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Friend of the River

Dan Wire wants to get you out on Allen County's waterways

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-07-04


When Dan Wire takes City luminaries, policy makers, and other local public figures out on his pontoon boat for a cruise down the St. Joe river, he can usually count on a certain reaction. “After a while, they’ll say ‘Wire, why do you want people to know about this? There’s nobody here. It’s all yours!’” Wire laughs. “And I always tell them ‘just as you’ve enjoyed it, we need to have a lot of people enjoy it’.”

But those boaters taking the trip with Wire are on to something: even if you’ve lived in Fort Wayne or Allen County all your life, seeing the area from the deck of Wire’s small pontoon boat while it cruises down one of our three rivers gives you an entirely different perspective on the place.

You might know, for example, that just fifty yards up the river bank and through the woods there’s a residential neighborhood, or a road, or a strip mall, but from the surface of the river, you really can’t tell. At some points along the river, it feels as though you could be far from any kind of civilization — it’s quiet; the banks are thick with overgrowth; you might see a heron or two in the shallows (you might even see the bald eagle that lives not too far North on the St. Joe, if you’re very lucky); and there really is no one else out there.

Dan Wire would like to see that change. A Fort Wayne native, Wire was born and raised on the St. Joe just north of Northside high school. His great grandfather worked on a coastal schooner, hauling lumber, ice and other materials up and down the Eastern seaboard. His grandfather was a sea captain. And though his family found themselves in Fort Wayne, Wire says his mother would take them to her family’s home in coastal New England whenever they could afford it.

“I’ve always worked on water,” says Wire. “I was a lobsterman in Maine, worked on excursion boats in Boston, was a shell dredger in the Gulf near New Orleans, worked on tugboats on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers… My grandfather used to say that water was the tonic of life, and I’ve found that to be true.”

Wire estimates that he’s served on every water-related board or commission with the city since returning to Fort Wayne over 20 years ago. In addition to his professional resume, Wire says that he’s “got over half-a-century goofing around on St Joe, St Mary and Maumee rivers.” And he’s a tireless and enthusiastic advocate for more people “goofing around” on the three rivers.

Recently, Wire became the “point man” for Friends of the River, a pilot program under the umbrella of Invent Tomorrow, itself a civic organization that’s been around since 2000. In early June, the Allen County Board of Commissioners unanimously agreed to grant Invent Tomorrow and Friends of the River $75,000 over the next three years in an effort to improve the rivers.

Friends of the River has a work list outlining annual objectives, and the Commissioners need to approve the $25,000/year. Allen County Commissioner Bill Brown says that Wire is the perfect guy for the job. “Dan has been dubbed ‘the River Keeper’,” Brown says. “He’s a great advocate for the rivers. All we’ve done is stoked him with a little cash, just a thimble-full, and we’re going to see how he does.”

Of course, “doing something” with Fort Wayne’s three rivers is a perennial favorite among advocates of community development and revitalization. Practically every other city with a river running through it has made the waterway a focus of their community; Fort Wayne’s three rivers get a lot of lip service and figure in our community identity, but on a day-to-day basis we seem to ignore them (until they flood). They aren’t used much for recreation, and in most places you can barely see them. But still… “Anytime there’s ever been any charettes, any consulting recommendations, it’s one of the main things people always talk about — the rivers, the rivers, the rivers,” says Brown, who says he used to water ski on Fort Wayne rivers many years ago.

Brown points out that the kind of tasks Dan Wire and Friends of the Rivers are charged with are far different than, say, the North River Project that was talked about just a few years ago on the Omnisource property downtown just north of the St. Mary’s. Some ambitious plans came out of that task force — walkways, restaurants, an iMax theater and/or a water park — but there were always questions of how those ideas could be paid for and how they could be sustained (and since the option to buy the land has expired, the issue is moot).

Brown says that the difference with Friends of the River is that it starts small. “There’s an acronym everyone is using now: S.M.A.R.T.” Brown explains. “Specific, Measurable, Realistic and Tangible. (Dan Wire) came up with a very solid list of projects that are easily measurable, and that he will expedite over this first year for $25,000.”

Those projects, for the first year at least, include prep work for river-related events (like Riverfest, held at IPFW in late June); removing navigation hazards like sunken logs and boulders; and opening viewing vistas. Brown hopes that Friends of the Rivers can start developing a volunteer and membership network, much like Friends of the Parks. “You start connecting volunteers and this whole thing is organic,” he says. “That’s what different. We have fertile soil, we have people to plant. We have the opportunity to really grow something.”

Most of these tasks are things Dan Wire finds himself doing a lot of anyway in his regular excursions on the rivers by kayak, canoe, or pontoon. As one of the organizers for Riverfest, Wire found himself dredging up logs and other debris and assisting crews in putting in temporary landings. He talks about the importance of opening up a handful of vistas around the city so that people can actually see the river, rather than it being hidden behind a tangle of brush or a wall. Another essential item: make what boat ramps we do have functional and more accessible. “The ramp at Johnny Appleseed park has five big boulders underneath the water there, and if you don’t know where they are, you’re going to hit one,” he says.

Access points are also a big issue. Wire frequently takes his pontoon boat to the deck at the Hall’s downtown. Recently, when the river was especially high, he couldn’t pull in to the deck, so he started to look for somewhere else to tie the boat. He ended up under a willow tree at the far side of Headwaters Park, where he and his guests had to walk through “mud and goose crap” before reaching dry land, and then hike across the park and Clinton street before reaching the restaurant. He says putting in a couple floating docks at key points is a simple and easy solution for when the river is high.

“These are straight ahead projects that will be reasonably easy and quick to accomplish, but have big impact,” Wire says of his first year agenda. “Let’s quit with the big teeth; let’s do a little bite at a time. That’s what I’m after. You get the infrastructure right, and the business will follow.”

But there are two big obstacles that loom over any efforts Friends of the Rivers might undertake to make the three rivers more attractive for recreation. First and foremost is public perception. Wire readily concedes that if you ask your average Allen County resident about the rivers, they’ll tell you they’re smelly, dirty, rampant with raw sewage and practically toxic. Wire hears this stuff all the time. Recently he was planning a kayak excursion with a friend; the river was low, and Wire cautioned that they might have to get out of their kayaks and portage over some spots. “They immediately said ‘I don’t want to touch that water.’ That’s when it really dawned on me that the public doesn’t have a clue about water quality.”

The truth is, people were using the rivers for recreation more often several decades ago, when the water quality was much, much worse than it is now. Wire explains that during the 60s and 70s, industrial pollution and chemical agriculture were growing rapidly, and city sewer systems — not just Fort Wayne’s, but cities all over the country — were reaching capacity. “But during that time, we had boat swings, we were swimming in the rivers, the raft race was in its heyday, with hundreds of people floating around in inner tubes,” says Wire. “Today, there’s a big scare about water quality: ‘oh, it’s kryptonite. Something’s going to happen if you even put a finger in there.’ We had thousands of people in it when it was worse, and to my knowledge, there was never a bad incident.”

Ironically, public perception of the rivers as borderline toxic might be an offshoot of something that was meant to make water quality better — the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1972 Clean Water Act. Wire says that it was a nice thought, but for over a decade the act wasn’t really enforced. Eventually, the EPA started imposing fine and penalties and laying down some rules. One of these rules stated that the public had to be informed every time there was a “combined sewer overflow discharge.”

A brief overview of the city’s sewer system might be in order here (bear with me, patient reader). Like hundreds of cities across the US, Fort Wayne has a combined sanitary and storm water sewer system. When it rains, the storm water and the waste water flow into the rivers. Like we said, a lot of cities have similar sewer systems, probably designed when there were fewer people to serve. The EPA eventually mandated changing these systems, and Fort Wayne has been very dutiful about tackling the problem — it was sort of a priority with the Richard administration (the former mayor talked about it — a lot — in FWR #90).

But one of the results is that when it comes to the rivers, all the public seems to hear about is the CSO (combined sewer overflow) discharge. “The only information they’re drawing on is ‘millions of gallons of raw sewage discharged into the river every year’,” Wire says. “They think when they flush the toilet, every bit of that is going right into the river. No. In a heavy rain, you’ll get tainted water.”

“All anyone ever heard about was doom and gloom on the rivers,” Wire continues. “It was never off-set with ‘you can still boat, you can still canoe, you can even fish,’ (though the DNR has consumption limits). I work with city utilities a lot. I understand you have to identify the problems, but everytime you’ve got a negative piece of information, tell people they can still boat on it, tell ‘em they can still fish on it.”

“I can’t tell people ‘go swim in the river,’ but I can come back to these two words: common sense. Go home, take a shower.”

The other obstacle is a bit harder to define. An example: Wire was one of the organizers for Riverfest at IPFW, and the event was a huge success. Four pontoons ran constantly at capacity, carrying people for brief excursions up and down the St. Joe. A plane landed on the river. Wire had a chance to really show off the rivers he loves and got an enthusiastic response. He doesn’t have official numbers, but he estimates that there were probably more people out on the river that day than there has been at any one time in Fort Wayne for the last 50 years (with the exception of ye ole raft races).

The very next day, Wire gets a call: construction is about to begin on an area bridge, and they’re going to have to lower the water level for the next few months, making it just a little more difficult for anyone who might want to give boating on the rivers a try after their experience at Riverfest. For Wire, it’s a frustrating reminder that the public isn’t the only entity that needs to be educated (he adds that the bridges were originally built without having to lower water levels. “The contractors found out that they could lower water levels, so now they do it all the time.”)

But growing Friends of the Rivers and spreading the word is what Wire really seems to enjoy doing. Wire talks about a particular demonstration he likes to give people. “I’ll have a fresh bottle of water, and I’ll have an empty one, and I’ll reach down in the St Joe and I’ll fill the empty one and hold them side-by-side. You will barely see a difference. Maybe it’ll be a little bit brown. But people think it’s smelly and dirty, and when they don’t smell anything, and when they see that you can read a book through it, then they begin to think ‘ah, maybe it’s not as bad as I thought it was…’”

Far from it.

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