Get out

Change your relationship with the outdoors

St. Marys River
Cara Hall
Diana Schowe
Alison Gerardot

Opportunities abound to create a relationship with the natural parts of Fort Wayne and the community that moves through it. And why not? There are more than 80 public parks alone, in addition to our three rivers and the trails that connect them all, that make Fort Wayne a remarkable place to recreate.

“On the St. Mary’s river and greenway, there are 70-plus miles of trails that all converge that we can access right out our front door,” said Cara Hall, owner of Fort Wayne Outfitters, a biking and boat depot on Cass Street. There, people can roll or float out into the green heart of downtown Fort Wayne. Pedal or paddle, Hall’s company can get you started.

“Ours are the casual people trying kayaking for the first time or out on a family paddle,” she said. “Rivers downtown aren’t moving fast unless there have been heavy rains. With just a few tips, we can get people off and rolling.”

For Hall, it’s personal. “Nine years ago, nobody was out on the river. We live on the river in Leo. We have dinners on our pontoon boat. We wanted to bring that lifestyle to Fort Wayne.”

When asked about the relationship Fort Wayne people have with the rivers, she speculated that the tide is turning from disinterested to engaged in river recreation. “I think my generation grew up thinking of the river as a negative. These kids (who come to boat on the river through Fort Wayne Outfitters) are learning the river is a resource. They’ll grow up with a different outlook about the river,” she said.

It’s that altered perspective, seeing the river from the surface of the river itself, that helps fuel Hall’s vision for a Fort Wayne-area population that’s excited about its water resources. “I’ve seen deer swimming across the river. I’ve seen bald eagles swoop down to grab fish. In a kayak, you can get into places that you can’t get into with the bigger boats.”

She added that the recently renewed interest in the waterways, some of which is tied to the city’s Riverfront Fort Wayne initiative, has led to an uptick in sport fishing on the river.

It’s at this intersection of river and road, pond and path where Fort Wayne outdoor recreation thrives. And it’s not only leisurely paddles and casual strolls. Fitness enthusiasts will find competitive outdoor recreation.

All the open water, rolling paths and off-the-track green spaces have put the area on the map in terms of premier competitive triathlon events, according to Diana Schowe, the triathlon coach for Three Rivers Running Company. The company itself has been named one of the 50 best running stores in the country in 2015 by Competitor.com.

“There have been great triathlons and races at Fox Island Park, and Pokagon Triathlon is one of the toughest tris you’ll ever do,” Schowe says, describing the Pokagon State Park event that takes place each spring.

That Pokagon event, centered in a place that evokes lazy days on the lake, offers both an Olympic and a sprint triathlon, as well as a duathlon and a 5k run, races that are a far cry from “lazy.” An Olympic triathlon consists of a 1,500-meter swim, a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 10k (6.2-mile) run. The so-called sprint version is a 750-meter swim, a 12.4-mile bike ride and a 5k (3.1-mile) run. If even reading about the triathlon distances makes you feel exhausted, you could try the duathlon, a 5k run, 12.4-mile bike ride and another 5k run. These races, by any standards, are only for the eager to exercise.

Lest the faint of heart and sore of muscle think a local triathlon is out of reach of her fitness goals, Schowe explains that she didn’t start running and biking and swimming because she was already athletic. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

“I used to weigh over 240 pounds, so I started running over 24 years ago to lose weight,” Schowe said. “It’s amazing how Fort Wayne has come from being the ‘fattest city’ (a reference to findings published in Prevention magazine that put Fort Wayne at or near the top of the fattest cities in America for a few years running) to a place focused on fitness,” she says.

For someone interested in training for a race, whether it’s a triathlon or an ultra-marathon (an ultra-marathon is any race with a total distance over 30 kilometers) or a first-time 5k jaunt, there’s someone here in Fort Wayne who can help her get started. “There is somebody doing what you want to do in this area. All you have to do is choose to start,” Schowe says.

There are running clubs, training groups and professional and civic organizations in Fort Wayne committed to community through recreation. They represent individuals with passion for exercise and environment. They are people as committed to the local natural spaces as they are to vitality through movement.

Alison Gerardot, director of programming and events for Riverfront Fort Wayne, is one such champion for outdoor get-up-and-go.

“My job is to create fun and engaging opportunities for all people to interact next to and on the rivers. It is also my job to help promote all of the other amazing groups doing things within the riverfront district area,” Gerardot said.

There is a passion for the outdoors that pulses among the women who are involved with Fort Wayne’s recreation scene. Gerardot is no exception.

Gerardot likes to use existing preservation infrastructure, like the ACRES Land Trust trails, which are maintained by a now multi-state group founded in 1960 to preserve natural land. “I have always loved nature and being out in it. I love hiking local ACRES Land Trust trails and finding new quiet outdoor spots,” she said.

For Gerardot and Riverfront Fort Wayne, the goal is to unearth access to the already rich variety of natural recreation areas in the city. “For a long time, there have been barriers to engaging on our riverfront due to many different circumstances, access and cost among them. This is rapidly changing. More and more people are learning how to get on the rivers through groups such as Fort Wayne Outfitters. And there will be additional access points to get on and off the rivers more easily as more people use them,” she says.

In a sense, to borrow from the movie “Field of Dreams,” if you build it – ”it” being an infrastructure that is both physical and communal – the people will come. When the residents of Fort Wayne are on the river and river-adjacent spaces, those will continue to grow and thrive, Gerardot explained.

“Riverfront Fort Wayne is an entity committed to making access easier, promoting more opportunities to engage and cleaning up the rivers and their banks to make this all more appealing,” she says.

Together, women like Gerardot, Hall and Schowe are part of the Fort Wayne network of people who understand that being outdoors has benefits that go beyond exercise. For all of these women, their personal experiences with the rivers and trails have increased their connection with the Fort Wayne ecosystem and community. They have learned that childhood experiences on area lakes, a commitment to health that drove one to become an accomplished outdoor athlete, and a community initiative to reclaim the beauty of our three-river convergence, have reminded them to engage where they live. It has helped them to appreciate and benefit from the recreation possibilities in their home town.

“I think the more you make yourself go outside on a regular basis, the more it becomes a habit,” Gerardot said. It’s a habit best formed without your cellphone in hand, she added.

For Schowe, who has Achieved All American Status for triathlons in 2007 and 2010 through 2015, falling in love with outdoor rec is a matter of recognizing the abundance of resources already available in Fort Wayne. “In this area, you have a pond in nearly every backyard. There’s plenty of water,” she added, a challenge to interested people to add swimming in the water, not just gazing at it, to their list of outdoor appreciation activities.

As Hall pointed out, “seeing things from the rivers and pathways, from within nature, changes your perspective on nearly everything.”

First appeared in the July 2016 issue of She.

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