Thursday, June 28, 2012

River Walk Nation

There’s an urban movement which I’m catching on to.  On visits to Green Bay, Indianapolis, Cedar Rapids, Tulsa, and (of course) San Antonio, I’ve discovered, first by accident, then by aim, friendly riverside walkways decked out with public art, fitness courses, botanical gardens, and lovely views of the host city’s local river.  Each walk has its own history, reason for existence, and character, but they all have commonalities that make them part of a national web of river reclamation, preservation, and appreciation.

On a recent sunny afternoon in Indianapolis, I opened the hotel’s complimentary visitor guide and quickly came to what I was looking for:  a description of the White River State Park and Canal Walk.  Before arriving, I hadn’t known its name, hadn’t even known for sure that a river ran through this city, but as the taxi worked its way from the airport to my hotel, it dawned on me that, based on what I’ve found elsewhere, I should investigate.  Sure enough, here it was.  After I’d donned my running shoes, I headed down to the trail.

The White River of Indianapolis has an industrial past.  Meatpacking, flour, and paper mills lined the shores back in the early decades of the 1900s.  That’s a lot like the 20-mile-long Fox River which bisects Green Bay, Wisconsin.  There, the river supplied twenty-four paper and pulp mills power and a dumping ground for PCBs and other contaminants, leading to depletion of fish stocks and water that was inhospitable for humans.  In both cases, a combination of economic changes, a budding interest in river protection, and recognition of the aesthetic value of the river lead to clean ups and improvements for residents. 

Flood control was also a major factor in the eventual development of recreational facilities along urban waterways.  The White River, Cedar Rapids’ Cedar River, and the San Antonio River, all experienced floods that took lives and caused extensive property damage.  In 1921, the San Antonio River flooded, killing 50 people.  Cedar Rapids had massive floods in 1993, then was hit again by even worse floods in 2008 during which 20,000 residents were evacuated.  Today, riverside regions of cities have largely been built up with dikes, flood gates, bypass canals, and concrete embankments to reduce the flood threat and cities have then integrated trails and parks into these features.  Tulsa’s River Parks Trail and the Fox River Trail both take walkers, cyclists, and joggers right across bridges under which flood gates lay in rest until needed to manage high water.  A favorite commercial district along the famous San Antonio Riverwalk is built on a bend in the river where land is kept dry by a bypass channel. 

Each of the river walks I’ve visited has a different theme.  Some are more about art and culture while others are more about nature, some focus on fitness while others focus on shopping and dining.  The character often shifts even along a given river, evolving from a busy commercial area into a woodsy, flower-lined walk.

In Indianapolis, over my two-and-a-half mile walk, I passed a parade of flagrant modern public art installations – a red welded flame, a woven boat frame atop a wooden pyre, an iron tripod with Saturn-like rings, wire baskets, a 50’ tall ladder of effervescent panels reflecting the river’s movement.  Public institutions were strategically planned and built along the central canal region to encourage visitation.  I could have dropped into the NCAA museum, the Indiana State Museum, or the zoo.  After a while, I left art and grand buildings behind and entered a quieter retreat of native rock walls, overhanging hackberry trees, and the songs of a hundred birds.  This reconciliation of art, history, commerce, and nature is common among river walks.  Even in San Antonio, where the river is overwhelmed by shops, hotels, and restaurants, eddies of solitude exist within a bald cypress grove or near a plaza where fountains perform solos.

The Fox River Trail and the Cedar River Trail prioritize exercise, fresh air, and nature.  There, walkers, cyclists, and runners enjoy shady, tree-lined pathways with lane designations, mileposts to keep track of your distance, and fitness waysides where equipment is designed for stretching and strengthening.  Interpretive signs provide information about plants, animals, birds, and river topography.  Many of the river walks I’ve explored serve as erosion control and restoration zones, too.  On most, riparian strips have been re-vegetated and are now carefully maintained to hold soils in place.  Fox River Trail volunteers continue to labor to eradicate invasive plant species and the city of Cedar Rapids reintroduced native Iowa prairie grasses and flowers, which today attract native birds, butterflies, and animals.

In Indy, I visited the White River and Canal three times, each time with a slightly different variation.  Once I ventured out in the late afternoon, twice in the early morning.  One day I walked with friends, twice I ran alone.  Once I traveled north, twice I went south.  Over those three days, I saw a blue heron skimming the lazy river, red-winged blackbirds scuffing about in the shoreside brush, and mallards sunning themselves on a grassy bank.  I encountered cyclists, peddle-boaters, runners, and sight-seers.  I jogged by a group of people suffering through an early-morning boot camp workout.  All the while, the river flowed by, its current ambling on toward a confluence I could not see.
Where:  Indianapolis, Indiana

Where:  Green Bay, Wisconsin

Where:  Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Where:  San Antonio, Texas

Where:  Tulsa, Oklahoma

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