Valley Park came into being. They got rid of all of that junk. And now it is a beautiful stretch of river. And I love that place because you can sit there and say, this is really beautiful. And then you can remember what it looked like, you know, before people took care of it and saw its use and... Okay. I'm talking too much.

Joe Culley [01:02:44] No! [laughs] Well, again, thank you so much...

Elaine Marsh [01:02:48] Well, thank you so much.

Joe Culley [01:02:50] For coming in and giving us this treasure.

Rivers Roads and Rails: West Creek and Cuyahoga River

Interviews in this series, covering topics relating to the preservation of the West Creek and Cuyahoga River watershed (Cleveland, Ohio), were collected by participating teachers in the Rivers Roads and Rails grant, a Teaching American History (TAH) grant, sponsored by the US Dept of Education.