By Ryan Schnurr
The Maumee River does not begin. Formed out of the confluence of the St. Joseph River from the north, and the St. Marys River from the south, it is a continuation, flowing eastward and slightly northward through northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio, eventually opening out 137 miles later into the southwest corner of Lake Erie.
Find the river on a map, and it looks to be divided into two distinct parts. The first, from its headwaters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to its midpoint near Defiance, Ohio, is narrow, between one hundred and two hundred feet wide, and unfolds itself in dozens of meandering curves coiled tightly, one after another, like a stretched-out spring. The second, from midpoint to mouth, is wider and straighter. If your map is topographical, you will see that the whole thing sits in the middle of a broad, rather flat area of land that stretches out from the river in all directions. What you are looking at is the Maumee River Basin, the largest watershed in the Great Lakes region, collecting runoff from more than sixty-six hundred square miles of land in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, and sending it downstream.
Among the tributaries that feed into the Maumee River are the Auglaize River, the Blanchard River, the Tiffin River, the Ottawa River, and of course, the St. Joseph and the St. Marys. But these are only the biggest. The larger tributaries are in turn fed by smaller ones, dozens of them, with names like Swan Creek, Powell Creek, Flatrock Creek, Beaver Creek, Bad Creek, Tontogany Creek, and South Turkeyfoot Creek. Each stream drains its own, smaller watershed, adding up to the Maumee River Basin. The whole system — four thousand miles of it — stretches out to network the region like veins on a leaf.
These particular veins are the recipients of an estimated four hundred billion gallons of runoff each year, most of it during heavy spring rains. The runoff brings with it wastewater, topsoil, and the fertilizers and pesticides that people living in the watershed dump onto the ground, not to mention whatever is dumped into the streams directly. Most of this eventually ends up in the Maumee River, which is responsible for more than 50 percent of the sediment, and a considerable amount of the nitrogen and phosphorous, that makes its way into Lake Erie, a body of water not known for its cleanliness.
In the middle part of the 1990s, massive, toxic algae blooms of increasing severity began appearing on the shores of Lake Erie, forming giant “dead zones,” which, as the name suggests, cannot sustain life — huge swaths of the nation’s largest concentration of freshwater turned lethal. The algae blooms are fed by high levels of, among other things, nitrogen and phosphorous.
My interest in this matter is not purely intellectual. I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a city that happens to be located at the confluence of the three rivers. Downtown lies along the south bank of the St. Marys, its northeast corner butting up against the headwaters of the Maumee. A curious thing about living in Fort Wayne is that if it weren’t for the fact that every third business begins with the words “Three Rivers,” you would never guess that this was the case. It’s quite difficult to see any of the rivers, save for a few scattered footbridges. It is entirely possible that a person could visit the city, drive along the St. Joseph, park near the Maumee, and eat dinner next to the St. Marys, without noticing any of them.
For a long time, the rivers were seen as threatening by Fort Wayne’s residents, especially as neighborhoods were built right up next to them in the flood plains. In 1913, the Maumee over flowed into the homes and businesses on its north shore. In 1982, another major flood interrupted neighborhoods along the St. Marys. The solution was to construct a series of twenty-five-foot earthen levees along the banks. Beyond concerns over flooding were those of pollution. The St. Joseph River supplies a good portion of the water for the municipality, and the barriers keep residents from thinking about what the water looks like. The rivers are not particularly attractive — they are a sort of dull, milky brown — and popular wisdom held that they concealed “three-eyed fish” and various other kinds of uncanny creatures. “Don’t go in the river,” adults half-jokingly warned teenagers when I was growing up. “You might come out with a third arm.” The stretches of waterfront that aren’t behind levees are, with a few exceptions, obscured by trees and buildings and concrete walls.
In the fall of 2013, my wife, Anna, and I moved near downtown Fort Wayne, into the second floor of a medium-grey Queen Anne on Columbia Avenue. The house sat on the northern banks of the Maumee, less than a quarter mile from its headwaters. From the front windows of the apartment I could see down a narrow side street to a twenty-foot embankment. On top of this thick earthen wall was a stretch of cement path, a section of the city’s Rivergreenway trail system. On the other side was the river. I was bike commuting at the time, and would often ride these trails. The trails are one of the only ways to get a good look at the Maumee, and I began to wonder about it. The writer Robert Sayre claims that most people know astonishingly little about the rivers around them, their histories, watersheds, pollution, and sources of pollution. I was no exception. In fact, I knew more about Lake Michigan and the Mississippi than I did about the river that passed just one hundred yards or so from my living room.
I began to read widely on the topic: early geographies, local histories, news coverage, EPA reports. I emailed river experts and advocates, and attended a meeting of the organization Save Maumee, where I drank a free glass of iced tea, read four different brochures, and listened to a discussion about invasive species removal. At the downtown branch of the Allen County Public Library, I found an entire row of shelves dedicated to local histories for northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio that included documents like land deeds and court cases. I pulled twenty-five books off the shelf, made a rough mental estimate of the number of pages in those twenty-five books, and put fifteen back. I read one book on Little Turtle, a Miami war chief; waded slowly through History of the Maumee River Basin, a 634-page behemoth written in 1905; and flipped through a legal petition, dated January, 1852, by the descendants of the first miller to set up shop in the area, who were asking the House of Representatives for damages related to the destruction of their grandfather’s mill. (Their petition was denied.)
The river was seeping into my everyday life. I started to dream about it, and it surfaced more and more often in casual conversation, and at dinner with friends. (This development had its negative aspects; in my experience, you can only say “riparian buffer” so many times in a conversation before the other party excuses herself.) I was learning a great deal about the Maumee, its history, watershed, pollution, and sources of pollution. But there was one thing glaringly absent from my research: the river itself. You can learn a lot from books, and also from experience. One is not always a very good substitute for the other, and it was clear that my knowledge of the Maumee was still limited, still abstract. I began to have a recurring thought — a curiosity, really — which devolved into an undertaking: what if I walked the river from one end to the other?
In late summer of 2016, I did.
Officially, rivers fall under the category of streams — “linear flowing bodies of water.” Unofficially, a river is a whole lot more.
Rivers run through the center of human and nonhuman life. People have historically tended to organize themselves around water, for reasons, among others, of transportation and hydration. (Rivers being excellent for each.) On top of that, the whole appearance of any given landscape is mainly due to the influence of water in one form or another. Glaciers, rivers, rain — these have spent the better part of history clearing prairies, cutting valleys, sculpting the country into what it looks like today. It works the other way, too — a river shapes but it is also shaped. Rainfall, temperature, erosion, water diversion, new tributaries, and construction like dams or canals: all can change the course and dimensions of a river. Change can happen over a long time — decades of climate change, say — or all of a sudden; anyone who’s lived through a flash flood can tell you how. Everything that happens in a watershed happens to its river.
One of the first things I read about the Maumee River was that it was named for the Miami people, who had their largest village, Kekionga, at the headwaters. Maumee is an English transcription of the Ottawa word for the Miami people, (o)maamii. The Miami called the river taawaawa siipiiwi, after the Ottawa. The French, once they arrived, called the river la riviére aux-Mis, which translates to “the River of the Miami.” In some early treaties, the Maumee was called the Miami of Lake Erie, or Miami of the Lake. “Kekionga” is also a product of English transcription about which there is some inexactness. For a while, historians thought that it meant something close to “blackberry bush,” or “blackberry patch.” Some people have believed that the settlement’s name was a variation of the word Kiskakon, which meant “hair clipping place,” or the place where warriors would shave their heads to prepare for battle. The most convincing answer, and the one used by the Miami themselves, is that the original word was Kiihkayonki, which meant, roughly, “the place of the elders.”
Kiihkayonki sat near the northern banks of the Maumee, just east of its headwaters. This was a strategic site. It gave the Miami access to — and influence over — everything that happened at the crossroads of the three rivers. Before highways or train tracks, rivers dictated primary travel routes, and the Maumee was right in the middle of an important one. Using this route, a group of traders in the eighteenth century could go across the continent, from settlements on the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, by water: beginning somewhere on Lake Huron, for example, they would head southward into Lake Erie and then up the Maumee to its headwaters. Then they would get out and portage, carrying their bark canoes and bundles of fur eight miles southwest to the Little River, which fed into the Wabash. The Wabash would take them west and south to the Mississippi, which in turn went all the way to the Gulf. Alternatively, if they were coming from farther east — even as far east as the Atlantic Ocean — they could begin at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, or Lake Ontario, and follow the same path through Lake Erie and on to the Wabash. But no matter how they got there, they had to pass by the Miami.
At Kiihkayonki, residents lived in domed log structures covered in bark, called wiccias, surrounded by gardens. They raised squash, beans, and melons. They wore clothing made of animal skins. Eventually, they wore European-style cloth. Their skin was lighter than some other tribes. Men cut their hair short, but kept long locks around the ears. Women often had tattoos on their cheeks and chins. They ate a lot of corn. Fields of corn and cattle stretched out from the headwaters in all directions. The area around the confluence had a nearly sacred significance for the Miami. Families would travel there in springtime to work the fields and prepare for war. The Miami war chief Mihsihkinaahkwa, known by the English name Little Turtle, called this place “ at glorious gate, through which all good words of our chiefs had to pass from the north to the south and from the east to the west.”
Now there is a dam at Mihsihkinaahkwa’s glorious gate. It is on the St. Joseph River, just upstream of the confluence. The dam was built in 1933 in conjunction with a water treatment plant, which distributes tap water to most of the city. The engineers who chose the site first looked at the Maumee, but decided against it, given that most of the city’s drainage, including raw sewage, went that way. The engineers knew that it was important to keep as much raw sewage as possible out of a city’s water supply.
This does not mean that the water in the St. Joseph River is clean. At the dam, “raw” river water is pumped out and carried through long pipes, forty-two inches in diameter, to the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant, where it is combined with ferric sulfate, lime, and carbon in a process called flocculation. This plant uses big paddles that beat in the chemicals like a giant hand mixer. The idea behind flocculation is to catch up all the soil particles and other bits of gunk into clumps, called “floc.” Ferric sulfate helps this happen. ( The lime is to soften the water, and the carbon soaks up pesticides and fertilizers and makes the water smell and taste better.) After flocculation, the water goes into “settling tanks,” where the oc sink to the bottom. The water on top is drained off and flocculated again, and then gets a chemical treatment of chlorine and fluoride. If you put a glass of this water next to a glass of water dipped straight out of the river, you would probably wonder what in the world people drank before the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant.
[blocktext align=”right”]I knew more about Lake Michigan and the Mississippi than I did about the river that passed just one hundred yards or so from my living room.[/blocktext]The short answer is that, before the 1870s, people in Fort Wayne got their water from the rivers. The long answer is that they also got it from springs, creeks, wells, and cisterns. But by the middle of the nineteenth century, that system was no longer working. There were getting to be too many people, which caused problems of the water-quality variety. A main reason for this was that most of the toilets were outside, close to the water. The water that people were drinking started to carry diseases like typhoid and cholera. By 1875, residents of the city were clamoring for a proper water system to be built. The owners of an old feeder canal offered to build their own system and sell water to the city. The city council was in favor of this idea, but most of the citizens were not. As it happened, 1875 was an election year, and the people voted out every candidate who favored the plan to buy water from the canal.
The incoming council hired a hydraulic engineer to put together a new plan for treating the water. It included a steam-powered pump on a tributary to the St. Joseph called Spy Run Creek. But they had miscalculated how much water they would be able to get out of the creek. A drought dried it up, and Fort Wayne had to buy water from the owners of the old feeder canal anyway. Later, the city drilled deep wells into a water table under the town. Fort Wayne drank this water for about thirty years until more droughts made it less dependable. In 1931, the mayor, William Hosey, decided to build the Three Rivers Water Filtration Plant, which cost $2.5 million in the throes of the Great Depression. After a few expansions, the plant now has an underground reservoir that holds twenty million gallons of water. It is capable of pumping more than one hundred million gallons of water a day through six hundred miles of pipes. It pumps out eleven billion gallons each year before that water can even get to the Maumee.
The St. Joseph River Dam is not the only dam in the Maumee River system — not by a long shot. In fact, you only have to walk about three quarters of a mile to find the first one on the Maumee itself. But for me, the St. Joseph River Dam represents something fundamental about the relationship between people and the Maumee River: our uneasy entanglement. It is nearly impossible to talk about the history of the Maumee without addressing what has been done to it by humans; and I have come to believe that the reverse is also true — that any discussion of the history (and future) of life in this region is incomplete if it makes no mention of the Maumee River.
If you want to drive the length of the Maumee River — from its headwaters in Fort Wayne to its mouth near Toledo — you can do it in about two hours. It’s a straight shot of just over a hundred miles. According to an estimate by Google, it would only take you thirty-three hours to walk that same distance. That is, if you are the kind of person who could walk for a day and a half straight through without eating or sleeping or passing out from exhaustion. I am not that kind of person. I am not even your standard wilderness explorer type. I spend a lot of time in fields and in the woods and in gardens, but I don’t go on long backpacking trips or camp for weeks in the mountains. I don’t fish. But when I was a kid, I would go to the forest near our house and sit down for a few hours to watch and sketch the trees and birds and rocks. I filled more than a few notebooks this way. On my first date with my now-wife, we sat in a big field and charted constellations. I compulsively acquire maps. At museums, I read every exhibit tag and every piece of available literature. What I am trying to say is that the trip would take me more than a day and a half straight through.
I decided to walk most of the way, but canoe a stretch on the lower half. I would walk alone, and my friend, Jason Bleijerveld, who is a frequent canoer and who also happens to own a canoe, would join me for two days on the water. The idea was to move slowly, nearer the river’s pace. I decided to make the trip in early August, when the spring rains have long subsided and the stagnant heat of late summer begins to coax the algae into bloom. In the weeks leading up to my journey, I borrowed a bivy sack and tarp, called a couple of people about places to stay, bought a pack, three new maps, a fresh notebook, and a decent pair of shoes, and got a shorter haircut. And because I did not want to carry any of my large field guides, and because I like to know what things are called, I also picked up two slim, lightweight identification books: Peterson’s First Guide to Birds of North America, and First Guide to Trees of North America. I did not buy the guide to wild flowers, a decision which I regret.
A few days before I left, a local news headline declared: “Another Algal Bloom Found in Maumee River.” The accompanying article went on to say that the bloom was in Defiance County, just about halfway from one end of the river to the other. The Defiance County Health Department mentioned that there had been a “green film” on the surface of the water, and that it was not clear what had caused the algae. The health department said that it did not know if the bloom was toxic or harmful, but that residents should avoid any water “that looks like spilled paint; has surface scum, mats, or films; is discolored or has colored streaks; or has green globs floating just below the surface.” Nevertheless, the report assured readers that the drinking water in the city of Defiance was safe. It was only the river that was suspect.
On the eve of my departure, I felt a heightened alertness, an irrepressible mix of excitement and apprehension. I went to bed with my mind full and active. Sleep came fitfully. The next morning I woke early, fried a couple of eggs, pulled on my shoes, loaded my pack, and took off downstream.
Ryan Schnurr is a writer from northeast Indiana. In the Watershed is his first book.
The book can be ordered here.
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