Voices of the Brook

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The Origins of Doan Brook

Monday, March 26, 2012

My father first introduced me to the wild and rugged outdoors when I was very young. He would take me on long hikes through vast marshes, steep gorges, extensive forests, and across scenic vistas…or at least that is what I thought at the time. I grew up in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. In fact, the Cleveland city line was only a few blocks from where I lived. As with any urban living scene, the rush of traffic was virtually continuous, with trains, sirens, and honking along the busy corridors of city life. Nevertheless, within a walking distance from my house was a local nature center with hiking trails. Most importantly, this nature center was a part of a long chain of parks whose center piece was the Doan Brook

Doan Brook is an urban stream. Its headwaters arise from a series of storm drains in a residential area. Miles of its corridor are placed into underground culverts to make way for buildings and roads, and the mouth of the stream into Lake Erie is gone, buried by landfill and carried out to the lake by drainage pipes. At the same time, sections of the brook that remain more or less unaltered provide wildlife habitat and a scenic riparian corridor, creating a refuge from urban life. The reservoirs along the brook teem with life, including giant snapping turtles, elegant great blue herons, and more recently, white-tailed deer. One could literally be standing next to a busy road with buses and trucks puffing by, and the next moment be standing next to a cascading waterfall over ancient Berea Sandstone with red headed woodpeckers foraging in large beech trees, and with the sounds of traffic seeming uncannily distant. This unusual urban – nature interface, the Doan Brook, placed me in a state of perpetual awe.

My father and I quickly ran across North Park Boulevard, a curvy, bumpy parkway where drivers sped down the hill around blind corners. There before us was a large swath of forest. We walked down some old steps, and I could hear the faint sound of rushing water. As we descended into the Doan Brook Gorge, the sound of the water became louder until I could finally see the stream. There it was, a babbling brook flowing over a smooth plate of bedrock, with jumpy little water striders skimming the surface of the water. I looked around and could not believe how deep and remote this gorge felt, despite the fact that only a few moments ago we were in the city. We continued to hike downstream, following the trickle of water along an adjacent trail. The creek then took a slight turn, and ahead of us was something I could hardly comprehend.

The brook flowed straight into a large black tunnel. This was the underpass underneath Martin Luther King Boulevard, and no matter how hard you looked, you could not see the other side. The creek entered a black concrete abyss, and your voice echoed eerily into the cool and damp structure. I could not get over this. How could a pristine, free-flowing stream in a wooded gorge just suddenly transform into an overgrown, inaccessible sewer? How did this happen? Why? We decided to turn back. We gradually made our way upstream back to the trail, up the wet and slippery steps, and reentered civilization. I took one last glance at the stream, only this time I looked upstream and pondered to myself, “I wonder where the creek begins?”

This question began to fill my head with overwhelming curiosity. During car rides through town, I could not help but glaze out the window as we travelled along the brook, and I would attempt to follow its course. I would jump up and down with excitement whenever we went over a bridge across the stream where I could see the water flowing. Sometimes I would be unbelievably puzzled when, as we drove through different sections of the watershed, I lost sight of where the brook was going (at the time, I was unaware of how many sections of the stream were confined to underground culverts). It was the mystery of all mysteries for me; I wanted to try and figure out where this creek began! I wanted so badly to find, as my father phrased it, the “origins of the Doan Brook.”

It was just after a fresh snowfall that my father decided to take me for a hike along the Doan Brook. My father understood my enthusiasm for finding the start of the stream, so he decided to take me for walk along the South Branch Doan Brook where it passes through a country club. We trudged through the snow for what seemed like miles, following the trickling brook as it meandered through a white winter wonderland. It felt like hours had passed as we continued to follow the seemingly endless creek upstream, and it was starting to get dark. My father decided that we should turn back. I immediately protested. We had come all this way, and we still had not found the source of the creek. I asked my father if he knew how far we were from the start of the stream. It ended up we still had a long way to go. So, we turned back and followed the brook downstream back to the car. I looked back at the creek with disappointed eyes. Nevertheless, I was grateful that my father had offered the potential to discover this great mystery.

My interest…my infatuation with Doan Brook carried me into my high school years, where I began volunteering for the local nature center along the stream. I started reading books about the creek and realized that I was not the only one impressed by this urban gem. And yes, I finally had the chance to see where the Doan Brook started. This interest in the natural history of Doan Brook eventually expanded to an interest in nature and the outdoors, and my efforts to protect and restore the Doan Brook led to my studies in conservation. My father was the one who introduced me to the outdoors and taught me to appreciate everything from small brooks and tiny wildflowers, to giant waterfalls and national parks. I have now been to so many places, some wild and rugged, some struggling to cope with urban development. Some places I have been are scenic and beautiful while others are arid and desolate. Yet I cannot seem to get out of my mind the feelings and sensations I experienced along Doan Brook.

Since my childhood explorations of the Doan Brook Valley, I have developed new insight and have become more informed about conservation and ecology. I also have a better understanding of the limited potential in restoring urban streams, and I have acknowledged the more important task of preserving intact watersheds. While I am proud of all this new knowledge that I have acquired, there is something rather unsettling about it. Under my new eyes, I can no longer look at Doan Brook with the same wonder and awe as I did when I was young. The little nooks and crannies that seemed endless of opportunities to explore were now reduced down to small, nostalgic, and childish products of imagination. In its place was the startling truth that this urban stream is polluted, degraded, and only a mere remnant of what streams in that region once where. I cannot help but think that there is something more out there that is bigger and better than Doan Brook and that discovering new places will reignite that burnt out flame of the fascination I felt when I was younger. The singer and songwriter Beth Orton sings these lyrics with a chilling melancholy, which I feel represents my inner feelings about my changed perspective on Doan Brook:


Stayed true to the things I knew when I was younger
And food and love was all but left to hunger.
‘Cause when I stray from my truth as I grow older
Too much leaves an empty hollow hunger.


However, I do not necessarily feel an “empty hollow hunger” with regards to my new insight on Doan Brook. I am now learning to disregard my long lost love for Doan Brook as simply a matter of "personal interest," and I am beginning to realize that I want other people not only to know about my thoughts and feelings about growing up in the Doan Brook Valley, but to have the opportunity to experience it for themselves.This brook is not just an alternative place to enjoy nature without leaving the city. It is not just an abused and undermined urban natural resource. It is a place that has inspired people across generations, even before its settlement by early European explorers in the 1700s. It is as real and as important as any wild and raging river, and as majestic and breathtaking as any remote and rugged wilderness. As soon as people in the Cleveland area can experience similar sensations and connections with the Doan Brook Valley as I did when I was a child, then we can move on a path towards stream restoration and environmentally sound urban living.


Alex Palmer