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.