It began, as raindrops started their fall during our journey down Parnell Street. Five guys, all crammed in a 2010 Jeep Liberty trying to outpace the storm. The drops increased in intensity, but that wasn’t about to stop this ragtag team wanting to plunge feet first into our Saint Joe river. The winding journey into Johnny Appleseed seemed much smaller than anticipated, for some reason I thought the boat ramp was miles into the park, really it’s just a short walk from the Coliseum. As we jumped out of our vehicles and headed toward the river, the rain slowly began to disappear. These five guys were not going to let a soggy afternoon dampen a weekend journey down the Saint Joe river in Fort Wayne.
The journey toward the Fort Wayne Riverfront began with a splash, the kayak’s hit the water at the Johnny Appleseed Boat Ramp and as soon as the ores were in, the rain began again. It became a race to see who could get to the Parnell Avenue bridge the fastest. Mostly blue and my red kayak circled around like sharks hanging out beneath the 40-year-old concrete structure, rain continued to pour down and we were seriously considering just rowing back and calling our trip short. Then just a few minutes after we arrived at the bridge, it was like a ship coming ashore, we saw one and then two pedal boats making their way through the downpour to our safe harbor. It was a young husband and wife, they took a weekend journey themselves upstream from the Fort Wayne Outfitters as they tried to find refuge from the storm. As we sat under the bridge our conversation was filled with tales and experiences along the river, it was a pleasure getting to talk to strangers and learn about their intended journey as much as they enjoyed ours. It’s not often you find yourself walking down a public street and getting to meet different people and strike up a conversation like ours. About 20 minutes later, the rain began to move out of our path and our paddling would begin again.
As we moved around the bend in the Saint Joe River, slowly paddling closer to downtown you could see very quickly Stevie’s Island. It’s funny, most people in Fort Wayne fly down Spy Run Avenue and may not know that this little gem inside our city exists. The island was named for a young man who adopted it as a “getaway” from his everyday life. Steven Jones and his friends/family spent many years caring for the island making it the prime place for bonfires, picnics, and social gatherings. An advocate for the rivers, one day on a job site in Lima Ohio, Steven slipped and fell to his untimely death at the young age of 25. The entire community at the time rallied around enough support to have the island dedicated in his honor and nearly 30 years later that island is still a great escape for neighborhood kids and families. As we paddled to the right side of the island, you could clearly see two tents recently placed on the edge of the island and what looked like a rural campfire burning in the distance. A few yards down the river a familiar voice came calling through the thick brush, it was the river man himself Dan Wire, showing his daily view of our beautiful riverfront to some friends who were visiting. Dan shared with me that on the same day we were the third group of kayakers to pass his back yard on the river, ‘what a pleasant site this is’ said Dan, ‘ten years ago you would never imagine seeing one group let alone three’
After spending about 10 minutes talking with Dan while sitting in my kayak, the journey would soon begin again. After finding a discarded tennis ball on the shoreline, a game of chase the ball quickly ensued and the Saturday afternoon trip was filled with laughter and fun. As we began approaching State Street, the ruins with an I-Beam and brick wall of what once was Fort Wayne’s Centlivre Brewery stood tall from the river. The history on the Saint Joe alone will keep your mind running on full through the afternoon, from the historic Tennessee Avenue Bridge to the anonymous statue of the Jesuit missionary who named the three rivers. As we approached the Fort Wayne Riverfront project area, you could begin to see downtown open in front of you. A site to be seen is the historic architectural masterpiece that is Fort Wayne’s Water Filtration plant serves as an anchor of the visioned development, sitting high above the confluence. Cannons and muskets were being fired during the Old Fort reenactment, dozens of people cheered us on as we passed Don Halls Deck and the city quickly became alive. It was interesting to see how quickly the landscape and interaction changed from the Saint Joe to the Saint Mary’s river.
As we began the last stretch of our Fort Wayne Riverfront Weekend Journey, our arms were stronger than ever, row…row…row said one of the guys, my back however…that is another story. Life began to spring up everywhere between the Spy Run Bridge and the historic Wells Street Bridge. Joggers on the River Greenway, couples dining on The Deck, hundreds walking along the riverfront experiencing the Old Fort and a beautiful wedding taking place on the Wells Street Bridge. As I pulled my phone from the waterproof box hidden in the back of my kayak, I saw that we had spent almost two hours on the river. It was funny, reading all the negative comments on Facebook from residents who are against the river development (calling out pollution, brown water, and bad aroma), my journey had never encountered the great stench they spoke of. Sure, you could smell water, because of course, we are ON the water! There were no stretches of dead fish or traces of sewage floating downstream, instead, it was a nice quiet journey along a beautiful Fort Wayne Riverfront.
As we came to the end, my long lasting smile began to fade. I didn’t want the weekend journey to end. The riverfront was full of life, beauty, and peacefulness. I can see why Steven Jones and his friends spent nearly every weekend rallying around the rivers and exploring the unnamed island. The journey from Johnny Appleseed to Guildlin Park was over four miles, yet it was a great way to spend two hours on a Saturday afternoon. As we pulled the kayaks out of the water, we stood ashore looking over the calm river and shared stories of our trip. The rivers, all three of them that made Fort Wayne the city it has long gone neglected. Too many bad media and press against the riverfront have stacked up negative emotions from some of the louder contingents in the city. Yet here we were, the third group of people who paddled in our kayaks down this wonderful natural resource. Hoch Associates has been a proud supporter of the Fort Wayne Riverfront development, both large and small scale. We believe that connecting our city to our riverfront is exactly what will propel our city into greatness, looking at examples from other cities who have done the same, the ingredients for the recipe is in front of us, we just need to put it together.