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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 [...]
Jeni Ruisch

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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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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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