Indiana sandbar – Ohio River’s answer to the Bermuda Triangle?

EVANSVILLE, IND. — Folks here have been floating a lot of theories about how a camper ended up on a sandbar in the middle of the Ohio River.

Roy Couture reported in the July 22 edition of the Evansville Courier & Press that a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractor created the sandbar while dredging the river channel. Which seems to be an annual chore.

“The camper was not there when a crew finished on the river Wednesday evening around 5 p.m., but it was parked on the sandbar by the time crews arrived back to work Thursday morning,” Corps of Engineers spokesperson Abby Korfhage told Couture in an interview.

Couture also mentioned in the article that the incident generated hundreds of comments on the  EvansvilleWatch Facebook page. As of July 31, the post had generated 444 comments and 566 shares.

Some commenters were quick to point a finger at Ollie Page.

In September 2017 Page drove a Chevy S-10 pickup out onto the sandbar. Page claimed he was able to drive on water after replacing the air in his tires with helium. He told a local TV news reporter that he put 110 pounds pressure in the front tires and 90 pounds in the rear. Valuable information for anyone who might want to duplicate his feat. You probably should allow higher pressure for a full-size pickup. Or camper.

Seems that Page might have been blowing a lot of hot air.

According to a post on Ask Zephyr, an online feature presented by Zephyr Solutions, a supplier of helium and other gases: “Helium balloons ‘float’ because the thin shells (whether latex or mylar) that hold the helium are light enough that they don’t disrupt the buoyancy of helium. Tires on the other hand, are crazy heavy.”

A tire filled with helium would sink to the bottom of the river, let alone a whole truck, Zephyr went on to say.

Some commenters cited the TV show Breaking Bad in which the main characters, Walter and Jesse, cooked meth in an RV parked out in the desert.

“Just your local chemistry teacher and their former student cookin‘ up out there,” frequent commenter Derek York posted.

Apparently, the sandbar has a history of attracting pranksters.

“Does anyone remember the grand piano that was left there years ago?” Melinda Decorrevont asked.

Perhaps that was meant to be a twist on the dueling banjos scene in the film “Deliverance.”

Here are a few more choice comments from the EvansvilleWatch Facebook page:

From Sarah Reynolds, “Somebody won that bet.”

In a similar vein, Michael G. Folsom said, “Hold my beer.”

Then there was this from Steve Gregory: “Now I’m worried about that Airbnb reservation I made.”

And one of my favorite comments, from Lacey Hernandez-Mixtega: “Plenty of room for a Dollar General next door!”

In a follow-up article in the Evansville Courier & News dated July 28, Roy Couture reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had located the owner of the camper. However the Corps spokesperson would not provide a name. Too bad. What a great interview that would have made.

If I were to try to track down the owner without having a name to go on, I’d start with local divorce records.

That just might be the story behind the marooned camper. A couple split up. She got the house; he got the camper. Then he took too long getting it out of her driveway.

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

Mr. Irv leads the Simpkins family on a misguided canoe trip

Canoeing with Irv Oslin is like dating Taylor Swift … eventually he’ll put you in a song. I mean a story.” -Travis Simpkins

Prologue: Three weeks after the storm, trees and limbs continued to fall. I had yet to venture out into the 140 acres in my charge to assess the full damage. Yet, the saddest thing about the tornadoes, the hardest thing to process in my mind, was the annihilation of trees that had lived a hundred years or more. Overwhelmed, I did what I’ve always done in this kind of situation — loaded up the canoe and camping gear and headed for the river.

I slept well after a day of paddling through the rain. Except for the obnoxiously loud moan of an outboard motor at 4 a.m. — a fishing boat headed upstream. The wake lapped at the riverbank. I wondered whether it had sloshed water into our canoes.

Not that it mattered. They’d have to be bailed out anyway from Friday’s rain.

At daybreak, I grabbed my  journal, crawled out of the tent, and walked past what I call “clothesline ghosts” — rain jackets and other clothing draped around the campsite to dry. I quietly made myself a cup of coffee so as not to disturb my campmates.

That was more for my benefit than theirs. I wanted to enjoy a little solitude and savor the cool summer morning.

I wrote in my journal:

JULY 9, 2022

WILLS CREEK ISLAND

HERE WITH THE SIMPKINS FAMILY. AFTER A RAINY FRIDAY AFTERNOON, THE WEATHER HAS SETTLED. A PEACEFUL SATURDAY MORNING. LOOKING FORWARD TO A SUNNY DAY ON THE RIVER.

I’m not used to camping with other people. Much less a family of other people.

By and by I heard the kids stirring in their tent. A welcome change from the sounds my old canoeing buddies used to make — snoring and farting punctuated by early morning smoker’s cough.

I wrote in my journal:

KID VOICES. PEACE WILL BE SHORT-LIVED.

I met the Simpkins family two years ago on the Mohican River. I was camped on an island downstream of Cavallo.

In my journal I had written:

JULY 25, 2020

AT LEAST 30 PADDLERS CAME BY THE ISLAND TODAY … THE LAST ONES TO GO BY WERE FOLKS WHO RECOGNIZED ME FROM MY COLUMN PHOTO.

That was Travis and Amy Simpkins and their children Andrew, Clara, and Nate — now 11, 10, and 6 respectively. ( Amy later said, “He’d tell you six-and-a-half.”) I’ve kept in contact with them via social media — hoping to get together for a canoe trip.

The Simpkins have taken the kids canoeing plenty of times but hadn’t done an overnight trip. They plan to paddle the Boundary Waters later this summer. Travis thought it might help to take the family on an overnight trip with an experienced old geezer like me so they could pick up a few pointers.

Although I suspect they told the children beforehand to pay attention to everything “Mr. Irv” says and does — so we know what NOT to do when we go to the Boundary Waters. That includes the use of colorful language. I did my best to curb my tongue. As far as I can recall, I dropped only one f-bomb.

Travis and Amy are doing a great job raising the kids and I didn’t want to be a bad influence. The children embrace outdoor activities and bear adversity with little complaint. In fact, after paddling through the rain all afternoon, the first thing they wanted to do when we reached Wills Creek Island was go for a swim.

They enjoy learning outdoor lore. Although little Nate was skeptical at first. As we unloaded our gear to pitch camp, he looked around and proclaimed, “This isn’t a campsite, it’s just a bunch of trees!”

Nate changed his tune after watching “a bunch of trees” morph into a cozy campsite. He was further swayed by a supper of grilled sausage, mashed potatoes, rice, watermelon, and s’mores.

I also taught Andrew an important lesson — that nature can be both cruel and kind.

While trekking up a bank to observe an osprey nest at the Dresden Wildlife Habitat Site he encountered stinging nettles. I plucked a jewel weed plant, slit the stem, and told him to rub the sap on the burning, itching welts on his arm. Instant relief. Lessons learned.

Clara studied the jewel weed leaves for future identification. She picked a bunch to take with her.

I also taught Travis how real outdoorsmen start campfires in wet conditions. He had been frantically rubbing two sticks together — or something to that effect — and hadn’t managed to raise a flame. (Little Nate was growing impatient; he was eager to find a flame to light the cigar I had given him.) I retrieved a block of fire starter from my pack and offered it to Travis. Within minutes — lots of minutes— he was cooking supper over a roaring campfire.

“So glad you could join us and share your decades of experience floating on these rivers,” Travis later wrote in a text message. “It felt like a guided trip! Thank you for helping to inspire the next generation of adventurers!”

In the prologue to this week’s column, I mentioned how disheartening it was to see ancient trees annihilated by tornadoes. Travis’ kind words helped me put things in perspective. Old trees like me aren’t meant to live forever — but to make way for young trees to flourish.

The children sit rapt in inattention as I regale them with tales of canoe trips past. (Photo courtesy Amy Simpkins.)

This originally was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette and elsewhere in Gannettland.

Healing a broken landscape and broken spirits one step at a time

This originally was published as one of my weekly columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette and elsewhere.

Mohican Trails Club members had the North Rim Trail cleared in one morning!

JUNE 14, 2022, 5:30 A.M. —  Night clung stubbornly to the splintered tree trunks and tangled limbs. Daylight crept slowly across the fallen wires and rain-drenched debris on the ground as if reluctant to reveal the details of what had happened the night before.

I needed a headlamp to penetrate shadows cast by broken pine boughs so I could find the best places along the trunk — mindful that I had just one chainsaw battery. I had to make each cut count if I was to clear the massive pine off the driveway.

That done, my sense of accomplishment was short-lived. Fallen trees, limbs, and wires blocked Bromfield and Hastings East roads for a mile or more. It would be nearly 12 hours before road crews and neighbors cleared enough of a path to reach the main road and civilization. An eerily subdued civilization.

More than a week later, that feeling of numbness remained. The roads were open, power and internet connections  restored. Yet stark reminders persisted — tree trunk forests devoid of canopies, gnarled limbs dangling or heaped on the ground, earth scarred by heavy equipment.

When time allowed, I chain sawed my way from mess to mess, surveying the damage, trying to decide what to clear next. And what could wait.

After lines of communications reopened, I was able to compare notes with others, including Larry Smith. He and his wife Elaine own prairies and woodlands in one of the hardest hit areas — a six-mile corridor between Butler and Perrysville where the worst of the tornadoes ran roughshod across the landscape.

For more than a decade, Larry and Elaine have labored to restore these areas to their natural splendor. They’ve established awe-inspiring showcases of natural habitat to compliment North Central Ohio Land Conservancy’s Clear Fork Valley Scenic Trail. In the aftermath of the June 13 storm, their job became even more difficult.

I found inspiration in Larry’s words and advice.

He advised land conservancy folks — and perhaps all of us — to incorporate examples of “nature’s new artwork” into the landscape.

“These post-storm forests still possess their wilderness-like character and appeal as a natural area,” Larry wrote. “What in many places they showcase now is the random savage beauty of nature’s raw power, awe-inspiring in a different way.”

On Sunday, June 26, I had the opportunity to view some of that random savage beauty on the North Rim Trail at Mohican State Park. I accompanied four members of the Mohican Trails Club on an exploratory hike. The club is a volunteer organization that maintains and improves trails in Mohican. Their mission Sunday was to assess the damage. They’ll start work Wednesday, June 29, clearing more of the trail.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources crews — including some from other districts — had already begun cleanup work there the previous week.

The Trails Club members had another mission Sunday, perhaps an equally important one — to hike for the sheer joy of it. After walking the North Rim Trail, we took the Hemlock Gorge Trail to Campground B and back to the main campground. We covered a total of 6.6 miles.

Larry’s words of wisdom and my hike with the Mohican Trails Club helped put things in perspective. They served as a reminder of why we do the work we do. It’s meaningless unless you step back — or step out — and take the time to truly appreciate it.

The further adventures of Charlene and Spalding  – and the river rats who adopted them

Charlene & Spalding

HUNTINGTON, W.Va.  — I conspired to set Spalding up on a blind date with Charlene. Spalding is a tattered basketball Curtis Casto plucked from the Ohio River in the early going of what was to be a 980-mile kayak trip.

Two years ago, I found Charlene floating near a logjam in Lake Fork of the Mohican River. Charlene is a blue bowling ball with adorable close-set eyes. Finger holes, actually. Her name is engraved just above them.

I had arranged to meet Curtis May 15, at the Shady Springs Campground west of Portsmouth on the Ohio side of the river. I planned to spend a few days on the Ohio River and camp out with him. And Spalding, of course.

Curtis expected to make most of the trip alone. A guy can get mighty lonely out there on that big river, paddling mile after mile after mile, camping night after night. (Except for the nights he spent glamping at hotels along the way.)

As Curtis said in one of his dispatches from the river, humor is the key to maintaining morale. Otherwise a man could go crazy. Who knows? He might even find himself talking to a tattered old basketball.

Which he did. But that’s OK. In this case, Curtis’ running dialog with Spalding was calculated to keep him from going bonkers. And Spalding didn’t seem to mind. Although Spalding did complain about having to sleep in the boat at night instead of the cozy new tent Curtis bought in Marietta to replace one that leaked.

To amuse himself and friends — and dispel rumors about his mental state — Curtis regularly posted videos on Facebook depicting his conversations with Spalding.

Not that there’s anything wrong with talking with inanimate objects. I’ll admit that, on my Lake Fork canoe trip two years ago, Charlene kept me company the whole time. During the day, she rode in my canoe. At night, we sat in front of the campfire, talking, and telling jokes — including a few puns about bowling. (After all, she had plenty of time to “spare.”)

My adventures with Charlene were inspired by Tom Hanks’ companion volleyball named Wilson in the movie “Cast Away.”

I’m ashamed to say that, after bringing Charlene home, I abandoned her in the garage. After all she had done for me and my sanity.

I thought it would be a nice gesture for all involved to bring Charlene with me so she could meet Spalding and Curtis.

So, I retrieved Charlene from the garage, brought her into the house and gave her a good scrubbing in the bathroom sink. For the record, I did not talk with Charlene while bathing her. Mainly out of fear that someone would walk by the bathroom door and overhear us.

Who knows, maybe Charlene and Spalding will hit it off. Perhaps they’ll get married and start a little family of golf balls. To go along with the goofballs who plucked them from the river.

Postscript: Originally, this column was datelined STOUT, OHIO. That’s the location of Shady Springs Campground, where I was to meet Curtis. He didn’t make it that far. At around 5:30 a.m. on May 14, Curtis sent a text message saying he’d been taken to the emergency room of St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, W.Va. Ultimately, he was diagnosed with giardia. Instead of joining him on the river, I drove to Huntington to bring him home to Mount Vernon. A bummer to be sure. At least we had Spalding and Charlene to cheer us up.

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

Curtis takes a glamping break on his Ohio River kayak trip

Curtis chilling at the Lafayette Hotel in Marietta

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

MARIETTA, OHIO — Following in the footsteps of Marquis de Lafayette, Curtis Casto landed May 6, at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. Except the Lafayette Hotel wasn’t there when Lafayette landed.

Lafayette, whose mother called him Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette, visited the city in May 1825. A Revolutionary War hero, he was on what amounted to a victory lap after the fact. Well after the fact. For that gesture, the people of Marietta recognized Lafayette as Ohio’s first tourist.

Actually, there is a connection between Lafayette’s and Curtis’ visits: Honoring America’s military veterans. Curtis is kayaking 980 miles on the Ohio River to raise awareness and money for Paddle for Heroes. The Mount Vernon-based organization promotes the healing powers of paddling for veterans and first responders. Curtis is a Paddle for Heroes success story. Once overweight and in poor health, the U.S. Army veteran turned to kayaking through the organization.

It basically saved his life. Now he’s a kayaking machine. Not content to paddle his way back to good health, Curtis has taken on an Ohio River journey, which started May 1 in Pittsburgh. Originally, he expected the trip to take 37 days. Mother Nature — and a bout of back pain — disabused him of that notion. He’s wisely chosen to allow for some downtime when necessary. So he decided to spend two nights at the Lafayette Hotel.

Here, mostly in his own words, are Curtis’ impressions of the journey so far — primarily culled from Facebook postings. As reported in a previous column, the rain stopped long enough for his Pittsburgh launch. It returned with a vengeance during the first week of his trip with downpours and flooding.

May 1 — Had some very new experiences today. Did not know there were riffles on the Ohio River but I found one, actually two. Also the current when you come out of the locks can be treacherous, especially if the wind is blowing the right way … Had to repack the boat once already and bail it out. Besides that everything’s handling okay.

Curtis stays in contact via social media with his support team — his friends, wife Marsha, dog Sailor (who hasn’t quite figured out where that familiar voice on the phone is coming from), and those along the river helping him with food, accommodations, and other needs. Among them is Scott Freese, part of the entourage who saw Curtis off in Pittsburgh.

May 3 —  It’s a good thing Scott Freese was watching the weather for me and got me to pull over. Waited out the storm under a shelter, which didn’t do much good, but my host was the president of the fire department in Wellsburg, West Virginia. He was cooking steaks and kept on cooking them in the rain; he just put a pan over them. Had a good reception in Steubenville. There were sheriff boats and fire boats out in the water with their lights on. Thought they were giving me a big welcome to town. But it was not for me. They were searching for cars in the river and they had divers in the river so they wanted me to divert out into the middle. After that they chased me down and had me pull into the dock and fed me meatballs and pasta. I told them about my trip and handed out a few pamphlets.

In a subsequent text message, Curtis weighed in on the value of social media for logistics, safety, and more.

Facebook has saved my morale and probably my life several times. It has brought me in contact with people that I don’t know and wouldn’t have known had it not been for Facebook.

To further buoy his spirits, Curtis  “adopted” Spalding, a tattered basketball he found on the river.

I have discovered that keeping your mood up with humor helps a lot with the boredom of 12 hours of paddling. Collecting that basketball and posting little movies of him is a welcome distraction. I hope everybody’s enjoying them.

Taking breaks at the laundromat and the hotel also helped his morale, but Curtis’ heart is on the river. And with the people who have felt the wrath of Mother Nature far more than he has.

May 7 — Sitting here at the Lafayette Hotel. This is a beautiful place, too beautiful for me. I need to be sitting in [my tent or headed downriver.] But, after watching the news, I need to quit my whining and think about those people that have been affected by the flooding.

To be continued.

Curtis Casto’s entourage — human and divine — see him off on his Ohio River trip

En Route to Curtis Launch in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — I’m beginning to wonder if Curtis Casto has connections in high places. Really high places.

As Curtis navigated the streets of the city, enroute to the Ohio River launch site for his 980-mile kayak trip, the wipers on his minivan barely kept up with the rain pelting the windshield. I half-expected the little Buddha mounted on his dash to pull out an umbrella.

I rode shotgun. In the middle seat behind us were Curtis’ wife, Marsha, and our friend, Sonya Bollin. Sailor, a black Lab, sprawled across the back seat. The night before Curtis asked me if I’d mind riding in the back with the dog.

“You’d better ask the dog,” I responded.

Apparently, Sailor objected. I had to ride up front.

Which worked out fine because, on our first restroom stop, Marsha bought us donuts. If I had been sitting in the back, I would have had to share mine with Sailor.

We had come along to see Curtis off on his solo kayaking trip down the Ohio River. He expects it will take him 37 days.

If I were him, I’d take it at a more leisurely pace. Like 37 weeks.

As mentioned in a previous column, Curtis is doing this for a cause — to raise money for Paddle for Heroes. The Mount Vernon-based organization advocates for veterans and first responders, organizing river cleanups, working on community projects, and promoting healing through paddling.

Minutes before we reached the put-in point, the rain tapered off. By the time we arrived at the Westhall Street Launch, it had stopped altogether. The river gods had shown on Curtis. Or maybe it was little Buddha on the dashboard.

The Westhall Street Launch is at the northern terminus of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail — in the shadow of the State Correctional Institution. The prison was built in 1882. And looks it. It’s been said that Charles Dickens visited the original prison, which was built in 1826. Reportedly, the draconian conditions he witnessed there served as inspiration for future writings.

Scott Freese, a kindred spirit and kayaking enthusiast, was waiting at the launch. He had driven there from Mount Pleasant to see Curtis off.

Sailor supervised as we helped Curtis load his kayak. A couple of mallards observed from the safety of the water. Hugs were exchanged and he was off on his 980-mile adventure. May providence continue to shine upon him.

You can follow his adventures on his blog or on Facebook:  https://a-good-paddling-at-65.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/groups/439602364205014 respectively.

Midway through his trip, I’ll join Curtis for a couple days on the river and a few nights camping. I’ll need to adjust my paddling to keep up with his breakneck pace. I’ll also use an old trick I learned for keeping up with tandem paddlers; I’ll stay behind his kayak, riding in his slipstream. That will reduce the drag on my canoe.

For good measure, when he’s not looking, I’ll attach his stern line to the bow of my boat.

POSTSCRIPT: Donations are still being accepted to Paddle for Heroes. All proceeds go to that organization. Curtis is covering his own expenses entirely.

‘Euell’ never know who you’ll meet in the column writing business

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

For me, writing is an adventure. When I set out to write my outdoors column — generally in the quiet of a Sunday morning — I don’t know where it’s going much less where it might end up. Or who I’ll meet along the way.

Last week, while writing a column about foraging, I met Euell Gibbons. 

Like a lot of folks my age, I knew him only through his iconic Post Grape-Nuts commercials, which aired in the 1970s. They typically depicted the robust, outdoorsy Gibbons foraging in the countryside then sitting down to enjoy a bowl of Grape-Nuts. In the commercial for which he’s probably best remembered, Gibbons asks, “Ever eat a pine tree?”

His eccentric ways and folksy persona made him the butt of jokes. From the Carol Burnett Show to the PBS children’s program “The Electric Company,” on-air personalities poked fun at him. Sometimes Gibbons got in on the act himself when he appeared on TV talk programs such as the Johnny Carson Show.

Gibbons once made a parody of his own commercials. Sitting down to dig into a bowl of Grape-Nuts, he says, “Of course, I don’t always eat it in a bowl like this. Usually I just eat it in my shoe. Sometimes I just eat my shoes. You know, the other day, I ate some goose poop I found on my lawn.”

That was the Euell Gibbons I knew. Until last week, I dismissed him as an eccentric old coot who might have gotten ahold of the wrong kind of mushrooms while rooting around in the forest for dinner.

I suspect a lot of people saw him that way. Although I always admired Gibbons’ adventurous spirit and resourcefulness. Perhaps, in my heart of hearts, I really wanted to be him. (Frankly, I always did like Grape-Nuts. But I attributed that to false hunger associated with herbal misadventures common in that era.)

In doing research for a previous column, I Googled Euell Gibbons and came to know him better. Since then, I’ve done some internet foraging and learned that he really was a fascinating guy. An accomplished author, he was recognized as an authority on wild food cuisine and nutrition. How thorough was he? He sent the things he foraged to Pennsylvania State University for analysis. His first book  “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” influenced a generation of Americans longing to return to their natural roots (literally and figuratively). The book has been in print continuously since 1962 and sold more than a half-million copies.

I never believed the rumors that Gibbons died from something he found in the forest or that he choked to death on a pinecone sandwich. He died of a heart attack in 1975. He was only 64.

Cigarettes and saturated fats likely contributed to his early demise. He was known to add bacon grease, butter, and egg yolks to his foraged food concoctions. His diet included meat, which he obtained by hunting, trapping, and fishing.

“These risk factors combined with his hard life and lack of exercise in his later years undoubtedly led to his death,” John Kallas wrote in the November 1988 issue of Wild Food Adventurer.

Gibbons was born in 1911 in Red River County, Texas, one of four children. Times were hard then, particularly in that part of the country. His mother taught Euell and his siblings to forage. At the age of five, he prepared his first dish for the family — using his beloved wild hickory nuts. (His tagline in the cereal commercials was that Grape-Nuts reminded him of them.)

In an article in Adventure Journal, Brad Risser wrote: “Gibbons left home at 15 and migrated between Texas and New Mexico, working wheat harvests, panning gold, trapping, riding fences, digging postholes, carpentering, among other gigs (Gibbons would work a mind-boggling variety of jobs through his life, from schoolteacher to crossword puzzler to entertainer in a hobo camp).”

He later ended up in Hawaii, where he lived as a beachcomber. There he met is second wife, Pennsylvania native Freda Fryer. He studied at the University of Hawaii but didn’t earn a degree. In the 1950s, he and his wife moved to Pennsylvania, where they were active in the Quaker community. Gibbons championed simple living and warned against the trappings of technology. He would have been appalled to see a generation of Americans glued to their smartphones.

Earlier in his life, Gibbons briefly identified as a Communist but denounced the party after Russia invaded Poland. Somehow, he escaped the wrath of McCarthyism.

However, his Grape-Nuts commercials, didn’t fare as well. According to author and self-reliance advocate Christopher Nyerges, months before Gibbons’ death the Federal Trade Commission banned them. Why? Because they might have inspired youngsters to go out and do some foraging on their own. Ironically, the FTC didn’t have a problem with the proliferation of sugary breakfast cereals that posed a real danger to children.

To think Grape-Nuts might have saved us from becoming a generation of smartphone-addicted zombies.

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My Lack of Education Hasn’t Hurt Me None

Apologies to Paul Simon

Orchard Elementary School on Cleveland’s West Side.

I’m what some would call self-educated. What I would call self-undereducated.

I’m the product of a shitty urban school system and my own shitty attitude.

In the 1950s, the Cleveland Public School System struggled to keep up with the post-war population explosion — exacerbated by hordes of immigrants, mainly from Appalachia and Puerto Rico, seeking jobs and a better life. I was one generation removed from the hills of Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

Earlier in the 20th century, the school system had dealt with another wave of immigration — black folks. The school system — and the City of Cleveland — accomplished this through systematic segregation. Cleveland Public Schools built separate but somewhat equal facilities of the black side of town. This had been so blatant that, in the 1970s, court-ordered busing was imposed on the school system.

I graduated in 1970, before that happened. In a school of 3,000 students, there were fewer than five black kids. That was at West Tech High School. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, at East Tech High School, you can guess the rest.

A history teacher in my high school once said, in front of God and everybody, that a fence should be built along the Cuyahoga River — Cleveland’s east/west dividing line — and that black people should be kept on the other side of it. Except he used a different term for black people.

To be continued.

Springtime foraging from the forest floor to the cereal aisle of Kroger

Jewelweed primary leaves make for a tasty springtime snack.

This time of year I become Euell Gibbons. The woods and fields teem with edible flora.

If you’re lucky, you might even find morel mushrooms, which aren’t actually flora. According to Dr. Brian Lovett and other scientists with too much time on their hands, mushrooms are more closely related to animals. Eventually fungi will evolve to the point that they’ll hunt us down and eat us.

In the meantime, there’s no reason not to head out into the great outdoors to feast on morels and tasty nutritious plants that are there for the plucking.

I particularly enjoy succulent leafy things that won’t kill you or cause you to perceive things that don’t really exist — things like nymphs, leprechauns, sprites, and common sense.

The primary leaves of emerging jewelweed are among my favorite spring treats.

Jewelweed’s best known for providing instant relief from contact with stinging nettles, poison ivy and mosquito bites. (Slit the fleshiest part of the stem and dab it on the affected area.) It’s saved the day for me on many occasions. I like to eat the primary leaves when jewelweed first emerges in the spring.

Parts of the mature jewelweed plant are edible. Marginally. Like many other wild plants, you have to boil them in several changes of water to render them palatable. The same is true of shoe leather. However, the seed pods can be eaten right off the plant. Because the pods explode to disperse the seeds, jewelweed is also known as touch-me-not. If you’re really bored, you can pop intact pods into your mouth so they explode. Kind of like sugar-free Pop Rocks.

I also enjoy trout lily leaves this time of year.

The tender leaves have a subtle sweet flavor but aren’t particularly known for their nutritional value. Think of it as nature’s junk food. Contrary to what the name might suggest, they do not taste like trout. The name derives from the trout-like speckling on the leaves.

Medicinal uses run the gamut from insomnia to contraceptives. According to some sources, eating large quantities will cause vomiting. Which is true of most anything.

I derive perverse pleasure in snacking on the bitter leaves of that most detestable invasive — garlic mustard.

Garlic mustard is a native of Europe. In America, it’s an obnoxious weed that crowds out beneficial native plants. Not content just to displace competitors, garlic mustard spews poison into the soil so other plants can’t get established.

In its first year, garlic mustard comes up as rosettes (short, bushy plants) and can be found pretty much year-round. It contains vitamins A, C, E, and some B vitamins as well as potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, copper, iron, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids. But what I really like about it is it clears my sinuses.

You can make pesto out of garlic mustard and the roots have been compared to horseradish. Frankly, I’m not wild about either. I’m content to graze on the tender leaves in the spring. After a good rain, which cleans the leaves and loosens the roots, I uproot the rosettes, gnaw off a few leaves and discard the rest of the plant.

Like garlic mustard rosettes, wild chives pop up before spring arrives and can be readily found even in colder months.

Our ancestors used wild chives for medicinal purposes. Since they’re one of the milder members of the onion/garlic family, they probably aren’t strong enough to ward off vampires. Their subtle taste makes them ideal for garnishes. I like wild chives in scrambled eggs, omelets, potatoes, or to sprinkle on the grandkids’ cereal to annoy them.

I also like to tear up small clusters of wild chives and eat them in the wild. But they tend to be tough and hard to chew.

Besides a passion for foraging, Euell Gibbons and I have something else in common: We both were known for being breakfast b***hes. Over the years, I’ve assumed the role of camp breakfast cook by virtue of being the only early riser. In 1953, Gibbons and his wife joined a Quaker society in suburban Philadelphia, where he cooked breakfast for everyone every day.

He was best-known for endorsing Post Grape-Nuts, which can be found by foraging at Kroger. Grape-Nuts contain neither grapes nor nuts, which you might find separately at Kroger. Just don’t look for them where you think they’d logically put them.

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

Testing the waters – and the limits of my courage – and living to tell about it

Two reasons you should always filter your drinking water at camp – even in relatively pristine places.

(This was published last week as my weekly Ashland Times-Gazette outdoors column.)

Free samples are among the perks we outdoors columnists enjoy. From time to time, recreational equipment manufacturers send us samples of their wares to try out.

They’re hoping we’ll give them honest opinions on how well their gear performs and — best case scenario — sing its praises in our columns.

They probably don’t expect scathing reviews. Perhaps because, if their equipment fails in the field, there’s a good chance we won’t live to write about it.

“Dear Mr. Oslin; We’re still waiting to hear back from you on how much you enjoyed our bear-proof sleeping bag … ”

The folks at LifeStraw recently sent me their Peak Series collapsible squeeze bottle water filter. It’s a collapsible bottle that holds about 20 ounces of water. You fill the bottle from a stream, spring, faucet, or beer tap, and screw a cylindrical filter cartridge into the top.

No matter how degraded the water (or beer) was when you filled the bottle, you can drink to your heart’s content, confident that the filter is protecting you from bacteria, parasites, and microplastics. It will not protect you from nasty chemicals, lead, or large carnivores.

It doesn’t bother me too much that the system won’t filter out chemicals. Usually, death by chemicals is a cumulative thing. Chances are — at my age — something else will kill me first.

Not that I plan to try out my LifeStraw system in rivers that contain more chemicals than water — like the Muskingum or Ohio for example. There’s a difference between tempting fate and thumbing your nose at it.

I’ve long considered using water filtration devices on canoe trips. I’ve always packed my own water in gallon jugs, except for trips to relatively pristine places like Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park.

For Canada trips, my friends and I use a system similar to the one LifeStraw sent me. It’s a 10-liter bag with a filter cartridge. You fill it from the lake or stream, screw-in the filter, and hang the bag upside down. It’s like having tap water at your campsite.

I can see using something like the LifeStraw unit on canoe trips and hikes. If it works.

Last week I set out to test the filtration unit under controlled circumstances. I tried it on increasingly compromised water sources, starting with a spring and progressing through bigger and bigger streams. I stopped short of the Muskingum River. I’m not that brave. The first time I canoed the entire Muskingum, by the time I reached Marietta, something in the water had tarnished my boat. The hull of my aluminum canoe had become mottled and looked like galvanized tin.

I started my filter test at a spring flowing from a nearby hillside. I’ve sipped water from it on several occasions. Each time I experienced mild intestinal anarchy. Nothing major, just rumblings of mutiny in the lower gastrointestinal track. After drinking from the LifeStraw, I heard no rumbling. Which wasn’t entirely a good thing because the rumbling sound in my stomach drowns out the little voices in my head.

The next day I filled the LifeStraw bottle from Pine Run, a tributary of the Mohican River. It was running clear at the time. Brown sediment in the streambed served as a reminder of more turbulent times, when the creek carried detritus from farms, wood lots, and residential yards upstream.

The experiment continues and, so far, no ill effects. I’ll be working my way up to bigger streams.

I posted video footage of myself drinking Pine Run water on Facebook.

“You can drink any water, once,” my friend Bill Miller commented.

“Not with my LifeStraw,” I responded.

While researching the product online, I came across a YouTube video with two guys testing LifeStraw to extremes. Not only did they prove you can drink virtually any water once and live, but that you can drink the same water twice.

Which was probably no worse than filtering and drinking water directly from the Muskingum River. I won’t be trying that either.

 Primitive camping with amenities – Lake Metroparks provides paddle-in sites for the adventurous

The third and final day of our Grand River adventure was spent on dry land. Nearly dry land. With recent rain and snowmelt, dry ground was hard to come by in Ashtabula and Lake counties.

As mentioned in previous columns, the plan was to spend a day exploring Lake Metroparks paddle-in campsites for future river trips. Ultimately, I’d like to reprise a canoe trip I did seven years ago, this time taking advantage of a newly added campsite at Indian Point. I’d finish the trip by paddling across six or seven miles of open water to camp at Lake Erie Bluffs.

Lake Metroparks now has three paddle-in campsites on the Grand River. I call them primitive sites with amenities.  Which include firewood, a fire ring, cooking grill and picnic tables. If you count Lake Erie Bluffs, which is accessible by canoe or kayak, that makes four sites. Lake Metroparks has other campsites accessible by land. Sites must be reserved in advance. The fee is $10 for Lake County residents and $20 for the rest of us.

When I did the trip in 2015, I started  by camping at Lake Erie Bluffs. From there, the plan was to drive upstream to Grand River Kayak and Canoe Rental and spend several days paddling to Fairport Harbor at the mouth of the river.

Unfortunately, driving became part of the adventure. The ol’ Canoebaru broke down en route. Shortly after I got off the freeway near Fairport Harbor, a lower control arm let go. Fortunately, my friend Becky Raubenolt lived in the area. She came to the rescue, setting up a river shuttle while my car was in the shop.

She later gave me a ride from one of the paddle-in campsites to the Subaru dealership to pick up my car when it was ready. (Three years later it broke down on a Canadian canoe trip. A month later, I got rid of the damned thing.)

Becky is a Lake Metroparks volunteer. So I called on her this time to take me around and show me the new campsite at Indian Point. We met at the volunteer headquarters, where I scooped up an armload of literature and got contact info for Seth Begeman, Metroparks chief of outdoor education.

I later emailed him, asking about the new paddle-in campsite and whether Metroparks planned to add more. I also asked about paddling to Lake Erie Bluffs.

“The Indian Point location is one of our newest sites,” Seth responded in an email. “I have talked to a few paddle campers about it and they usually have a lot of good things to say. As for future campsites being developed, a lot has to do with opportunities that may arise. As for now, there are no plans to add any more. These opportunities typically arise if Lake Metroparks is able to acquire property that would work best for a campsite. Something could pop up a few years from now that we could add to our campsites.”

Seth has first-hand knowledge of paddling from the mouth of the Grand River to Lake Erie Bluffs.

“I have paddled from Fairport Harbor Lakefront Park to Lake Erie Bluffs a couple of times and it is a doable section (that can be paddled) within a couple of hours if the weather and waves are right,” he wrote.

That’s a big if.

There are other ifs when you plan to use Lake Metroparks paddle-in campsites. They must be reserved and paid for well in advance. Which means you’re gambling on having two feet or more on the Painesville gauge. Otherwise, you’re looking at a long, grueling paddle through boulder-strewn riffles.

Too much water can also be a problem. I’ve been told 2-5 feet on the gauge is ideal.

Regardless, I wouldn’t hesitate to reserve and pay for campsites. It’s worth the gamble.

Worse case scenario? If the river’s too low, you’ll have a rough go of it — with great campsites at the end of the day. If the lake’s too rough for an open-water crossing, you pack it in at Fairport Harbor and call someone for a ride. (Keep your cellphone handy, Becky.)

Worst case scenario? More car problems.

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Links:

https://www.lakemetroparks.com/register-reserve/reserve-a-shelter/tent-camping

A regime change at camp – passing the spatula to a new breakfast bitch

Approaching the Mechanicsville Covered Bridge on the Grand River.

 This is the second of three Ashland Times-Gazette columns chronicling our latest river adventure.

I’ve relinquished my title of breakfast bitch. Curtis Casto took over that role on our recent camping and paddling trip on the Grand River. He insisted after I served freeze-dried breakfasts on our previous river adventure. Maybe I should’ve added boiling water like the instructions said.

Curtis did himself proud, whipping up a delicious breakfast of biscuits and sausage gravy. But I began to question his culinary skills when he ripped open a packet of coffee sweetener and sprinkled it on his serving. Apparently, he needed more coffee. Or maybe he planned to add coffee to his biscuits and gravy to go with the sweetener.

The title of breakfast bitch had been conferred upon me by my former campmates. I took on that role by virtue of being the only morning person in the group. The others were in charge of lunch and supper. And staying up till all hours of the night drinking.

As mentioned in a previous column, Curtis is a morning person. Now he gets to be breakfast bitch.

On this trip I relinquished another role — expert. The Grand River is relatively new territory for me. For 42 years, I’ve paddled, explored, and researched the Mohican River. I know it intimately. I’m well-versed in its history and lore. I’ve made many friends up and down the Muskingum Watershed (which includes the Mohican) and have written about it extensively. Some of what I’ve written is actually true.

I’ve paddled the Grand River only a couple dozen times. I know little of its temperaments and even less about its history and lore. Sometimes that’s a good thing. There’s much to be said for fresh experiences. Although, given my age and tendency to forget stuff, pretty much anything can be a fresh experience.

We hoped to accomplish three things on this trip — to become more familiar with the middle stretch (the Mechanicsville/Harpersfield section), explore the lower stretch for a future run to Lake Erie, and avoid hypothermia. My last two Grand River outings were marred by unrelenting rain, wind, and temperatures in the low 40s. In fact, on one of those trips, my son’s skillet of hot pierogis was the only thing that saved us from despair and perhaps death itself.

On the second day of our trip, Curtis and I paddled from the Grand River Kayak and Canoe livery to the Harpersfield Covered Bridge. The weather and river level were perfect. Daytime temperatures hit the low 70s. At around 3.5 feet on the Painesville gauge, the river level was ideal for navigating the riffles.

Water level is crucial on the middle and lower stretches of the Grand River. When it’s running low, these sections can be rough on boats and boaters. Paddling becomes a painful exercise in dodging rocks and other obstacles. One wrong move can result in swamping your boat or capsizing. Which can be embarrassing when there’s an audience of anglers along the banks.

With the exception of a few people stirring in the yards of houses along the river, our audience was limited to woodpeckers, kingfishers, muskrats, waterfowl, and a stunningly beautiful red fox scampering along the bank.

We capped off a perfect day with Italian sausage, baked beans, and a campfire under a full moon. And, for me, the satisfaction of knowing I no longer had to be the breakfast bitch.

To be continued.

Paddlers’ insomnia – Great river adventures often begin with sleepless nights

I recently vowed to post more of my outdoors column here for the benefit of those who can’t get them from the Times-Gazette or Loudonville Times-Shopper.

Curtis paddles past the Schweitzer Road Bridge.

When I pulled into Perkins on U.S. 250, Curtis Casto was sitting in his Chrysler minivan waiting for me. He had been there quite a while. It was 6:30 a.m.

He had texted me as I was pulling out of my driveway, telling me he couldn’t sleep so he hit the road early. That’s the way it is with river trips. Especially for young guys like him. (He’s barely old enough to collect Social Security.)  The night before a trip, the anticipation gnaws at you, depriving you of sleep and reason. You toss and turn and ultimately throw off your covers and say, “To hell with it. So what if it’s only 3 a.m. I’m out of here!”

Me, I’m an old hand at these things. Sure, I’m gripped by anticipation. It’s difficult to sleep. But I manage. I resist the temptation to leave the house three hours early.

I had slept in — waking up at 5 a.m.

Was all this really necessary? After all, I live in the Mohican area, which is known as the Canoeing Capital of Ohio. Curtis lives in Mount Vernon near the Kokosing River, another excellent paddling stream. Why drive 150 miles to the Grand River?

Dams. That’s why.

Most of the state had seen its share of rain and snowmelt in recent weeks. Muskingum Watershed flood control dams had backed up a lot of water on the Mohican and its tributaries. Something to be avoided when water temperatures are in the 30s. There are no flood-control dams on the Grand River. All the rain and snowmelt had flowed out into Lake Erie. Conditions would be perfect for paddling.

Our plan was to set up a base camp at Grand River Kayak & Canoe Rentals and spend a couple of days paddling. I wanted to spend another day scouting the downstream part of the river by road and checking out the Lake Metroparks paddle-in campsites. I canoed that section seven years ago, camping at two Metroparks sites and paddling the Grand River to Fairport Harbor on Lake Erie. I hope to reprise that trip soon — adding a two-hour paddle across open water to Lake Erie Bluffs, another Lake Metroparks campsite.

Curtis and I arrived at the livery by midmorning and pitched camp.

Normally, at that point, I’d dive into my tent for a quick nap. But the river was calling. We put on our lifejackets, dragged our boats through the mud to the river and headed downstream.

Generally, there’s not much current on that section of the Grand. In fact, one summer day many years ago I paddled downstream seven or eight miles from the livery and back. Besides having to drag through the shallows a few times, it was pretty easy paddling upstream.

Not this time. Curtis and I floated down to Mill Creek, about three miles from the livery. The water level was at least twice what it had been when I paddled upstream on that summer day. And so was the current. We got a good workout, much more than we’d bargained for.

Which was probably for the better. Curtis was too tired to complain about the medium-raw steak I grilled for dinner.

To be continued.

Holding Down the Fort

A ROAD TRIP TO STEUBENVILLE AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS

Louise Conn Fleming-Dufala told me about a Lewis & Clark exhibit at Fort Steuben and it piqued my interest. I’m a sucker for outdoors adventures — and gripping stories about them. It occurred to me that the exhibit might serve as a catalyst for my outdoors column. Any excuse for a road trip.

Used to be that every journey began with the first step. These days, they begin by pulling up a map on your computer and figuring out how to get there. Bonus points for finding the most interesting — and not necessarily the shortest — route.

An aside: I don’t like the term “route.” It’s too restrictive. A good road trip is more like you’re tooling along on a remote two-lane blacktop, you see something, and ask yourself “What the fuck is that?” Then you point your vehicle in that direction. Bonus points for going off-route.

Sorry to say we didn’t do much of that en route to Steubenville. Not enough of it for sure. But it was the last day of the exhibit and a pretty long haul. Almost 270 miles round trip.

Bright and early tomorrow morning, I’ll feed the dog and cat, make coffee — they like it black too — and sit down at the ping pong table to write next week’s column. Who knows where that will go? I never do. Kind of like a road trip.

(The ping pong table’s another story for another time.)

The view from the museum at Historic Fort Steuben. West Virginia across the Ohio River is in the background. Of course, we drove over that bridge.