My Ohio: Ripple Effects

Over the years, Tinkers Creek, at turns a raging torrent and timid playground, has been abused, but restoration efforts are offering hope for its renewal.

In early March, deep snow begins to melt and the thick ice covering Tinkers Creek starts to crack and break away. When I was a child growing up in Glenwillow, a once-rural village in southeast Cuyahoga County, the creek bed couldn’t handle the additional frigid water. Tinkers Creek overflowed and flooded flatlands. Huge ice floes bobbed up and down in the fast-moving water, making back roads impossible to cross by foot or vehicle.

Sometimes the raging creek overflowed when I was at school and I could not return home. I would stand forlornly at water’s edge, waving to my mother on the far distant side. I stayed with friends until the waters receded.

During one spring flood, I saw a small, wet rabbit floating past me on a crooked log, riding it like a lifeboat. I cried for two days, worried about its fate.

Every March, I knew well the fury of Tinkers Creek, the largest tributary of the Cuyahoga River. The waterway flows for 30 miles through 24 communities in Cuyahoga, Summit, Geauga and Portage counties. But the creek’s tantrums subsided by the time spring’s skunk cabbage  began to sprout in wetlands. And for another year the stream (named for Captain Joseph Tinker of Moses Cleaveland’s 1796 survey team) became my playmate and science lab.

My friends and I swam in the creek and explored “around the next bend” in small rowboats. A skinny kid with thick glasses, I “monitored” the activity of the creek’s freshwater clams. I made friends with water striders who magically skimmed across the creek’s surface, and I owned a pet crayfish.

To the families who stayed in summer cottages without plumbing near where I lived, Tinkers Creek was also used for bathing and washing clothes. After summer storms when the creek swelled and turned the color of chocolate milk, children and parents rode the rapids like happy otters.

But by the 1960s, commercial and residential development began to severely threaten the health of Tinkers Creek. The swimming hole was closed, minnows disappeared and the creek was forced to swallow toxins from factories and sewage districts. The once-scenic creek that flowed through growing communities was often abused or just ignored. I remember standing on a wooden bridge, staring down into the face of the creek and mourning its slow death.

Some Ohioans might have been as sluggish as a shallow Tinkers Creek on a hot August day to recognize the value of its waterways — but we finally did. The Ohio EPA, the Tinkers Creek Watershed Partners and other government and nonprofit groups rallied to save what Bill Zawiski, an EPA environmental supervisor, classifies as a “gorgeous stream.”

Much time, effort and money have been spent in creek restoration efforts. In some regions of the watershed, Tinkers Creek aquatic life is good or improving. Fish populations are still down in some areas, but Zawiski says ongoing research may solve that problem. He also hopes to convince those living and working along the banks of Tinkers Creek that more can be accomplished by establishing rain gardens than by using destructive back hoes when it comes to water runoff and eroding banks.

We have a ways to go. I will probably never again wade in the creek to cool my feet in summer. But in the recent past, I have seen snapping turtles slowly ease themselves into the water. Whitetail deer come to drink and bullfrog choruses can once again be heard. The 786-acre Tinkers Creek State Nature Preserve is home to mink, weasels and water snakes.

In March, when Tinkers Creek lets its fury be known, I am proud of the stream’s strength and power and its ability to heal … with a little help from us.

Jill Sell is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor based in Sagamore Hills.