Exploring East Harbor State Park at 17 and 70

Sleep comes soon enough …

It was still dark when I awakened. I grabbed my cellphone from the storage pocket in my tent to check the time. Five-fifteen.

I set up my backpacking stove and made a cup of coffee, trying to be quiet as possible. A motorcyclist had rolled in after dark and pitched camp three sites away. I didn’t want to disturb him.

It was very much like my mornings at East Harbor State Park in the ’60s, when I was an adolescent camping there with my family. I was usually the first one up. I liked to slip away and take morning hikes by myself.

Most the time, I’d wander along the Lake Erie shoreline. Or stroll through the campground, occasionally hearing a stray cough or someone stirring inside a tent. Most people had tents then. Now it’s RVs. To better insulate them from the outdoors. And their neighbors.

Sometimes my wanderings took me beyond the boundaries of the 1,800-acre park. I’d end up in someone’s back yard or walking along North Buck Road. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to know what was there.

After breakfast, I drove to the beach. In all those years of camping with my family at East Harbor, I’d never explored the northwest section of the beach. I headed out on the West Harbor Trail.

A quick word about the layout of East Harbor. The beach basically runs northwest to southeast. The lake’s on the northeast side. On the other side are East Harbor, Middle Harbor, and West Harbor. West Harbor lies outside the park boundary for the most part.

The West Harbor Trail offers the best of all worlds — the beach and the lake on one side, harbors teeming with wildlife on the other, forested wetland in the middle and, best of all, glorious solitude. At least on that morning. The path is well-maintained, but it doesn’t appear that many people use it.

It’s not a pristine place. Signs of civilization are strewn about the landscape — a rusted oil drum, railroad ties, the bumper of an old pickup truck.

Not far from the oil drum, I spotted a pair of blue winged teals swimming in the wetland. I took a few photos before they noticed me and flew off. Nothing that will make National Geographic, but good enough for identification purposes. I also spooked a few mallards and a great blue heron.

At the end of the beach, the trail follows a stone pier separating Middle and West harbors. In the middle of the pier is a control device that regulates the water level in Middle Harbor. Signs have been posted, explaining its purpose — to restore the 350-acre coastal wetland.

Another sign — this one hand-lettered — reads “From the fish. Please Don’t Litter.” Six feet away, on the ground, was a plastic bag with fast food litter spilling out.

At the end of the pier, West Harbor is to your right. Waterfront suburbia. I walked past a couple houses. A man was making breakfast over a grill. Nearby, a woman emerged from behind a fence line, noticed me and said hello. I said hello and continued on my way.

To my left was a grass lane through the woods. It was cordoned off with a padlocked cable. No signage. According to my map, it was state park property. Not that it mattered. I just wanted to know what was there.

This led to the point of a peninsula and a boarded up maintenance building. I recognized the paint color; I’d seen it decades ago on the cinder block restrooms in the park. Someone had removed a board from one of the doors. I poked my head inside. The stench told me all I wanted to know about what was in there.

Across the grass lane from the building was a scuttled boat trailer. Its wheels had sunk into the ground up to the rims.

Across from that was a large granite rock a couple of feet in diameter. On it someone had skillfully inscribed “OUR TURK SLEEPS HERE 1939-1954.”

A keen reminder that sleep comes soon enough. All the more reason to awaken early and go exploring.

The s’mores the merrier – Sweet memories of East Harbor

Arriving at East Harbor back in the ’50s & ’60swhat a wonderful feeling.

There were no bald eagles to be found when we camped at East Harbor State Park in the ’50s and ’60s. Yet, when I camped there a few weeks ago, here one was, perched atop the trunk of a dead tree on the road to the beach.

Braced against the unrelenting wind, its amber talons clenched the splintered stump. Its pale eyes surveyed the harbor. Gusts of wind ruffled the feathers on the underside of its tail.

When we were kids, we didn’t see eagles at East Harbor. Or anywhere else. The pesticide DDT had all but wiped them out.

As I walked along the beach, I crossed paths with a middle-aged couple and their two dogs. We talked about the eagles and how much had changed at East Harbor. The man told me there were now 96 nests in Ottawa County, which is where the park is located.

Much has changed at East Harbor since I last camped there, probably 30 years ago.

The biggest change happened around the time my family — my parents, godparents, and 11 kids — stopped vacationing there. That would have been in the early ’70s. In 1972, the enormous beach pretty much disappeared overnight.

A fierce storm battered the lakefront and took much of the sand with it. On top of that, between the ’60s and ’90s, the lake rose to historic levels, then receded. The beach — once more than two miles long — has been reduced to about 1,500 feet.

Was it an act of God or man’s folly? According to a 2006 article in the Toledo Blade, a hydrologist speculated that a stone pier built in 1957 to protect the peninsula at the entrance to East Harbor might have had an unintended effect; the thrashing waves and undertow pulled tons of sand out into the lake.

Whether the pier, known as a revetment, did more harm than good remains a topic of debate.

A large cabana, built near the south end of the beach in the late ’60s, stood as a monument to futility. It saw very little use. These days, only the concrete floor remains.

In its heyday, East Harbor State Park attracted 1.5 million visitors a year. Weekend traffic was bumper-to-bumper on the causeway to the beach, sometimes backing up three miles. On weekdays, we’d pile into a station wagon and drive there from our campsite. On weekends, it was quicker to walk.

According to the Toledo Blade article — a well-written piece by Tom Henry — even with the diminished beach, the park still draws about 1.3 million visitors annually. But it’s a different place. And a different public.

Changes in the park reflect that. Hiking, kayaking, bird-watching and other nature-based activities have grown in popularity. East Harbor now boasts about 10 miles of trails. A lot of that is dedicated to birding. Kayak access has been added. As has a Frisbee golf course. The two-lane road to the beach has been reduced to one; the other lane is reserved for pedestrians and bicycles. (There are two more lanes going from the beach to the park exit.)

One of the trails — the Redbird Trail inside the campground — makes for an easy stroll along the shoreline. Back in the day, that wasn’t the case. The shoreline terrain was rugged with a few spots where campers could beach their small fishing boats. They secured them with crude anchors made from coffee cans filled with concrete.

Getting down to the shore involved a bit of bushwhacking. In the wake of the 1972 storm and subsequent fluctuating lake levels, the state shored it up with riprap and built a wide earthen levy linking Campground A to Campground C. On the landward side of the levy is a wooded wetland.

During my recent stay at the park, I hiked the Redbird Trail at dusk. I noticed something ahead stirring at the edge of the lake. As I approached the spot where I saw movement, a muskrat climbed out of the lake, scampered across the path in front of me, then disappeared into the dark water of the wetland.

I returned to my campsite to relax in front of a fire. I’d brought wood from home — split and seasoned cherry and a few pieces of cedar. Watching the orange and yellow flames dance over the glowing logs, I reflected on how much had changed at East Harbor — and how I had changed.

Yes, I miss roasting marshmallows over a campfire with my siblings and cousins — and inflicting a few second-degree burns. And I miss the banter of our parents playing poker by the glow of a Coleman lantern. Yet, I’ve grown to enjoy my solitude.

But I’ve got to admit — on that cool spring night a few weeks ago — some s’mores would have been nice.To be continued.

East Harbor State Park – My Original Happy Place

Painted turtles sun themselves near my campsite.

How strange it was to return to East Harbor State Park. Hadn’t camped there in decades.

In the ’50s and ’60s, my family spent two weeks there every summer. It was the high point of the year for my cousins, siblings, and me — two weeks of tent camping, fishing, swimming at its enormous beach, and setting out on daily adventures in the 1,800-acre park.

East Harbor was made for families like ours — post-war, working class folks. Our military surplus camping gear was cheap, as were the camping fees. We could rent a v-bottom steel boat from Channel Grove Marina for something like $5 a day. My uncle had a 5 hp Johnson Seahorse motor and that was good enough to get us out in the bay to catch scores of yellow perch. And take turns getting seasick on choppy days.

The gas tank was on top of the motor. If you ran out of gas while you were out there, it could be a challenge filling the tank as the boat bobbed up and down on the waves.

After we grew up and had families of our own, some of us returned there from time to time. But it was never the same. Eventually, none of us went there anymore. We’d found other places, developed other interests or just didn’t have the stomach for tent camping.

On a personal note, I drifted away from Lake Erie after discovering river canoeing in 1980. The Mohican became my new home. I fell head over heels in love with it and looked forward to spending time there just as much as I had with East Harbor as a kid.

Until last weekend, it had been decades since I camped at East Harbor.

I have the pandemic to thank for it. That and a lousy public health system. COVID 19 has laid bare our weaknesses as a society. Weeks turned into months of waiting for the Richland County Health Department to return my call and schedule me for vaccination, so I gave up.

A friend of mine took it upon herself to line up vaccine appointments for anyone interested. Unfortunately, some of those appointments were far from home. In my case, a Rite Aid in Sandusky was the best she could do.

That was fine with me; it would give me an opportunity to revisit old friends — Lake Erie and East Harbor State Park.

When it came time for my second dose, I reserved a campsite at East Harbor. That would give me time to explore the park before my afternoon appointment the next day.

The danger of getting together with an old friend is that you might find they’re not the same person you used to know. Similarly, East Harbor had changed a lot.

You no longer drive up, fill out a registration slip and set up your campsite. All registration has to be done online or by phone. Online didn’t work for me. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources registration robot told me the U.S. Postal Service didn’t recognize my address as legitimate. (I guess, “I live in the woods” wasn’t good enough for the robot.) I had to register by phone.

A nice thing about the system is you can pick your site from a map — kind of like a concert hall seating chart. From years of camping there, I knew where the good sites were and picked out one right on the water. Not many sites are at East Harbor.

I set up my tent at the back of the lot, the door facing the water. As I unrolled my sleeping bag, a great blue heron landed on a log within view. Moments later, a belted kingfisher joined it. Definitely a good omen.

A great egret flew overhead, just above the treetops. The sun shone through its wing feathers, giving it a white glow.

I set up my folding chair near a shagbark hickory, but had to move it. White-breasted nuthatches were nesting in a cavity in the tree. A good omen indeed.

Red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, robins, downy woodpeckers and other songbirds kept me company. Out on the water, painted turtles climbed onto logs and sunned themselves.

That evening and the next day, I’d discover how much East Harbor had changed. And how much I’d changed. As a boy, I’m sure I appreciated the wildlife, but not to the extent I do now. Over the years, I’ve learned so much about nature. Of course, at my age, I’ve forgotten half of it.

Maybe that’s why it’s important to get together with an old friend and reminisce.

To be continued.

(This originally was published as an outdoors column in the Ashland Times-Gazette and other Gannett/USA Today publications.)

Good Riddance to March — and Bad Rubbish

Greer Landing on the Mohican River off SR 514 — where you’ll find Last of the Mohicans Campground.

Good riddance to March, the month that can’t make up its mind. One day it’s crocuses and daffodils, the next day it’s another wind-strewn mess of limbs to clean up. And a chain saw on the fritz.

I like April; it’s more committed to spring. If only to break your heart occasionally with an arctic blast and a half-foot of snow. Still, it’s hard to be glum with 70-degree days, wildflowers carpeting the forest floor, and spring peepers serenading you.

April is time for spring cleaning here in Mohican Country. When it doesn’t snow.

Heavy snows cancelled the first proposed Pleasant Hill Lake litter sweep, which had been scheduled for February. The lake was drawn down for winter then, which would have allowed better access to the shoreline. That’s where a breed of angler I call “lounge chair fishermen” strew the landscape with bait containers, beer cans, cigarette butts, and occasional articles of clothing. (Some things we’re better off not knowing.)

Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District has scheduled cleanups Saturday, April 17, for both its area parks — Pleasant Hill and Charles Mill.

The cleanups are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but nature lovers are encouraged to fill trash bags the entire week (April 17-25) and check them in at the park visitor centers. For details online, go to #MWCDEarthDay2021.

Speaking of Pleasant Hill Lake, as of Sunday, March 28, osprey pairs had returned to the three nesting platforms on the lake. They had not yet returned to the Pleasant Hill Road platform or the newly erected one on Ohio 95, across from the park. So far, no birds were nesting on the new eagle platform.

MWCD cancelled plans last winter to add another osprey platform and replace the leaning one at the west end of the lake. Unpredictable lake levels forced them and Firelands Electric Cooperative to put it off.

The nest cam on the osprey platform just east of the beach is up and running. Access it at https://pleasanthillpark.mwcd.org/osprey-and-bald-eagles-nesting .

Downstream, the Last of the Mohican Campground at Greer is sponsoring a roadway cleanup Saturday, April 24. Volunteers are asked to help clean up along Wally and Brinkhaven roads between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on that day. Free camping will be provided Friday and Saturday nights for those who preregister. This is a registration-only event.

Dubbed “Rally in the Valley 2021,” this effort will help clean up some of the most beautiful byways in the state — a favorite haunt of bicyclists, motorcyclists, and those of us who like to cruise the back roads in motorized conveyances.

Preregister for Rally in the Valley 2021 at lastofthemohicanscampground@gmail.com .

Some readers might recall a column I wrote last October about Max Rhees, a remarkable young man who took it upon himself to clean up trash along those roads. (The article can be accessed at https://www.times-gazette.com/story/sports/2020/10/22/max-rhees-making-america-beautiful-again/6001561002/ .) Max has set a great example for all of us — one I plan to follow personally. Hope to see you there. I’ll be the one heaving a chainsaw into the Dumpster

When it comes to engineering, the river has the final say

WARSAW — When the state removed Six Mile Dam, the engineers planned to route the Walhonding River through its original channel along the south bank. The river had other plans.

After a demolition contractor removed the dam last year, the primary flow shifted to the north channel. From a perspective looking downstream, that would be the left side of the river, between the island and the bank.

For the paddling public, this is a big deal. For now.

Until the Ohio Department of Natural Resources makes adjustments later this spring, the river at the old dam site remains hazardous and is designated a mandatory portage. The good news is, it’s now an easier portage; the better news is, modifications should make the river navigable for canoes and kayaks.

Mike Greenlee of ODNR explains what happened in this excerpt from a recent email:

“After removing the dam, engineers on the project discovered that the bedrock on the south side of the river is approximately two feet higher than originally thought. This has resulted in more flow going through the north channel. As a result, flow is and will be constantly flowing over the causeway causing a navigation issue for watercraft on the river. Our consulting engineer has decided they will need to add a notch in the causeway so that boaters can move through the channel for safe navigation and to maintain the hydrology of the river.”

The causeway Greenlee mentions was built to allow excavators to access the dam for demolition. ODNR planned to leave part of the causeway in place to connect the north bank to the island. This was done as part of the historical preservation component of the project. It will allow the public to access the island to view the intact chamber of Lock Five of the Walhonding Canal.

This does not bode well for history buffs, especially canal enthusiasts. It appears that, for the most part, the island will remain inaccessible by foot. Unless there’s another change in plans.

Again, Greenlee explains:

“This will directly affect the dry steppingstone access to the island that was planned as part of the [historical preservation] mitigation measures. Our consulting engineer is still looking at and analyzing this, but it appears that even at low flow in the summer approximately a half a foot of water will still be flowing over a portion of the spillway.”

Canoes and kayaks can float on six inches of water. But it would be a precarious wade for pedestrians wanting to access the island.

The bottom line is that, for the time being, boaters should portage on the north bank (river left).

During higher flow, it might be possible to paddle through. However, the situation is too unpredictable now and water temperatures present an added danger of hypothermia.

We’ll have to see how things play out after the forces of man and nature make further adjustments. But that’s been going on since the original dam was built 180 years ago. Maybe longer. After all, the Native American word “Walhonding” meant “to ditch or trench.”

How fitting is that?

PS: For more on Six Mile Dam and its history — https://www.times-gazette.com/story/news/local/2020/10/09/crews-removing-historic-six-mile-dam-warsaw-mussels-rescued/5907674002/

Or on this blog at https://irvoslin.wordpress.com/2020/12/13/six-nixed-the-removal-is-six-mile-dam/

GPS for the technically challenged — the new and improved Mohican Regional Trails Guide

The new Mohican Regional Trails Guide sure comes in handy — no matter how many hands you have.

You can’t get there from here If you don’t know where here is.

That’s the title of a blog post I wrote about 10 years ago. I’d grown tired of people misnaming parks, streams and other geographical locations in the Mohican area. Especially people who should have known better. That includes reporters, editors, people in the tourist trade, authors, and outdoorsy types.

Among them was an outdoors writer who insisted on calling the Morning Glory Spillway at Pleasant Hill Dam the “Glory Hole Spillway.”

So I put together a guide to geographical references for my coworkers and entered it into “the system” at the  Times-Gazette.

“The system” is a mysterious place where everything you say is ignored. Kind of like your own household.

I later turned my geographical terms guide into a blog post, where it’s still largely ignored. It does get an occasional hit. But not nearly as many as my number one post of all time: “Don’t Let Me Down, Big Agnes.” Oddly, most hits on that post come from the UK or countries with unpronounceable names.

I suspect that most folks who access the Big Agnes post don’t realize it’s about a folding chair that has a nasty habit of sinking into the sand or mud when you sit on it. Whatever it is they’re looking for, I’m sure they’re disappointed when they find out that the post is really about a chair. I suspect there’s another Big Agnes who performs in shady nightclubs in the UK or countries with names that don’t contain vowels.

While I’m on the subject of geographical locations, there was an interesting phenomenon in the newsroom when calamity calls came over the police scanner. Being an old-timer, I’d immediately grab a map to pinpoint the location before heading out to cover whatever it was — usually things like an Amish buggy crash that involved drag racing, another microwave fire in the Ashland University dorms, or a barnyard insurrection in Red Haw. Meanwhile, the younger reporters would pull up virtual maps on their computers.

Inevitably, they’d get sidetracked looking at Facebook or blog posts about Big Agnes and I’d end up covering whatever catastrophe had occurred.

Before I drift any further afield, the topic of this week’s column is maps. Specifically the new and improved Mohican Regional Trails Guide. The Mohican Trails Club has updated its trails map and copies are now available.

“The guide was enlarged and expanded to include new trails, reroutes and historical information about the area trails and the iconic footbridge,” club member and Pleasant Hill Lake Park naturalist Louis Andres said in an email.

Updated? Actually, the new map is ahead of its time. The Clear Fork footbridge — which replaces one removed a half-century ago — is still under construction. It’s slated for completion in time for the 2021 tourism season.

The maps sell for two dollars. They’re free if you make a donation to the Mohican Trails Club.

“Donations are used by the trails club to purchase materials for trail improvement projects,” Andres said. “New bridges, walkways and the Lyons Falls stairs project have been completed by the Mohican Trails Club using funds raised through donations, grants, and assistance from the Mohican State Park and State Forest agencies.”

According to trails club member Jim South, the maps can be purchased at the Ashland Bike Company, Fin Feather Fur Outfitters, Mohican State Park, Malabar State Park, Mohican Adventures, Mohican-Loudonville Visitors Bureau, Mohican Lodge & Conference Center, and Pleasant Hill Lake Park.

Information on mail-in requests is available at  https://www.mohicantrailsclub.org/ .

With the updated Mohican Regional Trails Guide, you’ll always know where here is and how to get there. And, unlike one of those GPS gadgets, it doesn’t require batteries, technical savvy, or involve a learning curve that exceeds your life expectancy.

You don’t have to be an old buzzard like me to appreciate a good map — and a good cause.

PS: Here are links to the aforementioned geographical names guide and — if you’re really curious — the post entitled “Don’t Let Me Down, Big Agnes.” https://irvoslin.wordpress.com/2012/02/19/you-cant-get-there-from-here-if-you-dont-know-what-here-and-there-are/  and https://irvoslin.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/dont-let-me-down-big-agnes/

A Campfire Story for the Ages – Gadget Ed and His Trundling Game Hens

Ed’s portable rotisserie. We couldn’t believe the damn thing worked!

We all missed Ed Como, better known as Gadget Ed. For a couple of years, he was a regular on our weekend canoe trips.

Ed glommed onto our group in the mid ’90s, after learning that eccentricity was a prerequisite. He had a special talent, which made him an even better fit; Ed was always coming up with gadgets to enhance our camping experience.

His crowning achievement was a portable rotisserie. Scaled down to make it practical for canoe camping, the rotisserie would hold two or three Cornish game hens. The idea was to keep the birds turning on a spit so they roasted evenly.

Of course, he could have accomplished the same thing by turning them occasionally as they cooked on a grill. But that would have been far less entertaining. Plus it would have required him to put down his beer from time to time.

Ed’s prototype rotisserie failed horribly. He used a motor designed for a gas grill. Unfortunately, the mechanism wasn’t designed to be used close to the extreme and unpredictable heat of a campfire. The heat melted the plastic gears that drove the spit.

So the game hens ended up burned on one side and raw on the other — pretty much like everything else we cooked over the fire.

(Joe Hughes, a longtime canoe trip regular, espoused a theory that it was best to expose yourself to as many pathogens as possible — a primitive form of vaccination. That way, you could eat just about anything and not die. Failing that, Joe believed you should drink as much as possible so you won’t care. Plus you can blame your nausea on excessive alcohol consumption.)

Ed went back to the drawing board and improved on his rotisserie. He added a heat shield. Much to everyone’s astonishment, it worked!

Sort of. The problem was, it took forever to cook the game hens that way. Hours, actually. So, we dove into our tents to nap while they cooked.

In reality, Ed’s rotisserie worked fine. By the time everyone woke up, the game hens were done.

That story got better with each telling. As all good stories should. According to the revised standard version, the rotisserie fell over while we were sleeping and trundled off into the forest with our game hens attached. As we described it, “the motor, straining under the weight of the game hens, sounded like a blender full of crunchy peanut butter.”

Over the years, the story of Gadget Ed and his rotisserie became a campfire standard.

Occasionally, during a quiet moment around the campfire, someone will say, “I wonder what ever happened to Gadget Ed.” Perhaps we’ll never know. I half-suspect that some night we’ll hear a rustling out in the brush. And Ed will emerge, brandishing his latest gadget. Or maybe it will be the rotisserie trundling back into our campsite with a spit full of mangled game hens.

One of my weekly columns from the Ashland Times-Gazette and other GateHouse/Gannett websites.

Trail Magic Afoot at Malabar Farm

Marsh marigolds bloom along Junglebrook Trail, one of those that will be maintained by the newly formed Malabar Trails Team

There’s magic in the air at Malabar Farm — trail magic. A volunteer Trail Team is being formed. By April, the team will start working on three of the park’s hiking trails: The Butternut Trail, Doris Duke Woods Trail and Junglebrook Trail. Each of them is a mile or less.

Park manager Jenny Roar and tour guide Kathy Hicks came up with the concept.

“Jenny included this project in her park improvement plan after taking her role in 2019,” Hicks said in an online message. “I arrived at Malabar Farm shortly after Jenny and, between my love for the trails and our combined interest in improving them, the trail team idea was born. Like at all parks, hiking has grown in popularity and we are hosting more people on our trails than ever before. It’s extremely important to us that Malabar Farm offers well-maintained and family friendly nature trails.”

The team’s first season kicks off March 25 with a guided hike of the three trails. After that, volunteers will meet at least once a month to perform maintenance work, blazing, or whatever is needed.

There will be plenty of “whatever.” Mother nature — and people — aren’t particularly tidy. Trees and limbs constantly fall across trails. Left unchecked, vegetation — including painful multiflora rose — quickly takes over. Rain washes away soil and creates mud bogs on the paths. Then there are manmade problems — vandalism, littering and outright dumping.

If I may interject here with an aside — balloon releases are littering. Period. Exclamation point. Many of the helium balloons released, regardless of good intentions, end up in the forest. I’ve found countless deflated balloons in the woods and, in some cases, dead birds tangled in the strings. Please stop this practice and discourage others from doing it.

OK, off my soapbox.

As Hicks pointed out, more and more people are getting out on the trails these days. If there’s a positive note to the pandemic, that would be it. But, as is often the case with parkland, people can love it to death. The Trail Team offers an opportunity to counter that.

Volunteers 16 years of age and older are welcome to apply. A volunteer agreement form can be picked up in the Malabar State Park office 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday or by emailing kathy.hicks@dnr.ohio.gov. The park is located off Pleasant Valley Road, west of Ohio 603.

Volunteers will take to the trails the first Thursday of the month April through October.

“Other opportunities for trail work may arise throughout the month (after storms, etc.)” Hicks said. “In that case, we will reach out to volunteers to schedule a work day.”

In all, the park has about 10 miles of trails. In a sense, Malabar Farm serves as the northern anchor of a chain of public land that spans 20,000 contiguous acres and boasts more than 100 miles of trails. On the southern end of all this is Mohican State Park and Mohican Memorial State Forest.

Since 2002, the Mohican Trails Club has worked trail magic in the latter. The newly formed Malabar Farm Trail Team should serve as a wonderful complement to that. Don’t forget, as trail and park users, you can always work a little trail magic as you go along.

This originally was published as my weekly outdoors column in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times Shopper and elsewhere.

Marking another decade of canoeing – and (hopefully) avoiding a Darwin Award

This pic is a bit fuzzy, but then so was I. Joe took this photo on my 50th birthday canoe trip. (Jonathan Creek, where we stopped at one of the bars on the Zanesville bar hopping portion of our trip.)

I’ll turn 70 this year. Unless I’m eaten by a bear, stung to death by murder hornets, or do something foolish enough to earn a Darwin Award. As usual, I’ll mark the passing of another decade with an extended canoe trip.

I started the tradition 20 years ago with my 50th birthday cruise and marked my 60th birthday in similar fashion.

On both occasions, I spent a week or so canoeing the Walhonding and Muskingum rivers with my longtime canoeing buddy Joe Hughes. My son, Irvin Oslin III, also came along for the 60th birthday cruise.

Both trips were eventful. Which was the whole idea. For better or worse.

I chronicled the 50th birthday canoe trip in a series of articles that ran in the Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times — a precursor of my weekly outdoors column. Somewhere along the line, I misplaced all but one of the articles. I still have the one about Joe and me camping for two nights near Wills Creek while he completed a landscape painting. The headline read “We all suffer for Joe’s art.”

The subsequent article described our night cruise from Wills Creek to Copeland Island and a harrowing paddle the next day from there to Ellis Dam.

We paddled through the darkness to Copeland Island past Dresden. Then the winds began to pick up. We decided to bag supper, pitch our tents and call it a night. Somehow Joe didn’t set up his tent quite right and I spent a sleepless night — what was left of it — listening to the wind and Joe howl.

The next day, we paddled to Ellis Dam, struggling for hours against sustained headwinds. Normally, that stretch can be covered in about 90 minutes. The wind never let up that night. Our campfire burned horizontally. Joe gave up and dived into his tent. After a meal of half-cooked pork sausage, I decided to call it a night. I described the experience as “the best birthday I ever had.” And it was. In spite of the intestinal tsunami that followed.

On my 60th birthday paddle, Joe and my son went along as far as Dresden. We parted company and I continued on my way to McConnellsville, expecting to spend three or four more days on the river.

Portaging Philo Dam proved to be even harder than in had been on my 50th birthday trip. The ice storm of 2005 had left our usual portage route impassible. It turned an extremely difficult portage into an impossible one. I ended up paying a local $50 to haul my canoe on top of his Crown Victoria downriver to a suitable put-in spot. Which ended up being in someone’s yard. They weren’t home, so I quickly carried my boat and gear down to the river and skedaddled before they showed up.

I planned to camp along Salt Fork at a pristine spot Joe and I had discovered 10 years earlier. What had been a densely wooded bank on a secluded stream had been clear-cut. Someone built a house within sight of the bank.

I pressed on to Rokeby Dam to camp. As the night wore on, the weather took a turn for the worse. And the forecast called for things to go downhill from there. If I had stayed on the river another night, I’d be looking at temperatures in the 30s and rain. Lots of rain.

The next morning, I tried to make a quick breakfast, but was delayed when my gas stove caught fire. I broke camp, bundled up and hit the river. I paddled at a frantic pace, mostly to keep warm.

I got off the river in McConnellsville, where my truck was waiting. On the way out of town, I stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast and a 50-gallon drum of black coffee.

Once again, life was good — another eventful canoe trip under my belt. For better or worse.

For my 70th birthday canoe trip, I might opt for a warmer climate. I’ve always wanted to paddle the Suwanee River in Georgia and Florida. Just my luck I’d be eaten by alligators. Or a gaggle of snowbirds would slip into my campsite while I’m sleeping and beat me senseless with their walkers.

This originally was published as an outdoors column in the Ashland and Loudonville papers.

Snowshoeing – The perfect sport for those of us with hobbit feet

I was made for snowshoeing.

The key to mastering the sport is learning not to step on your own feet. That’s no mean feat when you’re trying to trudge through snow on shoes two feet long and 10 inches wide.

It was a short learning curve for me. As the saying goes, “I’m a poet and my feet show it — because they’re Longfellow.” And they’re wide.

I was born with hobbit feet. Plus it didn’t help that my mom insisted on buying my shoes two or three sizes too big.

“He’ll grow into them,” she’d say.

Which only encouraged the kids making fun of me to laugh harder.

“Yeah, just like he’ll grow into his lips,” they’d say.

You see, I was born with extraordinarily big lips too. I didn’t grow into them till I was 19 or 20. You can always pick me out in old class pictures. I was the kid who looked like a combination of Mick Jagger and Bozo the Clown.

Anyway, snowshoeing comes easy to me. I’ve spent my whole life learning not to step on my own feet.

Occasionally, I go cross-country skiing, which also requires that skill — with speed added when going downhill. But I prefer the slow pace of snowshoeing. It suits me better because I spend more time upright and not untangling myself from multiflora rose thickets. Or fellow skiers.

Unlike newer winter sports, such as find-the-iPhone-in-the-snow (the subject of my previous column), snowshoeing dates back thousands of years. It’s believed that snowshoes played a major role mankind’s migration to the northern hemisphere. Snowshoes were introduced to North America by way of the Bering Strait.

In other parts of the world, people took up skiing because it was much faster. In North America, folks stuck with snowshoes. Perhaps because they had big feet. Or lacked the fashionable togs favored by the skiing crowd.

Back then, you couldn’t order a pair of snowshoes on Amazon, so the early inhabitants of North America made their own. According to snowshoeingmag.com, “Native American snowshoes were made of hard wood … (that) was steamed or soaked to make it pliable, then bent into shape. The frame was laced with rawhide — mostly strips of denuded moose … ”

Sorry, but after visualizing that image, I could read no further.

Modern snowshoes are made from lightweight metal and plastic. They feature sophisticated bindings that allow users to adjust them from every possible angle — none of which seem to fit properly. I’ve found it best to forget about the bindings and Superglue a pair of boots to the snowshoes.

That way they won’t come off when I’m being chased through the woods by an angry naked moose.

This originally was published as an outdoors column in the Ashland Times-Gazette.

Mohican miracle – In search of the lost iPhone

At this point of our snowshoeing adventure, Annette didn’t realize she had already lost her iPhone in the snow.

We’ve invented a new winter sport. It combines snowshoeing, hiking, cross-country skiing, mountain climbing, and treasure hunting with a metal detector. We call it “Find the iPhone.”

Sound challenging? You bet. Especially when you’re covering more than 60 acres of forest blanketed in a deep layer of snow.

We didn’t set out to create a new winter pastime; we just stumbled into it. Literally.

It started out as a pleasant afternoon of snowshoeing in the woods near Mohican Memorial State Forest. My friend Annette McCormick and I decided to trek down to the floodplain along Pine Run. We snowshoed through mature forest and down to the creek. Then we climbed a steep bluff — about 40-50 feet high — and trudged back through the forest.

Near the end of our hike, Annette stumbled. (She characterized it as more of a faceplant.) It was then that she noticed her iPhone missing.

She’s in the habit of wrapping the phone in a handkerchief and placing it in her bra to keep it warm so the battery doesn’t die. There was no point calling the phone to locate it, there is no reception in that area.

It was getting late and I had a driveway to plow. Annette took a headlamp and retraced our tracks in the snow as darkness set in. She came back emptyhanded.

The next morning, I strapped on my snowshoes and set out to look for the phone in daylight. Meanwhile, Annette organized a search party.

I covered our tracks, using a folding shovel to rake away the snow at places where she had stumbled or stepped over logs. I also descended the bluff, clearing the snow away in case she had lost her iPhone on the climb. No luck.

On my way back out of the woods I encountered our friends Andy and Melissa Carpenter. Andy was sweeping a metal detector back and forth over the snow. I led them to our original tracks and we hiked the entire circuit again. The land had been farmed and is peppered with shallowly buried metal from fence lines, stray beer cans and who knows what else. So it set off his metal detector a lot.

We came up empty. There was just one short section of trail left to cover. On our original hike, Annette and I had cut through the woods to an old lane to get down to the floodplain.

As Andy, Melissa and I emerged from the woods, Annette and her sister, Phebe Simpson, approached on cross-country skis.

By then, I was whooped from twice covering our original tracks and in need of a nap. So I left the hunting party to cover the one section of track we hadn’t gone over.

I headed back to the house. I had no sooner taken off my snowshoes and boots when the search party returned. They found the phone. Annette spotted a corner of it sticking up out of the snow. Apparently, the phone landed with the charging port up. Otherwise it probably would have gotten wet.

She plugged the iPhone into the charger and it came on immediately. Talk about miracles! It’s even more of a miracle is that I didn’t snatch the iPhone from her and fling it out into the snow. Probably because the prospect of a nap appealed to my better angel.

This originally was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette, one of my weekly outdoors columns.

The man who built and moved mountains

Bill Conrad at 40 — with his mini Matterhorn

You know it’s cabin fever season when you start seeing ads for outdoors shows. This brings back sweet memories of the Cleveland Sportsmen’s Show in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Little did I know then that someday I’d be friends with the guy responsible for the show’s most spectacular display ever — a 33-foot replica of the Matterhorn.

The 1971 Sportsmen’s Show Matterhorn was the product of Bill Conrad’s vivid imagination and dogged determination. It nearly proved to be his undoing.

Conrad, who dabbled in promoting outdoor adventures in the U.S. and Canada, pitched the idea to the show’s promoter. He thought it would draw more people to the vendors’ displays on the lower level of Cleveland Public Hall.

“I said you’ve got to get a major attraction,” Conrad — my friend and mentor — told me in an informal interview. “Let’s put a Matterhorn Mountain down there and you can do mountain-climbing or whatever. I sat down for an hour and a half with the promoter in his office and I’m just pulling s— out of my mind.”

The Sportsmen’s Show promoter agreed to pay Conrad $1,100 to build a fiberglass Matterhorn. Conrad thought he’d have no problem finding a fiberglass fabricator in Cleveland willing to take it on.

“I patted myself on the back and had the biggest ego trip for about five days,” he recalled. “I looked in the Cleveland Yellow Pages and there must have been 13 fiberglass manufacturers but no one wanted to touch it.”

Finally, he found a fiberglass fabricator around the corner from his home in Sheffield Lake. But that nearly went south on him — literally. The guys who ran the shop had moved up from Florida to build fiberglass dinghies. They agreed to take on the project, which soon proved overwhelming. They decided to move back to Florida.

However, Conrad pressed them to see the project through. The Floridians sold their shop to a young man and stayed on as advisors. According to Conrad’s description, what the new owner lacked in experience he more than made up for in lack of ambition. Conrad held their feet to the fire and they managed to complete the fiberglass Matterhorn — which was built in three sections.

Meanwhile, the Sportsmen’s Show promoter was eager to see the completed project. They arranged to assemble the mountain in the parking lot of the fiberglass shop for an unveiling and invited all Cleveland media outlets.

“Finally we got all three pieces out there — assembled them with a cherry picker — and it looked like s—,” Conrad recalled. “The pieces didn’t fit.”

There were big gaps in the seams.

Mother Nature rose to the occasion. Overnight, a big squall blew in from Lake Erie and coated the Matterhorn with three inches of snow, which hid the unsightly seams.

The media unveiling was a success.

Ultimately, the exposed seams issue would be resolved and the mountain made presentable for the show.

Conrad balked at the Sportsmen’s Show producer’s proposal to airlift the whole thing by helicopter and set it in front of Public Hall as a media stunt.

“I didn’t think it would survive the flight intact,” Conrad said.

The mini Matterhorn was a big hit. Conrad later sold it to the owner of Chippewa Lake Park for a tidy profit. The 100-year-old amusement park closed in 1978. A few horror movies were filmed in the ruins of the park. It’s possible that Conrad’s mountain outgrossed all of them combined.

As for Conrad, he’s now living along the banks of the Mohican River. I heard a rumor that, shortly after this column is published, he’ll be celebrating his 90th birthday. I’ll say this much for him: Some people climb mountains because they are there; Bill Conrad builds them because they aren’t.

This originally was written as a column which was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times Shopper and other GateHouse Media, USA Today, and Gannet websites.

‘Blazing Paddles’ – Pitching a Script to Netflix

A sign commemorating the founding of Ohio’s first canoe livery is posted in front of Mohican Adventures Canoe Livery near Loudonville

Dear Netflix:

I heard on the radio that you plan to release a new movie every week in 2021. That’s great news. It probably won’t be long until you run out of interesting plots, so let me run this by you.

A man takes a canoe he bought as a kid with money from his paper route. He parks his station wagon along the banks of the Mohican River, where he rents the canoe. He keeps this up until he earns enough money to buy another canoe, and another, and another.

Ultimately, his little venture turns into a multi-million dollar industry, making Loudonville, Ohio, the canoeing capital of the world.

Netflix, you’ve got to admit this screams “Horatio Alger!”

Not that it needs it, but this story comes with another hook; this year marks the 60th anniversary of the late Richard “Dick” Frye opening Ohio’s first canoe livery.

Of course, the story doesn’t end with Frye renting his canoe then chasing it and his customers downstream in his station wagon. In the years that followed, competition sprang up. Entrepreneurs set up liveries along the Mohican River and its tributaries. With that came intrigue and a fascinating cast of characters — including one known to pack a sidearm and another who had been a pro football star and later became a state senator.

The early Loudonville canoe livery scene was very much like the wild west.

That wasn’t limited to canoe livery operators. A lot of the customers were also rough around the edges. Present company included. (Of course, I’m far more civil now. As long as I get my afternoon nap.)

These days, canoe and kayak livery operators have cleaned up their act. Most try to discourage drunk and rowdy behavior. They’re particular about who they rent their boats to and won’t put people on the water when the rivers are running high.

Not so back in the day. In the early going, Mohican River canoe trips were more like the Griswolds meet “Deliverance.” Some livery owners would rent to anybody regardless of their sobriety or river conditions. As one livery owner told us, “I don’t care if you drown, I’ve got your money and I can always find my canoes later.”

So there you have it, Netflix. Just let me know if you’re interested and I’ll start on the screenplay right away. Or, at the very least, I can serve as a script consultant.

Failing that, if you’re in need of actors, I’m available. With my head shaved, I bear a striking resemblance to the banjo player in “Deliverance.”

If you’re interested, I’ve come up with a title for the movie: “Blazing Paddles.”

Postscript: On the 50th anniversary of Dick Frye’s founding of the area’s canoe livery industry, the Mohican-Loudonville Visitors Bureau commissioned me to write a comprehensive story on that and the evolution of canoe liveries here. It can be accessed on my blog: https://irvoslin.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/from-the-back-of-a-station-wagon-to-the-canoeing-capital-of-ohio/

Unsung Heroes – The Mohican Trails Club

I originally wrote this for the Ashland Times-Gazette in November 2018. I neglected to post it on my blog at the time.

Mohican Trails Club members work on a trail in Mohican Memorial State Forest in November 2018.

LOUDONVILLE — On a cool but pleasant November morning, Mohican Trails Club members gather in the Mohican State Park maintenance yard on Ohio 97. Dressed for trail work — and chilly weather — some sip hot coffee from lidded paper cups. They decide what trails need attention and pack the tools they’ll need. Before long they’re headed out in groups to hit the trails.

They perform their “trail magic” on Wednesday mornings (except in the winter), working behind the scenes at a time when not many people are out hiking, horseback riding or trail running. Work can include anything from building bridges and staircases to moving sticks out of the way.

For the uninitiated, “trail magic” refers to acts of kindness — often anonymous — performed by volunteers to make life more enjoyable for people using recreational trails.

Club treasurer Jim South is a charter member. He helped form the club in 2002.

“I had been hiking the park’s trails since I was a kid and they had become much more popular but very poorly maintained,” South said. “Many of the trails created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s no longer existed and many of the bridges were no longer usable.”

Members of the work crew on that November morning gave various reasons for joining the club.

John “Jack” Hill, 87, of Ashland and formerly of Green Township said, “I enjoy the outdoors and working with my hands, and it feels good to see young people enjoying the outdoors.”

Hill joined about 3 years ago after learning about the club through its guided hikes.

“I enjoy hiking in the park, and my family is more at ease with me going in a group than on my own, for safety reasons,” he said.

Duane Hart, 80, of Wooster is a former mail carrier. Foul weather doesn’t bother him.

“I love being outside, rain or shine,” Hart said. “Just in general, I have no problem using shovel, rake, pick, post hole digger and cement work. I loved working on the 40-foot bridges, the stairs and the platforms at Big Lyons Falls and the area around Little Lyons Falls.”

The Big Lyons staircase took two years to complete. It was opened in 2012.

Hart and Mark Welty are amateur radio operators. They became familiar with the club through working together for more than 25 years for the Mohican 100-Mile Run. They joined the trails club around 2005.

Welty, 68, of Mansfield enjoys the work, camaraderie and exercise trail work provides.

Once out on the trails, the volunteers begin working their magic. One group meets at the covered bridge and splits into two crews, agreeing to regroup at a designated meeting point. Once in the woods, three guys scramble up a steep embankment from the roadway to repair a set of steps made of recently cut beech logs.

When they’re done, they move on to Pleasant Hill Dam. From there, they’ll lug tools to Lyons Falls, clearing bridges and staircases of leaves and rerouting part of a trail that had become a mud hole. In a few spots, they clear drain tiles that had become plugged.

A couple — out for a morning hike — pause to thank them for performing their trail magic.

That could well have been Mike Law a few weeks earlier. Law, 60, of Ashland, is on his first work detail with the club.

“A few weeks ago my wife and I were hiking in the state park and I noticed the work of the club,” Law said. “I contacted Jim South and learned about the club’s efforts.”

Fred Sugar, 63, of Ashland is also a relatively new member. He joined in late spring. A transplant from California, he once worked as a seasonal firefighter and did trail work out there.

“It’s an opportunity to meet like minded people, get acquainted with Ohio’s natural areas and occasionally do strenuous manual labor in the woods,” Sugar said. “What’s not to like?”

Retired Ashland firefighter Mick McPherran, 72, joined the club three years ago. South asked him to help build a bridge at Little Lyons Falls.

“They needed manpower to carry the bridge parts over the hill and down to the site,” he said.

McPherran, who has done some construction work, enjoys working with his fellow volunteers and being appreciated by those who use the trails.

Most club members are retirees and have some sort of experience that is helpful in trail building and maintenance. But, as was the case with the CCC workers, experience isn’t necessary.

Rodger Peck, 65, is in his second year. He describes himself as a jack-of-all-trades and master of none.

“I like hiking and the outdoors,” Peck said.

“Like” could be an understatement. He has aspirations of doing the Appalachian Trail.

Ron Boyd, 71, of Ashland is among club members with job and life experiences that come in handy for the work the club does. Now retired, he worked in engineering all his life, designing and building things. South, his brother-in-law, got him interested in 2009 and he joined the club.

“I enjoy being outside, building things, the group and helping out in the park,” Boyd said.

Club members Glenn Ertel and Louis Andres also do volunteer work at Malabar Farm State Park.

Ertel, who said he’s 71 but will only admit to being 26, is a Bellville resident.

“I love nature and the camaraderie of like minded people,” he said. “I also enjoy giving back to the world.”

Andres, 62, of Lucas had a long career working for the parks, including Malabar. He now works at Pleasant Hill Lake Park. Andres expressed similar sentiments.

“I appreciated the volunteers’ knowledge, time and talents when I was park manager (at Malabar) and wanted to stay involved, give back and share my appreciation and support,” he said.

By early afternoon, the crews are done. They pile into their vehicles and head for the picnic area near the covered bridge for box lunches and conversation. Club members compare notes, share a few laughs and brag on their grandchildren.

Mission accomplished, another day of performing trail magic.

The Mohican Trail Club isn’t all work and no play. Members go on group hikes, not just in Mohican but southern Ohio and even out-of-state. The club sponsors two hikes for the public every year — the winter hike on the same weekend as Loudonville’s Winter Fest and a National Trails Day hike the first Saturday in June.

David Yanchunas got involved at least 10 years ago while he was out hiking. He now serves as club president.

“I got involved while hiking when I met some members of the club,” Yanchunas said. “I started by going on a few hikes with the group and then doing a few work days with the club.”

The club’s work year is winding down, but there will be plenty more to do in 2019 and beyond.

“The Mohican Trails Club has been looking at two old Civilian Conservation Corps trails and is ready to start on them soon,” Yanchunas said. “The club is also looking to establish more loop trails in the park and forest.”

Here is the infobox that ran with the original article:

The Mohican Trails Club got its start in December 2002 at the urging of then Mohican State Park manager Jim McBride and then Mohican Memorial State Forest manager Tim Humphrey. McBride and Humphrey saw a need for a hiking club to complement clubs representing equestrians and mountain bikers in Mohican. The club was formalized two years later as a 501 (c) (3) organization.

There are more than 40 members, about 15 of them active. Most are retirees. They primarily live in Richland, Ashland, and Wayne counties with a few from as far away as Cleveland and Columbus.

The club works hand-in-hand with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which provides guidance on projects, priorities and areas of need, equipment, training, a facility to store equipment, and funding. ODNR employee Sonia Hupp assists the trail crews. They work on trails in Mohican State Park and Mohican Memorial State Forest — more than 5,000 acres in all. Through an arrangement with ODNR, club members are covered under Workers Compensation while working on trails.

The Mohican-Malabar Bike Club and Mohican-Loudonville Visitors Bureau have also worked with the club on projects and events.

The club meets regularly for trail workdays until the weather turns bad, usually after Thanksgiving. During the winter, some still come every Wednesday for breakfast and a hike in the park of elsewhere.

There is no formal membership. Most join by contacting the club via Facebook, email or in person, coming to work dates or hikes and signing up.

The club was involved in two Mohican State Park and Forest history projects. Members Kitty Husband and Susan Stover compiled archives and placed them in the Loudonville Public Library. The other project will involve identifying, locating, and re-establishing some of the old CCC trails. 

Club officers are president David Yanchunas, vice president Duane Hart, secretary Tom Weidinger, and treasurer Jim South.

Information is available online at https://www.mohicantrailsclub.org/

This information was provided by David Yanchunas and Jim South.