"On Urban Waterway, a Commodore Steps up"
Article by Josh North, Miami University Student
Bruce Koehler joyfully walks toward Twin Creek Preserve after another long canoe voyage down the urban Mill Creek. He carries a giant canoe on his back, mud dripping from his worn shoes and shorts.
But that doesn’t stop his smile from stretching across his face as some of his friends and colleagues shout “Commodore!” when he emerges from the woods in Sharonville, Ohio.
Koehler’s appearance this late September day, and his attitude, reflect the motto of the Mill Creek Yacht Club: Hands Dirty, Feet Wet.
“It was strenuous and heinous to say the least,” the 62-year-old Koehler (pronounced Kay-ler) says of his trip, the 92nd of his career. “It was hot, the water was shallow, and there were log jams everywhere, but it was a blast to see the creek again.”
From the moment Koehler sat through an Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) meeting about the 28-mile Mill Creek, he set his sights on returning the much-maligned waterway to its former glory.
“Every kid needs a stream to grow up next to, just to go out and play in the mud,” says Koehler, who grew up in nearby Reading. “It makes you feel free.”
Koehler graduated Miami University in 1976 with a degree in urban studies. But he pursued a career in journalism, writing for The Cincinnati Enquirer, Brazil Times, Northwest Florida Daily News and Asheville Citizen Times. He says he did everything as a journalist, from “bugging government officials” to “covering the de-criminalization of marijuana.” “It was a ton of fun,” he adds.
However, Koehler didn’t feel right working so far away from home. He eventually took a job as a senior planner specializing in the environment at OKI, based in Downtown Cincinnati. OKI’s member governments, business organizations and community groups solve regional transportation and development issues, and funnel more than $40 million to local projects annually.
In a volunteer role, Koehler dove in to see first-hand what was happening to the Mill Creek. He says he wanted to “do what the guys at the OKI meeting weren’t doing.” In other words, to experience up close and personally a historic creek that runs through industrial areas, is encased in concrete in spots and still suffers from E. Coli contamination.
“I had a combination of feelings and motivations for coming back and working on the Mill Creek,” Koehler explains. “I was curious about this line of work and also frustrated with what I hadn’t seen done for it.”
An Unusual Yacht Club is Born
To do this, Koehler joined the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities (Council) in 1993 as a volunteer and founded the Mill Creek Yacht Club in 1994. The yacht club, in particular, is how Koehler gets his hands dirty and feet wet.
Club members regularly lead canoe trips on the creek, conduct cleanups of trash and debris, and report pollution they spot to authorities.
On his first canoe voyage down the Mill Creek in April of 1994, Koehler immediately noticed the pungent smells of sewage and many abuses done to its ecosystem. He spotted trucks from a local construction company pouring dirt in the creek near the Clark Road Bridge.
“It was disgusting and I couldn’t believe I saw that on my first trip,” Koehler recalls, grimacing as if he just swallowed rotten milk. “But then I thought, ‘Hey, I can do something about this.’ ”
Koehler took it upon himself to report the incident, and the company was busted for illegal filling in the Mill Creek. Koehler says this was something that happened frequently before the Clean Water Act of 1977.
“That was the first thing I ever did,” Koehler says. “I’d have to say that was a successful first trip and I really found out what I was fighting for.”
Over the years, Koehler has attracted people of all generations to help with awareness, cleanups and plantings around the resurgent stream. Volunteers describe their work with Koehler and the Mill Creek Yacht Club as exciting and life-changing.
Annie Rahall, 26, started interning at the Council in 2010 and is now a member of its administration staff.
“He’s someone really to look up to, his enthusiasm for the Mill Creek really rubs off on you,” Rahall says of Koehler. “Twenty years ago, people thought he was crazy for doing this, and now look where we are. He’s shifted the negative connotation that came with the Mill Creek 20 years ago and turned it into a positive.”
For Fish and Ecosystem, Steady Improvement
Some goals Koehler and the Watershed Council have to restore the Mill Creek are to reduce sediment deposits - such as sand and small rocks - in the basin, to stabilize stream banks using bioengineering techniques and to improve public education about the creek, according to the Council’s website.
And there’s already been steady success, according to the Mill Creek Watershed Action Plan. The stream’s Index of Biotic Integrity, a measurement used to identify a stream’s water pollution problems by determining the amount of life in the body of water, has shown a steady increase in marine life since 1999.
In other words, fish are living in a stream that was once described as the city’s dumping ground.
Jennifer Eismeier is among those excited about the prospect of a cleaner, healthier Mill Creek. Eismeier, Executive Director of the Council, believes improvements to date can help re-create some old magic from back when the stream was more nature habitat than industrial pipeline.
“We are all about a restored Mill Creek,” Eismeier says. “This is the only way to make the Greater Cincinnati area as best as it can be.”
‘Creek has a Sense of Humor’
As he approaches his 100th voyage, the “Commodore” still describes his work as a “spiritual experience.”
“You see a lot of stunning sights in nature when you canoe the Mill Creek,” Koehler says. “This place is loaded with heritage and architecture. A voyage down the Mill Creek really refines your sense of irony, too.”
On his own voyages, Koehler is heartened by the sense of communion among those who canoe and subsequently become yacht club members. Struggling through the disjointed logs on pool-level water really brings out the best in the people involved, Koehler says.
“The creek has a sense of humor, and you see complete strangers working together and working as a team,” Koehler explains. “You can’t see that kind of human interaction everywhere.”
Bob Ashbrook, 58, took his first voyage down the Mill Creek in 2004. Ashbrook has known Koehler for more than 50 years and is a life-long resident of Reading.
“I wanted to get out there and work because the Mill Creek was at the butt of some jokes,” Ashbrook says. “I wanted to see what it was all about and help.”
He has worked with Koehler for the better part of the decade and has grown to appreciate the Mill Creek’s uniqueness as much as anyone. The canoe trips add a new element to the cleanups that a lot of watershed projects don’t have, Ashbrook says.
“The canoe trips are very entertaining and instructive,”Ashbrook says. “They are hard work, but you get to do it with a number of colorful characters; especially Bruce. He hasn’t change a bit after all of these years.”
Koehler works around the clock and is almost always on his feet since he loves being outside so much. A long, strenuous day on the creek can really wear on a man if he’s not in good health.
“Canoeing keeps me conditioned, but I sometimes run up the four flights of stairs at work. That usually keeps me nice and spry,” Koehler says with a wry smile.
The “Commodore” of this unconventional yacht club says he plans to continue to work on the Mill Creek, or, as he dubs it, the “perfectly weird stream” that covers 37 political jurisdictions in Southwest Ohio. Koehler hopes to get more people out to the creek with him and his friends.
“I use a Chinese proverb to sort-of summarize how we do things here,” Koehler says. ‘Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand.’ That’s why I come out here and get dirty with this creek, to understand.”
Josh North is a Miami University student from Reynoldsburg, Ohio, who is double-majoring in journalism and history. His journalism professor, Annie-Laurie Blair, contributed to this article. A version of this story was published in the Hamilton, Ohio, Journal-News, where North was an intern during fall 2013.