Riding the Mirror: Kayaking Piqua’s Hydraulic Canal
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
On a calm, clear day, there’s nothing quite like kayaking the Hydraulic Canal in Piqua. The water that fills the shallow canal can become so still that the trees, clouds, sun, bridges and even people who surround and cross over it reflect perfectly in the water. From the kayak, it looks as if you’re gliding across a mirror. That is, until the front of your boat creates soft ripples that spread across the water, making the reflection dance and wave. When you look back in a few moments, you’ll see the water quickly return to its mirror-like state, as if you’d never been there.
Possibly one of the area’s best kept secrets for kayakers, the Hydraulic Canal connects two lakes and one pond in Piqua while also passing through a beautiful cemetery, a long wooded corridor populated by birds, turtles and other wildlife, and Piqua’s largest park, Fountain Park. Including the lakes, the canal is about 2 miles in length and can take three to four hours to explore. It is located entirely within city limits and, best of all, it’s a safe and picturesque place to learn and enjoy leisurely kayaking. In fact, it’s been a recreational hot spot in Piqua for well over a century.
The canal was completed in 1876 as a way to provide water and power to the community. The project eventually failed, but residents kept the canal and used it for boating, swimming and fishing, which continues to this day. Besides in the lakes and pond, and a few other places, the canal is only several feet deep. While in the canal, kayakers are never far from land, which makes it ideal for young and beginner kayakers. Along with wearing life-vests, if anything were to happen, because the canal is located next to the River’s Edge Bike Trail (often active with walkers and bicyclists) and Fountain Park, help is never too far away.
Because the canal is a controlled stream, it has very few obstacles to worry about. This is compared to kayaking down the nearby Great Miami River, where rocks, downed trees and other obstacles can tip over an inexperienced boater. When trees do fall in the Hydraulic Canal, if they are too big or blocking the water, the city removes them. This all means that kayakers have a calm, nearly obstacle-free, mostly shallow, yet very beautiful and historic water trail to safely enjoy. Even advanced kayakers will enjoy the diverse scenery and wildlife.
A boat access point for the canal is located at Upper Fountain Park. Entering the canal at this point puts you in the middle of the action. If you choose to paddle north (left), you’ll end up in Swift Run Lake, the largest of the three bodies of water that the canal connects. It is home to incredible wildlife, including eagles and blue herons. If you paddle south (right), you’ll end up in Echo Lake, which is surrounded by beautiful homes and natural and manicured landscapes. A long and narrow part of the canal then connects Echo Lake with Franz Pond at its furthest point south, adding two more unique elements to the kayaking experience.
The trip north to Swift Run Lake from Upper Fountain Park is certainly the most visually rewarding. It takes about 3 hours round-trip to complete, depending on how much time you spend paddling around the lake. This route passes all of the best landmarks, including the most bridges (which can look like tunnels in the calm reflecting waters) and the most secluded areas of the water trail.
Because of its location and original purpose, one of the unique characteristics of the canal is that it is located above Fountain Park and the Great Miami River, by dozens of feet. At several spillways located along the water trail, it is possible for kayakers to look down at the valley below, which is something you don’t get to see very often from water. The spillways’ reflections also add to the scenery.
The Hydraulic Canal can be experienced year-round, with different scenery offered in different seasons. In the spring, the corridor is lined with pink redbud trees and white flowering bushes. In the fall, it is possibly one of the most beautiful places to see autumn foliage, especially with the mirror-like waters. On hot summer days, the lush vegetation surrounding the canal keeps kayakers cool, while paddling through ice and snow keeps adventure-seeking-kayakers active during the winter.
Regardless of the season, or your kayaking experience, paddling Piqua’s Hydraulic Canal is a great and mostly safe way to introduce yourself to this healthy and often thrilling activity. If you enjoy kayaking the canal, continue on to the Great Miami River and the Stillwater River, or Greenville Creek. There are so many streams and lakes to explore in Ohio, and four unique seasons to enjoy them in.
If you don’t own your own kayak or have access to one, Adventures on the Great Miami offers assistance at Upper Fountain Park and can be reached at (937) 266-6252.