Motel Camping on the Muskingum River

Not What You’d Call Glamping

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Illustration by Joe Hughes

Cue “Jaws” theme music. Assorted old folks are draped over lounge chairs scattered around a motel swimming pool. They read books or talk among themselves. The surface of the water in the pool glistens in the summer sun.

The gate to the pool area swings open. Enter a middle-aged man wearing a Panama hat, sunglasses, cutoff jeans and a bright orange life vest. He is sunburned and sweaty.

The motel patrons continue reading and talking among themselves. They don’t seem to notice this stranger in a hat and life vest. He walks across the hot concrete deck and, without breaking stride, drops into the deep end of the pool. A few of the old folks put down their books or abruptly stop talking.

Cut to a close shot of the man in the pool, suspended from his life vest, bobbing in the water. An oily sheen forms around him on the surface of the water, a mixture of dust, sweat, and sunscreen.

One by one, the elderly folks close their books, gather their beach towels and beat a hasty retreat, trying their best not to stumble over their canes and walkers.

Not a scene you’d expect to see on a canoe trip, but there I was — camped at a motel in Beverly, Ohio. It was one of three I stayed at on my canoe trip from Brinkhaven on the Mohican River to Marietta at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers.

In this case, it was a combination motel and rest home. Half of the compound had been converted to senior citizen housing. Truckers, down-and-outers, and — on this night — a canoe bum occupied rooms in the other half.

On this trip, I took a break from primitive camping on two other occasions. I spent a night at a bed and breakfast in McConnellsville and another at a motel in Marietta.

In McConnellsville I stayed at what is now the Three Sisters Sunset Inn. It might have been called something else back then.

Like the motel/rest home in Beverly, I had to lug my camping gear across Ohio 60. Both places had docks on the river, as do many bars and restaurants along the Muskingum. It wasn’t safe to leave stuff in your boat and locking your canoe to the dock with a cable was advised.

The McConnellsville bed and breakfast was operated by a couple. I had made a reservation well before setting out on the trip. When I checked in, they told me they were headed off to a concert in Columbus. I was the only guest and they more or less asked me to keep an eye on the place in their absence.

I was only too glad to oblige. It had rained heavily the night before. I unpacked my tent and rainfly and draped them over the furniture in my room. It reminded me of when I was a kid and draped blankets over the furniture for make-believe camping.

For the final night of the trip, I had made arrangements to stay at the Lafayette Hotel, which is located at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers. The plan was to have a friend drive to Marietta the next day to pick me up. I had called the hotel manager weeks earlier and explained what I was doing. He seemed intrigued and told me I could stay there.

When I arrived, a clerk told me all the rooms had been booked for the night. I explained the situation and asked to see the manager. I told him I was exhausted after two weeks on the river and offered to sleep in a broom closet or a dark corner of the basement. He apologized and told me I couldn’t because of fire regulations. I don’t suppose it would have made any difference if I told him I didn’t plan to make a campfire.

My 157-mile canoe trip became a 160-mile canoe trip. I had no choice but to paddle three miles back upstream to a motel I had passed along the way. It had a dock on the river. I don’t recall the name of the motel; I think it was a former Motel 6 operating under a different name and renting rooms by the hour. Had I looked at the register, I’m sure all the guests had the same surname — Smith. What are the odds?

I ventured out to a convenience store, bought a couple of tallboys — domestic beer because that’s all they had — and retreated to my room. I ordered a pizza. After it arrived, I bolted the door, stacked all the furniture I could lift against it and settled in for the night.

For once in my life I was not a happy camper.

(One of my outdoors columns published in the Ashland Times-Gazette)

 

 

 

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Back when our laptops were made by Royal and Smith-Corona

For the benefit of those who don’t have access to the Ashland Times-Gazette

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My old column header — Negative framed in Rubylith. Ancient technology, like typewriters and fax machines. (Original photo by Kittie Palm-Houser)

We didn’t have smartphones when I took my first canoe trip to Marietta via the Mohican, Walhonding and Muskingum rivers. We didn’t even have dumb phones.

It was the early ’90s and I was writing columns for a weekly paper in Columbus. I made arrangements with the publisher to transmit columns from the river during my two-week trip. In those days, the only technology available was fax. For you younger readers, that was a primitive method for transmitting documents over telephone lines.

I made a portable office for the trip, using a Rubbermaid Action Packer. The lid doubled as a desk, for which I had rigged legs out of PVC pipe. Inside the tote, I packed a 1950s model Royal portable typewriter, typing paper, a paperback dictionary and correction fluid. (I’m a terrible typist.)

I lugged this thing on numerous portages — including Mohawk Dam, which is about four stories tall.

I calculated where I would be when my columns were due and arranged to fax them from the towns of Dresden and Beverly.

That proved to be an adventure in itself. I had to locate businesses in both towns where the managers would be willing to let me use their fax machines. Imagine explaining that over the phone to a total stranger:

“You want to do what?”

“You’re canoeing from where to where?”

“When will you be here?”

“Will you have mud on your feet?”

In Dresden, I faxed my column from a small grocery store. When I first contacted the manager, he was intrigued. He tried to be helpful, telling me I could practically paddle right up to the store. I think he was talking about paddling up Wakatomika Creek, which flows north of town. Very much north of town.

There might be places where Wakatomika Creek meanders and actually brings you closer to the grocery store than the Muskingum River. But that would have involved using a GPS, technology that wasn’t commonly available back then. It also would have required some serious bushwhacking and a hike across private property. I didn’t relish the thought of explaining to a shotgun-toting farmer that I was en route to fax a newspaper column to Columbus.

I probably would have spared us both the bother and told him to just shoot me.

I hiked to the grocery store from my campsite on the Muskingum River and faxed my column. The manager had no idea what to charge me. I offered him what it would cost for a long-distance call to Columbus and a couple of bucks for his trouble. He was happy with that.

Beverly was a different story. I faxed my column from a golf course on the edge of town.

Like the grocery store manager in Dresden, the folks at the golf course were intrigued and eager to hear about my adventures. However, I had to walk them through the process of sending a fax. Up to that point, they had used their fax machine for incoming faxes only — from golfers reserving tee times.

The columns were published, along with a third one I wrote after returning to Columbus. The manuscripts survived the river trip, but not the test of time. Frankly, I don’t remember what I wrote. I was probably too buzzed on fumes from the correction fluid.

Wetsuits – AKA Wearable Saunas

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Illustration by Joe Hughes

Drysuits offer better protection than wetsuits for cold-weather paddlers, but they sure take the fun out of canoe camping.

Drysuits, as the name implies, keep you dry in case you take an unexpected swim. They’re worn over layers of wool, fleece, or — if you’re in an adventurous mood — a sheer negligee.

Wetsuits are more intimate. They’re worn over a layer of sweat. Nothing more.

And sweat you will. A wetsuit is a wearable sauna. No matter how little you paddle and move around, you will sweat. Which is why I prefer a wetsuit; it forces you to exert as little effort as possible during your time on the water. Ideally, you will limit yourself to using your paddle as a rudder. If you can afford it, hire a sherpa to ride along in the canoe and open your beers.

When you arrive at your campsite, you might want to dismiss your sherpa temporarily because things are about to get ugly. You will be peeling off your sweaty wetsuit. Usually sherpas can be gotten rid of by sending them off on a beer run or snipe hunt.

When the coast is clear, start peeling off your wetsuit. This is easier said than done because sweat-soaked neoprene clings to your flesh like a second skin. So, as you writhe and squirm to free yourself, think of a beautiful butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. Even though you probably look more like the Pillsbury Doughboy trying to escape from a rubber straightjacket.

Oddly enough, I enjoy this. Maybe it’s the refreshing sensation the windswept winter air caressing my skin.

This is just a preview of what’s to come in the morning when you prepare for another day on the river. By then your wetsuit will be cold and clammy. It might even be coated with a layer of frost. The feeling of an icy wetsuit enveloping your naked body is beyond exhilarating.

If, by now, your sherpa has returned, do your best to practice some restraint. Your shrieks might scare him off and you’ll be stuck opening your own beer.

Dismay on Ice

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 08.00.08I tried ice fishing once. It did not go well.

My late Uncle Paul made arrangements with a Lake Erie charter captain he knew to take us ice fishing on the West Basin. The captain met us on a beach near East Harbor and we piled into an early ’50s Chevy convertible.

It wasn’t an actual convertible. It was a hardtop with the roof cut off. It didn’t appear that the roof had been removed with conventional cutting tools; more like it had been gnawed off by Godzilla.

As we rolled out onto the ice en route to the ice shanty, the captain announced, “If you hear ice cracking, jump clear.”

I felt like jumping right then and there, just to be on the safe side. Had someone so much as cracked his knuckles, I would have been out of there and turning horizontal cartwheels across the ice.

We made it to our shanty unscathed, piled in and bid the captain adieu.

We sat around a hole in the ice, dangling hooks baited with minnows — for no apparent reason.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Hours passed without so much as a nibble. The minnows died from exposure.

Unlike warm weather fishing, you can’t move to another spot when the fish aren’t biting. We were stuck in the shanty until the charter captain returned.

We passed the time with idle conversation, during which each of us confessed that we hadn’t bothered to bring our fishing licenses. After all, who’s going to come out there in the bitter cold checking licenses?

We were talking about how things couldn’t possibly get worse when we heard a snowmobile pull up followed by a knock at the door.

“Game warden,” a man outside announced.

 

This was published earlier this year — one of my outdoors columns for the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times-Shopper.

Stagestuck — Appleseed Amphitheater in Limbo

A venue that was, in effect, stillborn. Pretty much mothballed after a dismal opening season.

MIFFLIN, OHIO — The gate was open when I drove by the mothballed Johnny Appleseed amphitheater this afternoon. So I pulled in to have a look around.

About a hundred yards past the gate, a crane loaded logs onto a tractor-trailer. The logging equipment reminded me of vultures, picking a carcass. The forest surrounding the amphitheater belongs to Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District. They’re still looking for a way to repurpose the facility.

A boarded up ticket booth and a sad looking concrete statue of Johnny Appleseed spoke volumes. The play — a musical that some deemed “too Disneyesque” — was a resounding flop. The center was built at a time attendance was flagging at other outdoor dramas in the state.

Still, you had to admire their determination, the folks who dared to dream big and roll the dice.

They lost. The Appleseed Center and two shuttered bars nearby sit like scabs upon the landscape in a corridor once considered promising.

The sign says it all.


Vines begin to consume galvanized steel apple plaques at the back of the grandstand. A light tower stands sentry — for no reason other than a prolonged death watch.

A sad looking Johnny Appleseed — his hat damaged by the elements, teeters on its base.

Gauging Rocky Fork

Online Help for Planning River Trips

(From my outdoors column published in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times.)

The Mohican’s latest river gauge on Rocky Fork at Lucas

When I paddled Rocky Fork of the Mohican River four years ago, there was no river gauge. Now there’s one in Lucas. It sure would have come in handy.

As I mentioned in my 2014 series of articles on the forks of the Mohican River, the window for paddling the lower section of Rocky Fork is very narrow. It lives up to its name, so if you paddle it at normal levels, when it’s shallow, the rocks will shred your hull. It’s a narrow stream with steep banks and plenty of obstacles. Running it at high water levels would be suicide.

By finding the optimum depth and flow levels, then taking note of the readings on the Lucas gauge, paddlers can determine when it’s suitable to run. Gauge readings can be accessed online.

It was during heavy rains in late October that I learned about the Lucas gauge. I went online to check river levels and noticed it. However, I wasn’t quite sure whether this referred to the Melco gauge, where Rocky Fork empties into Black Fork of the Mohican River between Charles Mill Dam and Perrysville.

I called Scott Collins, the dam keeper at Charles Mill. He told me that there was, indeed, a new gauge. He had asked the folks at U.S. Geological Survey to install one in Lucas, where Rocky Fork flows under Ohio 39. He plans to use data from that gauge and Melco to keep track of how the flow is progressing between Lucas and the confluence.

“I’m hoping it will help me be more proactive at Charles Mill,” Collins said.

If all goes well, he’ll be able to let a little more water out of Charles Mill before water levels get too high at the confluence of Rocky and Black forks. When that happens, he has to start lowering the gates gradually at the dam.

USGS installed the gauge within the past year. A few years ago, one was installed on Clear Fork of the Mohican River in Bellville.

When it comes to gauges, the more the merrier. Not just for emergency management officials, but for paddlers. By accessing the gauges on the Mohican Watershed — or any watershed — canoeists and kayakers can determine whether it’s safe to paddle. Or whether the streams are too shallow. It’s just a matter of learning your watershed and what that data means.

When in doubt, check with someone who is knowledgeable. Paddling groups on social media and livery operators can be a good resource.

To find information on Ohio rivers and streams go to the USGS Current Water Data page at https://waterdata.usgs.gov/oh/nwis/rt.

The joy – and agony – of tripod grills

More than you ever wanted to know about buying and using tripod grills.

(From a column published in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times-Shopper and other GateHouse Media publications.)

Few camping accessories have rocked my world as much as the tripod grill.

They’re portable enough to pack on canoe trips, durable, easy to set up and break down, and they allow you to regulate your cooking temperature. In fact, you can control the cooking temperature with such precision that my friends and I have roasted whole turkeys on tripod grills.

How durable? I’ve been doing canoe camping for nearly four decades and I’m on only my third tripod grill.

Which isn’t to say that you can use them and abuse them and expect them to last.

If you want to get some mileage on your grill, the first thing you’ll want to consider is the design. To the best of my knowledge, there are two basic designs on the market. One has nine leg sections, the other six.

One is what I call the Coghlan model. It’s marketed under different names, including Coleman. It has nine leg sections, a hub that accommodates a chain to raise and lower the grill and a slide at to the end of the chain that rides up and down one of the legs. The slide can be stopped (by friction) at any point, allowing you to keep the grill in place. The grill is about 18 inches in diameter.

The other design is made exclusively by Rome Industries. Rome’s Model 117EZ has only six leg sections, which attach at the top to three-way crossbars. The crossbars are attached to a round steel disk with a hole in the center. The chain that supports the grill is mounted through the hole and held in place with a large cotter pin. Rome grill features a folding 21-inch grill.

I’ve had the Coghlan model and two Rome tripod grills. However, my Rome grills were of the old design — model 117. This was before Rome changed the design so the whole thing breaks down smaller. Not an improvement in my book. The old model had a 21-inch grill with a raised outer ring. It paid for itself in the sausages and brats it prevented from rolling into the fire.

That said, both designs have eliminated (or reduced) the problem of legs coming apart with the least provocation and dumping your supper onto the ground or into the fire. The Coughlan design uses shock cording (like the stuff inside your tent poles) to hold the leg sections together. Rome uses spring clips.

To my experience, the Rome tripod is more durable. I wouldn’t hesitate to buy either, but Rome would be my first choice.

Here are the good and bad of both:

Coghlan’s mechanism to raise and lower the grill is far superior to the Rome design. With the Rome Grill, you have to reach out over the fire, remove the cotter pin, raise or lower the chain, then reinsert the cotter pin.

There are two problems with that. The chain and cotter pin are hot and you need heavy gloves to handle them. That means it’s easy to drop the cotter pin into the fire and it’s not always convenient to fish it out. I bring a spare. Otherwise, a tent stake or green stick will do. (On one occasion I used the stainless steel knife from my mess kit.) The other problem is you have to raise the chain slightly to take the weight off the cotter pin before pulling it out. Otherwise, you will raise the tripod off the ground and the legs can fall apart. (At least on the old model.)

It helps to pound the legs into the ground when you set up the grill. That’s true for either model. In situations where that’s not possible, such as gravel bars along streams, you can shore up the legs by placing rocks around them.

When it comes to leg design, the edge goes to the Rome model. It’s much easier to deal with six leg sections than nine. The legs are made of hefty tube steel. The Coghlan model stands taller, but that makes it less stable. It’s also less durable. The Coghlan leg sections are larger in diameter and made of galvanized steel. They seem to be more susceptible to heat fatigue and bend more easily when stepped on or otherwise abused.

With either model, the ends of the leg sections occasionally start to split. That’s easily remedied by trimming the split part with a tubing cutter or hacksaw. Trim the other legs so they’re of equal length.

To get more years of use out of your tripod grill, tamp all the dirt out of the legs when you break it down and hose out the insides of the legs after each trip. Dirt and sand hold moisture, which will cause rust. It also helps to clean all parts, including the chains.

To help keep the leg sections from being bent during storage or transport, bind them all together with Velcro straps.

I like to replace the stock chains and hooks with heavier duty ones. If you’re going to attempt to cook a whole turkey, you’ll definitely want to do this. 

The best way to get more mileage out of your tripod grill is to keep your fire low and preferably not burning against the legs at the base. Heat fatigue will shorten the life of the legs and any grill. When you’re ready to transition from a cooking fire to a campfire, set the grill off to the side. Excessive heat will also pop the welds on the grill. Resist the temptation to burn the food off your grill. Instead, scrub it off with a wadded piece of aluminum foil.

The manufacturers recommend a secondary used for tripod grills when you’re not cooking on them — lantern hangers. They’re also a good place to set your beer.