By Lisa Kruse

There’s no “reset” button on a canoe like there is on a video game. Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC) RiverTrekkers discover this each summer as they learn to overcome struggles on their own.

RiverTrek is an annual, all-natural, outdoor adventure for teens. With no electronics to distract them, the teens and staff members bond as a team and accomplish what some may deem impossible—outdoor survival for five days while paddling on the river. 

From The Beginning
RiverTrek began in 1997 with an idea, taking kids on a canoeing adventure along the entire length of Little Miami River, a total of 111 miles. Well, the idea quickly became a full-blown recreation program, and the length of the journey was shortened to 70+ miles.

Early RiverTrekkers paddled in rafts instead of canoes and kayaks. As the program progressed, more canoes and kayaks were used for paddling, which made it easier to maneuver the waters of the Little Miami and Ohio Rivers.

“I wanted to give kids a chance to have an adventure,” says a smiling Mark Celsor. Celsor—whose idea started the RiverTrek program—remembers the first year like it was yesterday. “We didn’t know ‘how-to’ … we just did it! Using my personal boating equipment, we sometimes had to improvise. We used the air-cooled, 2.7-horsepower outboard from my sailboat to help pull the rafts when it was too hard to paddle,” says the now-retired employee of CRC.

“The first day there was a cold rain, which made river conditions difficult. But the kids were still excited about being there. They just said, ‘Cool—what are we doing tomorrow?’”

Well, tomorrow on that trip brought more paddling, and many tomorrows later—actually 19 years of them—RiverTrek is the crown jewel of CRC’s outdoor adventures.

On The WateSpending five straight days paddling 15 to 20 miles a day, RiverTrekkers need to stay motivated. They can be heard singing songs and telling stories as they paddle. When the water is safe (both with the current and in cleanliness), RiverTrekkers get to “body surf” in the river during breaks. This involves lying on their back with feet pointing up and letting the current move them down the river.

Returning RiverTrekkers use their experience as Peer Leaders, helping to manage the group and passing on their knowledge. Peer Leaders often paddle with newcomers to teach them the ins and outs of reading the river.

The group usually stops at rocky beaches for lunch breaks, which give the teens a chance to recharge, refuel, and maybe have time for a fossil search or a rock-building contest. The last stop is the Downtown Cincinnati Public Landing on the Ohio River, where they are greeted by family and friends who cheer on their incredible accomplishment of paddling 70+ miles!

Managing All Of It
Leading 50 teens and 20 staff members along the river for a successful paddling and camping event is no easy task. But Nicky Haar, self-proclaimed river queen, takes it in stride. “The biggest thing is the management of it all,” she says. Logistics of transporting the gear both on-river and off-river for 70+ miles is a challenge. It is essential to work as a team, and everything gets done.”

Tents, food supplies, and personal gear are transported on land using CRC vans, staff members, and volunteers. The only items that are transported on the river are packed lunches and snacks in waterproof bags, plenty of drinking water, and first-aid supplies.

“We teach the kids all kinds of water safety, including river signals—one whistle means ‘kids pay attention,’ two, ‘staff pay attention,’ and three, ‘emergency—pull over immediately,’” says Haar, an employee of CRC. “Holding the paddle in the air horizontally means ‘stop’, and you always point to where you want to go—don’t just point at an obstacle.” 

Communication from home is something that each RiverTrekker looks forward to. In past years, there has been a computer message board during the trip for family members to communicate their support. In recent years, a RiverTrek-exclusive email has been set up to receive enthusiastic messages from home.

Of course, with logistics and management comes money. RiverTrek is fortunate to be funded by a local foundation. Through its support, the fee of $700 to $800 per RiverTrekker is reduced to a $10 application fee for those interested in making the journey.

In addition to the support from the local foundation, there are many donations of staff time, food supplies, and adult leadership. For example, each year Cincinnati police and/or fire departments donate personnel to escort the RiverTrekkers along the more heavily travelled Ohio River.

Everyone Is Included
Cincinnati Recreation Commission is extremely inclusive, offering opportunities for those of all abilities to be involved in any of the programs. RiverTrek is no exception.

Throughout the years, RiverTrekkers have included those teens in wheelchairs, those with Down syndrome, and those with conditions such as ADD, Autism, and Asperger’s. One year, RiverTrek even included two brothers who didn’t have the ability to sweat! That year, many measures were put in place to keep them cool—ice chests, water spray bottles, vests with ice packs, and staffmembers had regular cool-down sessions for them.

Necessary accommodations are made throughout the trip. For example, for a RiverTrekker in a wheelchair to paddle effectively, there must be proper support in the canoe. Staff members participate in an Adaptive Paddling Workshop organized by the American Canoe Association. And staff from CRC’s Therapeutic Recreation Division will make the trip with a child with a disability, depending on need.

Safety Is A Priority
Before, during, and after the trip, safety is a priority for all RiverTrekkers, both on and off the river. Prior to departure, training sessions are held to teach basic river skills and safety. A one-day session is provided for the kids, and two-day training is offered for the staff. These sessions review boating safety procedures, river signals, CPR for the Professional Rescuer, and standard first aid.

Sun protection and hydration are keys to staying healthy and safe on the water. Each RiverTrekker is given a hat to provide shade from the sun and a water bottle to keep them hydrated throughout the journey.

Camping Along The Way
After each day of paddling the river, teens and staff members make camp at a pre-determined campground. The first challenge when RiverTrekkers get off the river is to carry their canoes and kayaks up the riverbank. Then it’s time to set up their tents. RiverTrekkers are paired off by gender and work as a team to prepare their tents and sleeping spaces.

Weary paddlers are excited to see a full meal prepared for them by volunteers. Sometimes the paddlers enjoy pizza, other times they dine on hot dogs and burgers. After dinner, games are played and stories are told around the campfire. Memories are made as friendships are born and barriers are broken.

Lisa Kruse is a Communication Specialist for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission. Reach her at Lisa.Kruse@cincinnati-oh.gov>lisa.kruse@cincinnati-oh.gov. CRC enriches the lives of Cincinnati citizens through the operation and programming of 23 recreation centers, 34 aquatic facilities, 6 golf courses and hundreds of playgrounds and sports fields.