As a kid growing up on the north side of town, Ryan Schnurr played in the woods at Concordia Theological Seminary, sketching trees and birds and rocks.
After college, when he and his wife lived near the Columbia Street Bridge, he found himself contemplating a much larger natural object: the Maumee River that flowed past their second- story apartment, on the other side of a 20-foot earthen dam.
At 137 miles in length, starting at the Fort Wayne convergence of the St. Marys and St. Joseph rivers at one end and flowing into Lake Erie at Toledo’s Maumee Bay at the other, it’s not particularly large as rivers go. At least 500 U.S. rivers are hundred-milers, and 38 – including northeast Indiana’s Wabash – are in the 500-mile club.
Still, it was hard to fathom as an object unto itself. Rivers, after all, “flow loosely across any lines we might draw” writes Schnurr in his forthcoming book, “In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River,” available Oct. 15 from Belt Publishing.
A Huntington University film student who worked for a couple of local TV stations and KPC Media Group before heading on to graduate school, Schnurr reflected on the river as he rode his bike to work.
The more he researched the Maumee, exploring its creation as well as its impact on human history, the more mysterious it seemed.
Sensing it was part of something much larger that he couldn’t quite wrap his head around – and encouraged by a creative writing professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he went on to get his master’s – Schnurr decided to hike the river in August 2016.
NO EASY ROUTE
One of the first discoveries Schnurr made on his weeklong journey was that hiking along the riverbank wasn’t always possible.
No current trail system follows the river all the way to Toledo; adjacent roads don’t necessarily hug the water. He cut through field and forest when he could, but backyards and “No Trespassing” signs sometimes blocked his path.
Though Schnurr said he was initially disappointed, “I began to realize that was part of the story – how the river is now, what its role is now.”
Schnurr’s tale of his journey is interspersed with reflections on local history, geology and biology.
Though it was once more of a transportation hub – back when the banks along its headwaters held the Miami village of Kekionga – the first half of the river is fairly shallow and meandering.
The Wabash and Erie Canal, dug along the river and completed in 1843, provided a straighter, more reliable channel that met another canal to complete the route to Lake Erie.
Walking out of Antwerp, Ohio, along Canal Street one morning, after camping in the backyard of someone he’d met at a coffee shop, Schnurr gazed at all that remained of the canal more than 150 years after it was abandoned and drained.
It was a depression about 20 feet long and 2 feet deep that ran along the edge of the pavement. Passersby might have mistaken it for a grassy ditch. But to Schnurr it looked like “somebody had just pressed down hard on the earth and left an indent two hundred miles long.”
THE GREAT BLACK SWAMP’S DRAINPIPE
Though the Limberlost Swamp looms large in local imaginations thanks to the writings of Hoosier naturalist Gene Stratton Porter, the Maumee runs along the northern edge of what was once known as the Great Black Swamp.
The 1,500-square mile monster stretched from Fort Wayne to Toledo and then on to Sandusky, hugging the shoreline of Lake Erie – the shallowest of the Great Lakes that is itself a wetland of sorts along its western edge.
Serving as one of the swamp’s primary drain pipes, the Maumee supplied more than water to Lake Erie. It also dumped sediment into the lake’s fish-spawning grounds.
Once this sediment was a rich nutrient soup full of particles from a diverse mix of wetland plants and creatures. Now, thanks to runoff from monoculture agriculture sprayed with pesticides and fertilizer, the dominant ingredient is phosphorus.
As a kid, Schnurr had been warned about playing in contaminated river water, lest he run the risk of “coming out with three hands.” Since then algae blooms had formed on the river and dead zones in Lake Erie.
But during his hike, Schnurr increasingly felt a kinship with the river than disgust. He was beginning to see that the river is intrinsically connected to everything in its watershed, humans included.
When a friend joined Schnurr for two days of canoeing starting at Independence Dam State Park near Defiance, where the Maumee begins to straighten and widen, they had to slog through stagnant water for nearly an hour before it got deep enough to use the canoe.
At one point Schnurr slipped and gashed his knee on a rock.
“Whatever was in that water was now possibly in me (and vice versa),” he wrote. “I winced when I thought of the dead fish and the algae I had seen upstream.”
Meanwhile, some of his blood entered the river, where it would eventually flow into Lake Erie.
A ‘CURIOUS USER’
In his book, Schnurr stays away from making grand pronouncements, preferring to make observations and provide context.
Asked, for instance, whether the Maumee warrants its own trail network, so others could more easily follow in his footsteps, he responds cautiously.
“I’m not a policy expert on this sort of thing,” he says, noting that he considers himself more of a “curious user” of trails. But he does believe that any projects involving the Maumee “should happen with the river in mind, and be integrated into a longer vision for riparian health.”
Riparian, by the way, refers to riverbanks and wetlands along a river. It’s one of the terms Schnurr recognizes identifies him as a geek. But he’s not the only history buff or science nerd in the Maumee watershed; with them in mind, he’s provided a generous supply of endnotes to encourage further exploration.
Schnurr lives in Huntington now. He commutes to Purdue, where he’s studying for a doctorate in American studies while his wife works at Two EE’s Winery. He senses that getting to know the river more intimately has changed him, though he has a hard time putting that into words.
“There is no one great lesson here. There’s just a thousand small ones,” he says, acknowledging that the watershed itself is still “far beyond” his understanding.
“I’m still trying to chip away at it,” he admits.
Tanya Isch Caylor blogs about postfat living at www.90in9.wordpress.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.
Meet the author
What: Book reading and signing by Ryan Schnurr, author of "In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River," available Oct. 15 for $16.95 from Belt Publishing.
When: 6 p.m. Oct. 21
Where: Anchor Film Studios, 1501 E. Berry St.
To preorder the book: Go to ryanschnurr.com or visit http://beltmag.com/product/pre-order-watershed-journey-maumee-river/.