Photo: Mary Reed

Water Ways

How outfitter-advocate Lisa Daris creates outdoor connections for any and all Columbus, Ohio paddlers and pedalers.

While out kayaking with a friend on the Olentangy River, Lisa Daris had a question. She wondered aloud why more people didn’t do it. How come more people didn’t paddle the scenic river that cuts through the top half of Columbus? Her friend said it was because they couldn’t. Whether that was because they couldn’t afford a kayak, didn’t have space for it, or simply didn’t know how to break into the sport, the answer stuck with Daris for years—as did the challenge it presented.

When she was downsized from a job in educational publishing in 2012, Daris decided to make changes to both her career and to those obvious barriers. Within two years she launched Olentangy Paddle, which offers guided canoe and kayak trips on the Scioto Mile in downtown Columbus. She is also executive coordinator of the Ohio to Erie Trail, a 326-mile cycling route between Cincinnati and Cleveland. Until fall 2021, she was executive director of Outdoor Pursuits, where she served as event director of the Tour of the Scioto River Valley (TOSRV), a two-day, back-to-back century ride and the longest-running cycling event in North America, since 1962.

Over the past nine years, Daris has become one of the area’s strongest advocates for getting people outdoors, whether on a bike or in a boat. Today, a float through downtown Columbus yields a much different view—one full of regular paddlers on the Scioto Mile—with Daris largely to thank.

PUBLIC LANDS: You grew up in Kent, Ohio. Were you always outdoorsy?

LISA DARIS: I grew up a quarter-mile away from the Cuyahoga River. It was basically a block away. As a child I would just spend every day outside, usually creeking. I did not learn about the Cuyahoga [1969 industrial waste fire] and its importance in the creation of the Clean Water Act until I got into high school and made that connection that that Cuyahoga River was the same Cuyahoga River I was wading in. We were upstream from the toxins. When I made that connection, it had a very profound impact on me. Perhaps I carried that with me my entire life until I found a way to connect other people with the waterways the way I was connected as a kid. 

When and why did you start Olentangy Paddle?

In America, most urban waterways were not accessible because they were not made to be accessible due to the dangers of so much pollution. Thanks to Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed and other waterway advocates, two lowhead dams were removed between 2013 and 2015 and several points of access were created in the past decade. The year Olentangy Paddle started (2014), the Main Street Dam still existed downtown, but was removed in 2015. We now put in near Scioto Audubon Metro Park above the existing Greenlawn Dam. We paddle upstream—there’s no current unless there’s a huge rain episode—and do an out-and-back float on the Scioto River. I and several crew members are CTAs, Certified Tourism Ambassadors, through Experience Columbus so we share the story of the river as we float. 

Photo: Lisa Daris

As an ambassador, what do you highlight?

I highlight the 2015 dam removal, because it’s a great success story in terms of ecological recovery for the river. The river’s flow was somewhat restored, which enabled the river to once again become a home for many fish and wildlife species that need moving water to survive. The Greenlawn Dam still remains, but I hope to live long enough to witness its removal. I also talk about Scioto Audubon Metro Park and how it was previously a city impoundment lot. The city’s vision was successful in obtaining funding through grants and donors, resulting in a complete transformation. Now this area is designated as [a National Audubon Society] Important Bird Area. I point out the great blue herons, snowy egrets, ospreys, turtles and other wildlife.

So you connect people to nature.

And also a sense of civic pride and place. That’s the problem: Urban waterways were a source of embarrassment for many decades. One of the things we have in our favor in Columbus is that we did not develop so quickly that we covered everything in concrete like so many big cities did. We always had green spaces that were underutilized. We are just now in this century waking up to the fact that we can make a green space a nice park, a river corridor, a mountain bike trail.

What is your vision for the future of Columbus waterways?

Not just my vision; the RAPID 5 project is a multi-agency initiative. The goal is to connect all five major waterways in Columbus into one interconnected green space. The list of amenities that are a part of the RAPID 5 project is long, and I’m excited to hear more about what local residents want. How about an ice skating rink? Concert venues? Shared community space for theater, art and for highlighting what is special about each neighborhood? 

How are you connecting kids to nature so they can have the experiences you had growing up?

This past year through Outdoor Pursuits, I coordinated with Rising Youth (an initiative of the Martin de Porres Center, the Dominican Sisters of Peace and Catholic Health Initiatives) for an eight-week youth summer camp. We taught them bicycling skills, trail etiquette, and kayaking at Scioto Audubon Metro Park. One 14-year-old boy bluffed when we asked if he had ridden a bike before. It was pretty apparent that if he had ridden a bike before, it was probably one with training wheels. By the end of the first session, he showed marked improvement. By the end of the eight weeks, he was one of the top riders in terms of skill and knowing how to handle himself on a trail. These opportunities help with confidence building at a young age.

Everyone deserves to have their own Huckleberry Finn adventure, whether they’re eight or 80, and I’m here to help make that happen. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.