The fabled underground canoe tours of the Park River remain on hold, but the man who led the tours is now sueing the city
By DAVID PAULSEN, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
December 13, 2007
Customers of John Kulick’s Huck Finn Adventures know that the best way to get up close and personal with Hartford’s underbelly is by canoe.
Since he started guiding tours of the city’s underground Park River in the mid-1990s, Kulick figures more than 250 adventurers and curiosity-seekers have paddled with him down the river’s dark, two-mile path to the Connecticut River.
The Park River was buried decades ago to combat perennial flooding, and Kulick’s canoe tours of the tunnel have become legend — across Connecticut and beyond.
But lately the legend is verging on myth. The Lost Park River Tours ended in June 2004 because the city’s attorney told Kulick to stop, citing insurmountable safety and liability concerns.
Interest in the history of the Park River and its potential future has persisted, as seen by a symposium on the river held in October at Trinity College. Kulick, meanwhile, has filed a lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court to compel the city to sign a contract permitting the tours to resume.
Kulick says the city promised him a contract, and he is confident he will prevail. Until then, his lawsuit raises a question for the city: Who wins and who loses when the Park River isn’t just underground but also off limits to the public?
The risk associated with the Park River tours is minimal, Kulick says in court documents, while other outdoor recreation businesses accommodate inherently dangerous outings on public land, such as white-water rafting on the Colorado River.
“None of this would be possible were it not for the understanding that the participants are doing these activities at their own risk,” Kulick says.
The city seemed to agree in October 2003, when the Common Council, calling the tours “immensely popular … educational and informative,” voted to negotiate a contract with Kulick for use of the Park River. The council resolution instructed the city manager to ensure the tours had “appropriate safeguards, adequate insurance and that the city be named on the applicant’s insurance as an insured entity.”
But the city manager position was eliminated the following January when Hartford adopted its present strong-mayor political system. And soon afterward, the city hired a new corporation counsel, John Rose, whose opposition to the tours contrasted with the former city attorney’s more permissive stance.
Lee Erdmann was city manager at the time of the council’s 2003 vote, and he has served as chief operating officer since January 2004. Erdmann said in a recent interview he hasn’t been directly involved in discussions over the Park River tours.
Rose has taken “a firm position” that the city’s liability is too great, Erdmann said. “Basically, he has said that, regardless of the fact that the council passed a resolution on that, he doesn’t feel that it is appropriate for the city to enter into any such arrangements.”
Erdmann said he agrees with Rose, as does Mayor Eddie Perez.
Rose did not return phone messages seeking comment.
He has responded to Kulick in court by filing motions seeking dismissal of the claim. A judge has yet to rule on the city’s latest motion, filed in October.
“The only issue in this case is whether the plaintiff and defendant had a valid contract,” the motion states. “The plaintiff has presented no evidence of a written contract.”
The city’s motion goes on to argue against a contract on safety and liability grounds. In supporting documents, most of them dating back at least eight years, local and federal officials question the air and water quality, flood risk, emergency access and other potential hazards in the Park River tunnel.
Hartford Councilman Bob Painter, a Republican and one of Kulick’s strongest supporters in city government, calls Rose’s arguments “specious.”
Painter took the underground canoe tour a few years ago. Although he doesn’t have any interest in taking it again, he sees its value as part of the city’s downtown and riverfront revitalization efforts.
“It wouldn’t be for everybody, but it would be one more thing to offer to residents and to visitors,” Painter said.
He hopes the tours resume and he thinks they should, based on the council’s 2003 mandate. But Painter is doubtful the incoming council has the will to press the issue. A new term starts in January, and Painter chose not to run for re-election this year.
The council already ruled in Kulick’s favor on the safety debate four years ago, Kulick said in a recent interview. At age 56, he has nearly 30 years of experience as a canoe guide and thinks the Park River tours’ risk can be managed through proper planning. The tours also are covered by a $1 million insurance policy, which he says is standard in the outdoor recreation industry.
“I am convinced this is a safe trip,” he said.
Kulick paused briefly, then qualified his point.
“It’s not an inherently safe trip,” he said. “It can be done safely. And it will be a great thing for the city of Hartford.”