Photo by Brian Kaiser.

The Interview: Lisa Daris

River guide / Conservationist / Business Owner

They say the human body is about 60 percent water. But something tells me that Lisa Daris has a little more H2O coursing through her veins than the average person. Her whole life, she’s never been far from a river. She grew up in Kent, minutes from the Cuyahoga. Now the owner
of Olentangy Paddle, Daris has literally made it her business to introduce people to the waterways of central Ohio. With a mane of curly blond hair, and an easy laugh that bubbles up like a brook, Daris is the perfect ambassador to speak for the ecosystems that reside in and around the Scioto, Olentangy, and their tributaries.

Relaxing in her home north of the city, Daris points in the direction of the nearest body of water, a human divining rod. Birds flit up to feeders at her window, and she names them as they come and go. She rhapsodizes about softshell turtle sightings as she gazes into the woods. Daris is at home among nature’s glory. She can read the weather and the rivers like so many books. Between the science she sources and her own experience and instinct, she can paint a picture of what the waters will look like from day to day, and can tell you on a Tuesday if the rivers will be running high on Thursday. Like a farmer reading the summer dust for signs of an early snow, Daris carries herself with an observant certainty that the weather will do what the weather will do, and we humans are simply along for the ride. Even if, here in Columbus, mother nature seems to mostly have been tamed.

“We have this intersection, especially in central Ohio, of urban and nature. It’s not all concrete like it is in Northeast Ohio, in Cleveland. They have a great metropark system, too. But there’s a different closeness to nature in central Ohio.”

When she explains her business and experiences, Daris is doing more than telling you about her job. She is translating into words the moving, breathing life force that is the continuous river ecosystem. Daris grew up a stone’s throw from the Cuyahoga, a river famous for being so inundated with fuel and refuse that it repeatedly caught fire. Childhood naivety, though, is blissful. Daris, perhaps upstream of the industry that wreaked havoc on the water’s chemistry, rode her bike to the river daily, and spent her days, weeks, and seasons on and in the water flowing past her home.

“Every large city in America is living off the infrastructure that was built a hundred years ago or more.”

“Looking back, I must have been isolated. Kent was a pretty small town back then. My mother didn’t drive, and my dad traveled a lot for work. I never felt isolated, but I think that’s because I had the river. I would play on the river all day long. My mom would say ‘go’ and we would be gone all day!”

Daris, it seems, lived a free range childhood—which back then was just called childhood.

“I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, so there were a lot of rules with that. But once I got outside, I really got a taste of freedom. I really felt like I could learn things from trial and error, versus the rules that are set up for kids. ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ Outside, you push limits of certain things.”

This freedom and natural learning is what Daris hopes to spread with her business and activism work. She started Olentangy Paddle in 2014, running kayaks on the river, and renting them out to people who wanted to see the city from a new angle. Back then, low head dams dotted the river corridor every few miles. After the Main Street and Fifth Avenue dams were removed, and the river bottoms re-engineered, a whole new world opened up, both for creatures who live below the surface, and above. Newer Columbus transplants may take our bejeweled riverfront for granted, but long-time residents will remember a time when the water was not only inaccessible, but undesirable for recreation.

“Once the dams were removed, me and my friends kayaked it a few times. Everyone, including me, was just totally amazed. Who would have thought when I moved here in the 90s that you could kayak down the Olentangy? And who would want to? Because it still had some issues.”

That’s a polite way of wording the ecological near-dead zones that had been snaking their ways through the city for decades. A sewage runoff issue plagued the waters, and the infrastructure around the banks wasn’t made for contact with the rivers. But downtown initiatives put into action by the Coleman administration started a domino effect that, like rainwater, cascaded eventually into the waterways.

The facelift of the downtown area has changed fundamental functioning within the capital city. It has had obvious ecological and economic effects, and Daris has been at the forefront of that activity. In addition to running her business, she volunteers for FLOW (Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed), has partnered with the Godman Guild and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, worked with the Ohio River Foundation, and works for TOSRV (Tour of the Scioto River Valley), where she gets to indulge her other love, cycling. With every organization she champions, and every town hall meeting she attends, Daris manages to spread knowledge—her passion tirelessly shining through her words and actions.

“Columbus has been great about cleaning up the water. They bore a tunnel under the river to help with the sewage overflow. Every large city in America is living off the infrastructure that was built a hundred years ago or more. That would be like if we still had one-lane bridges built over the rivers. And that causes issues. It happened throughout America, and it’s still happening. But Columbus has done a great job of working with the EPA to resolve […] a lot of the issues we had back in the 90s and even early 2000s. We’ve grown fast, but we haven’t grown so fast that we can’t take a step back and fix some of the things that have caused the waterways issues. I’m proud to say that decision makers, policy makers, and taxpayers have said, ‘We need to do this.’”

Daris works with people of all ages, and from all walks of life. She connects them with the water, physically and otherwise. Her hope is that, children who are given the opportunity to bond with the water and the plants and animals that rely on it, will grow up to continue her stewardship. Sometimes it seems like it’s the only way to make it through a news cycle telling of brutal effects on nature from human meddling.

“A part of me really has just hunkered down and focused on saving the waterways one person at a time. I know that sounds trite. But sometimes it’s too big. Sometimes I feel like it doesn’t do any good. So last year I just really focused on Olentangy Paddle and just doing a really good job with that. If I can provide that one experience for somebody, no matter if they’re seven years old or 70, if it makes them care a little bit more about the waterways, that is a good day.”

Her activism exists in a place beyond self interest. Daris dreams of a natural watershed, running uninterrupted through the city. For now, the Greenlawn dam remains one of the few low heads left in the city limits. Utilities running underneath pose an obstacle in removing it, unlike the two dams removed in the last few years. But Daris retains hope that in her lifetime, it will be taken down, and the Scioto can run freely as it once did.

“If I can provide that one experience for somebody, no matter if they’re seven years old or 70, if it makes them care a little bit more about the waterways, that is a good day.”

“Wouldn’t that be an interesting sight? To see the Scioto in a more natural state south of the city? I’m in an interesting position, though, because that would also mean that we may not be able to canoe and kayak on that river as much, because it would get too low. The dam backs up the water, which creates a consistent pool year round, all the way up to the confluence. However, I’m a conservationist first, and I run a kayak business second. And so I would much rather see that river restored, and think about the ecosystem that could be restored there.”

In a city that has thus far defined itself by a search for an identity, the rivers provide a profile and distinctiveness that Columbus need only fully embrace to define ourselves to the rest of the world.

“We need to take what we have and run with it. We have this beautiful riverfront, and we already have some great events downtown. They’re gaining momentum.… [Ginther] is embracing that. Showing off the river to everyone. We have this opportunity in central Ohio to really plan more carefully to allow more green space based on population density than other urban centers have. That’s a difference I see between here and places like New York or Chicago. I say that we have to really put our stake in the ground and say we are going to protect the riverfront and we’re going to protect our green space, and we’re going to be known for having this mix of urban with wild.”

Ushering the next generation of stewards onto the waters plants seeds that Daris hopes the city will continue to cultivate. Creating a culture of conservation in the capital city will require dedication and work. It will take citizen activists and participants, along with legislation geared toward protection of our waters. It will require continually maintaining public parks and ensuring access for everyone in Columbus, regardless of background or income.

“Who is the greenest city in the midwest? No one has taken that brand and claimed it! So it’s up for grabs! I think we have the potential to claim that, and convince people that, if you want the benefits of living in the midwest, and you want diversity… If you want all that, you can have it here, and live in a city that is green.”

This enthusiastic leadership and curiosity is how Daris lives her life. Paddle in hand, moving at turns with and against the current. Gracefully, and (always) close to the water.

To book a river tour with Lisa Daris, visit olentangypaddle.com.

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