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.

                                                               

Six Nixed – The Removal is Six Mile Dam

I wrote this in October 2020 to run in GateHouse Media and Gannett publications. I’m also documenting the process for the Canal Society of Ohio and will make photos, video and my writings available to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and historical institutions. Links to videos will be available on YouTube. Note: By December 2020, the dam was gone and bank stabilization work underway.

WARSAW, OHIO — On Monday morning, Oct. 5, an excavator trundled onto a stone causeway behind Six Mile Dam. The boom of the excavator arched out over the concrete rim of the dam, a big hydraulic hammer poised to strike. At 8:37 a.m., a warning beeper sounded. Seconds later the hammer thrust into the concrete with a loud “POK!”

Six Mile Dam Demolition
The First Blow — Oct. 5, 2020

So began the removal of Six Mile Dam. By winter, the 300-foot dam on the Walhonding River will be gone, pretty much without a trace. It will have been reduced to rubble, which will be integrated into the riparian landscape. In March, the riverbanks will be restored to a more natural state.

After the north end of the dam had been dewatered in preparation for demolition, it was plain to see why it had to go. The northern section has sunk about a foot lower than the rest of the dam. Near the north wingwall, a foot-wide crack extends from the top of the dam to the bottom, where it opens up into a hole three feet in diameter. In 2010, divers inspecting the dam found a 10-foot scour hole at the base.

180 Years of History

Six Mile Dam was built in the late 1830s and rebuilt more than 110 years ago. It has been on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ radar for some time. Mike Greenlee, fish management supervisor with the Ohio Division of Wildlife, explained that, if the dam were to fail, it could result in loss of life and severe property damage downstream.

ODNR initiated Six Mile Dam decommissioning procedures 10 years ago. Stantec, an engineering consulting firm, was hired to conduct a study and ultimately do the permitting work. Four alternatives were considered, including total removal.

“Full dam removal was chosen as the preferred alternative,” Greenlee said. “This option would provide the greatest ecological benefit, greatest benefit to public safety and is the most economical alternative for long-term maintenance of this site.”

The estimated project cost is $1.8 million.

Historic preservation is a significant component of the project. The original timber dam was built for the Walhonding Canal. An intact lock chamber sits on a man-made island just upstream of the dam. In the early 20th century, the dam was rebuilt. At that point, it was covered with concrete and an intake chamber was built on the south bank to supply water to Roscoe six miles downstream. That water powered a hydroelectric plant, which operated until 1952.

ODNR hired Lawhon & Associates Inc. for historical documentation and enlisted the Canal Society of Ohio, the Walhonding Valley Historical Society, and Ohio History Connection for guidance. Plans call for establishing a designated state historical site with an informational kiosk and part of a feeder canal control gate on display. A causeway will provide access to the island for viewing what had been Lock Five of the Walhonding Canal.

The Canal Society of Ohio – Preserving History

On Sept. 30, Mary Starbuck and Terry Woods of the Canal Society of Ohio visited the site for a pre-demolition briefing with ODNR. Years ago, Woods wrote a book about the ill-fated Walhonding Canal. The title speaks volumes — “Twenty-Five Miles to Nowhere.” For various reasons, the canal proved to be a boondoggle from the start. Ultimately, it extended north to the Mohican River, just downstream of the present day town of Cavallo.

In his book and subsequent writings, Woods described how the dam was built and later rebuilt atop timbers. Early on, issues arose with the northern end of the dam. Part of the problem might have been that, unlike the southern section, it wasn’t anchored in bedrock. In 1916, a levy was built along the southern riverbank and a canal dug to divert current and ice floes away from that part of the dam. This created the island upstream of the dam.

During their visit, Starbuck and Woods spoke with Greenlee and recorded a video of Woods explaining the history of the dam and canal. This will be preserved as part of ongoing documentation of the dam removal project. Additionally, Gannett Fleming Inc. has been commissioned to take drone footage at intervals throughout the process. ODNR photographers will also document the project and artifacts.

Starbuck and Woods are particularly interested in preserving relics retrieved during demolition. Some could provide clues about the construction and reconstruction of the dam. On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 6, Chet McCormick and Brad Tallarito of Safeco Environmental Services Inc. — the company doing the demolition — hit paydirt. They retrieved a dam timber that had been driven into the riverbed. It was about 15 feet long and beveled at one end.

Prior to that, they had unearthed small pieces of timber, different styles of rebar, and iron spikes. The spikes would have been used to bind timbers or attach concrete to them

McCormick and Tallarito operated excavators in tandem, maneuvering them around the 30-foot wide causeway they had built above the dam. One excavator was equipped with a hydraulic hammer to chip away at the dam. The other used a backhoe to remove chunks of concrete and other debris. McCormick was impressed with how solid the dam was.

“That concrete was a lot harder than we thought,” he said.

A Sad Day at Whispering Falls Campground

Their performance didn’t go unnoticed. Throughout the day, campers at Whispering Falls Campground came out to the riverbank to watch.

The state owns the dam, the island, and a strip of land along the north bank upstream. Whispering Falls Inc. owns the ground upon which the dam was built and both sides of the river downstream. The campground owners and the state worked out an agreement so the dam removal project could proceed. As part of that agreement, ODNR will use stone and concrete from the dam to shore up the north bank of the river to protect the campground from flooding and erosion. Over the years, erosion has taken its toll on the bank in front of the campground.

Rick Smith, 67, was among those watching the early stages of demolition. His family started camping there in 1960.

“It’s been a big part of my life,” Smith said. “For me, it’s a sad day. For younger folks who haven’t been here a long time, it’s just progress to them.”

His father was among the investors who purchased the campground in 1978 from the original owner. Smith inherited his father’s shares. His late mother came up with the name Whispering Falls after the campground changed hands. Smith lamented that, once the dam is gone and the constant sound of rushing water silenced, the name will no longer fit.

With the dam there to attract gamefish and nowhere for them to go upstream, Whispering Falls had a reputation for being a productive fishing hole. Smith sees some potential for improved fish habitat once the dam is gone but he isn’t overly optimistic.

“It’s not going to be the fishing hole it was,” he said.

The good times he had catching gamefish at the dam instilled a lifelong passion for fishing.

“Forty-five years ago, I picked up a flyrod and it’s taken me all over the country,” Smith said.

He recalled that, when he and his brother were young, they’d walk out on the top of the dam when the river was low and look inside what they called the “fish house.” Occasionally they’d see fish trapped inside the large concrete structure.

In reality, the “fish house” was a flood control device the state added to the dam in 1941. No one seems to know how it worked — or whether it worked at all. The demolition process might yield a few clues.

Raze the Dam and Save the Clams

In the first phase of demolition, a five-foot deep opening was made across a wide section on the northern part of the dam. Shortly after 3 p.m. Oct. 5, the backhoe ripped out part of the temporary causeway and water began to rush through the opening in the dam. This was done to lower the water level upstream so a team of volunteers could rescue freshwater mussels from the newly exposed riverbanks.

Cody Fleece explained the process. Fleece is a mussel specialist with Stantec. He’s also in charge of permitting for the entire project. Fleece said that, with normal fluctuations in water level, mussels can retreat to the sediment underwater.

“But when you lower a dam pool suddenly, it changes a lot faster,” he added.

The mussels, including species federally listed as threatened or endangered, would become stranded and die.

On the morning of Oct. 6, Fleece assembled a team of 16 volunteers at the public river access site upstream of the dam. Most were from the Ohio Division of Wildlife and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. During an orientation session, he explained the scope and methodology of the rescue operation.

The plan called for covering both sides of the river between the County Road 27 bridge and the dam. Teams would gather mussels from designated sections marked with bright orange surveyor’s tape.

By late afternoon, the teams gradually returned to the river access site. Fleece and others, sorted the mussels by species, measured them, and catalogued the specific locations where they were found and by what team. PIT tags would be attached with marine adhesive to the shells of endangered or threatened mussels, including sheepnose and rabbitsfoot. All the mussels would then be relocated upstream.

Mussel rescue operations are expected to continue through Oct. 12.

A Boon for Paddlers and Aquatic Life

Once the natural flow of the river is reestablished, it will benefit fish and other aquatic life. It’s also expected to enhance recreation for anglers and paddlers. Paddle sports have surged in popularity in the past decade or so.

Doug McLarnan, stewardship director of the Ohio Chapter of the American Canoe Association, stopped by Oct. 5 to check on the progress of the dam removal. He believes that, with more and more people taking up kayaking, this will provide a welcome alternative to already crowded rivers such as the Mohican and Kokosing.

He won’t miss the Six Mile Dam portage.

“This dam has vexed me my entire canoeing career of almost 60 years,” McLarnan said. “I’ve only known it as an obstacle and little of its history.”

Regardless, Six Mile Dam’s rich history will be preserved — as will the river, which has an even longer history. Much longer. Come next year, the Walhonding River from Mohawk Dam to its confluence with the Tuscarawas River in Coshocton will flow free for the first time in 180 years.

                                                                   

An Airboat Crash and Other Mohican River Mysteries

Messages in bottles, talk of witchcraft, and an airboat crash on the Mohican River. Just another canoe trip adventure.

This happened years ago. It came to mind last month when I camped on the same island where Joe Hughes and I once stayed. I’m not sure how long ago it was but I’m pretty sure it was on an Easter weekend.

Early on in the canoe trip, Joe and I found dozens of plastic bottles floating in the river near Perrysville. The bottles had folded papers inside, suspended in clear liquid that reeked of vinegar. The papers had hand-written names scrawled over and over. They had been photocopied, folded, then rolled and stuffed into the bottles.

Years ago, I wrote an article about the mysterious bottles for the Ashland Times-Gazette. One of my coworkers speculated that witchcraft might have been involved. From that day forward he regarded me with suspicion, avoiding eye contact and murmuring what sounded like counter spells when our paths crossed.

Over the years, I’ve found these bottles floating in logjams or washed up on the bank — always containing pieces of paper with names written over and over and suspended in vinegar. I found one as far downstream as Philo on the Muskingum River.

Perrysville was the farthest upstream I’ve found them. There was a high concentration of them in the river, so Joe and I concluded that someone must have dumped them off the Ohio 95 bridge.

I fished a few of the bottles out of the river so I could analyze them later.

Perhaps my coworker was right about witchcraft because, further downstream, Joe and I had another bizarre encounter. We were paddling past the old Camp Nelson Dodd. Downstream we heard what sounded like the roar of an airplane engine. There was a loud thud, then dead silence.

We looked at each other in astonishment.

“Sounded like a plane crash,” Joe said.

We paddled our canoes around a bend just past the camp. There, buried in the bank, was a homemade airboat. Up on the bank stood two bewildered looking men, survivors of the crash apparently.

The boat looked like something Red Green would have made. (For those lost souls unfamiliar with Red Green, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvgS2numBo0.) If Red Green had built the boat, the seat — an old kitchen chair — would have been attached with duct tape. But it wasn’t; it was attached with hose clamps.

That night, Joe and I camped on the aforementioned island. We sat by the campfire, drinking beers and discussing the day’s events.

“Do you think we should have helped those guys?” Joe said.

“No,” I said. “Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.”

This originally ran as one of my weekly columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times Shopper and GateHouse Media websites.

The River Gods Smile Upon the Mohican Troglodyte

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Looking south from my Mohican River island paradise.

 

It would be insane to camp here. It would be crazier not to.

Those were my thoughts as I explored an island on the lower Mohican River. I hadn’t been on the river very long that day, a little over an hour. The more I walked around the island and marveled at the captivating views in every direction the more I was inspired to camp there.

Not that I had a lot of river to cover that weekend. The stretch from Brinkhaven to Mohawk Dam could easily be covered in a day. My objective was to spend three days on a short section of river — camping, exploring, taking photos and mostly relaxing.

A swamp milkweed plant near the head of the island clinched it. I beached my canoe and started to unload my gear.

I found two swamp milkweed plants in full bloom and several smaller ones along the bank. Monarch butterflies are partial to them. I hoped to see one during my stay. Higher up on the south-facing bank, was a sizable patch of wildflowers. It would be in direct sunlight much of the day — and likely become a butterfly garden.

The bank at the head of the island rose gradually to a high vantage point making for easy access and a commanding view. From there, I could see upstream for nearly a quarter-mile. The terrain up top was incredibly level. The island itself was forested with silver maple, sycamore, and a few other species. The understory was sparsely populated with woodland vegetation. It was easy to get around, with very little in the way of nuisance species such as multiflora rose and poison ivy.

There were signs that someone had camped there within the past year or so — a few rocks that had served as a fire ring and a clothesline had been strung between two trees. Other from that, there was no litter. I cut down the clothesline, something I do at any campsite I come across. (A word of caution: Never use river rocks for a fire ring. Water trapped inside the rocks can expand when heated, causing them to explode.)

I had camped on the island on one other occasion. That was about 20 years ago with my longtime canoeing buddy Joe Hughes. More on that in a future column.

The first day of the trip had been peaceful. This one would not.

Fortunately, I got a nap in early. I set up my tent where it would be in the shade all day. Then I strung the rainfly from overhanging silver maple limbs — as an extra layer to shield it from the sun.

When I awoke, I donned my birthday suit and took a dip in the cool river. I looked upstream to see flailing kayak paddles in the distance. I put my shorts back on and retreated up the bank to my campsite.

In the course of the day at least three dozen paddlers went by. Two groups of kayakers stopped to hang out on a gravel bar at the head of the island. I said hello to let them know I was there, then went about my business.

Most of that involved sitting around enjoying the scenery and grabbing my camera when an interesting butterfly showed up to nectar on the wildflowers. The sightings included spicebush swallowtails, a red admiral, silver-spotted skippers, a sycamore tussock moth, a hummingbird moth and a variety of dragonflies. There was no sign of monarchs or their caterpillars on the milkweed.

Late in the afternoon, I saw two canoes approaching with a man, woman, and assorted children aboard. I sat there quietly as they passed the head of the island. When I heard the man say there are three islands here, I rose to my feet and said, “You’re right.”

They all looked back to see a disheveled troglodyte — half man, half beast — emerging from the brush atop the island.

“Are you the Irv?” the man asked.

“I am,” I responded.

Turns out he was a Facebook acquaintance and kindred spirit named Travis Simpkins. He and his family were out on a day excursion.

After a delightfully peaceful night on the island, I ate breakfast and broke camp. I lugged my canoe down to the river, taking care not to trample the milkweed. As I started to head up the bank to fetch my gear, I glanced at one of the milkweed blossoms. There was a monarch caterpillar nibbling on a leaf!

Once again, the river gods had smiled upon me.

This was originally published in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times Shopper and other GateHouse Media websites.

Come heaven or low water – how to do a one-day trip in three days

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I find it best to ignore my own advice. In a previous column I advised kayak and canoe campers to avoid the Mohican River because it’s running pretty low these days. The day after the column ran, I loaded my canoe and set out on the Mohican.

Recent rains had inched up the water level a bit. Not that it would have mattered. I was resigned to dragging my canoe over gravel bars, rocks, submerged tires, and lazy catfish; I just needed to get away for a few days. I ran the river (some would say crawled) from just below Brinkhaven on the Mohican to Mohawk Dam on the Walhonding.

Normally, that would be a one-day trip. I did it in three.

On the first day, I paddled nearly five miles, stopping along the way to explore and nap. On the second day,  I decided not to overdo it and limited myself to a little over three miles.

But seriously, I did what I set out to do — disappear from civilization for three days and enjoy the river.

The water level turned out not to be a factor. I had to get out and drag my canoe over one gravel bar. And that was because I was preoccupied taking photos of an old bridge and didn’t notice the gravel bar till it was too late.

The lack of rain had one benefit — absolutely no mosquitoes!

However, the dry warm weather did bring out other pests. But, being out there on the river without a care in the world buoyed my spirits to the point I could actually tolerate people being around.

The first night I stayed at one of my favorite campsites near Cavallo. While sipping on a rum and Coke after dinner, I thumbed through my journal and saw that I had last camped there Jan. 29. The firewood I left then hadn’t been touched.

It would remain untouched. I opted not to have a campfire. The wildlife rewarded me with quite a show. A large silver maple limb lay in the river along the bank in front of me. The leaves weren’t wilted and no debris had washed up into the branches, an indication that the limb had broken off very recently. At dusk, a wood duck led her ducklings into the dense cover of the branches and silvery-green leaves to shelter for the night. A bald eagle flew by, coming so close I could almost feel the air move from the powerful thrusts of its wings. A hundred yards downstream, a doe crossed the river to the island. Later, a buck did the same, not 50 yards from where I sat.

Through the night, the deer would bark occasionally — probably alerting one another to my presence. Barred owls chimed in with their familiar chorus of “Who cooks for you?” There were no other sounds. Except for my snoring.

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

Happy campers make the most of troubled times

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Sy and Kiley at the Ohio Bird Sanctuary

I’m not one to make light of the pandemic but I do make the most of it. Just ask the grandkids.

I figured out a way to have them over last weekend while maintaining social distancing. Maintaining my sanity  — not so much.

With thunderstorms in the forecast, camping was out of the question. So I improvised. I set up a “campsite” on a large screen porch overlooking the woods. I set up a few freestanding tents so they could each have their own sleeping space. We ended up being one tent short, so grandpa had to “sleep under the stars.” (I stopped short of going out and buying one of those devices that projects stars onto the ceiling.)

In lieu of a campfire, I laid down some tinfoil on the floor, placed a red blinking light on it, stacked green sticks over that and put rocks around it. To lend a touch of realism, I set up a tripod and hung a coffeepot from it.

To complete the effect, I added folding chairs, assorted mess kits and an electric lantern.

My granddaughter, Kiley, decided it needed one more touch — a dogeared copy of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories.” Kiley reads better than I do, but she insists that, every night before bed, grandpa read “How the First Letter Was Written.”

I suspect that Kiley likes that story in particular because she identifies with the main character, Taffimai Metallumai, or Taffy for short. In Kipling’s words: “That means, ‘Small-person-without-any-manners-who-ought-to-be-spanked’.” Over the years, Kiley and I have enjoyed recreating Taffy’s antics. That includes drawing on sycamore bark with a stone and making snow beavers in the winter to replicate the beaver swamp near the cave where Taffy “lived cavily.”

Along with clothing, an iPad and toiletries, Kiley packed 3-year-old Sy. Sy is short for “Syclone.” Sy will someday make a great detective because he leaves no stone unturned, no drawer unopened, nothing in its place …

For months, he’s been talking about fishing, so we made that the focus of the weekend.

It so happened that the Ohio Bird Sanctuary put out word that, due to an influx of eagles in their care, they needed fish to feed them.

Eventually, Sy lost interest in fishing. Kiley didn’t. After I got him tucked into his little sleeping bag, I went out to see what she was up to. It was nearly dark and she was still pulling in sunfish and bluegills. Kiley had tired of sardine-sized bluegills stripping worms from her hook, so she improvised; she started using flowers for bait. And it worked!

In the morning, we headed to the Ohio Bird Sanctuary with two one-gallon bags of frozen sunfish.

As we were leaving the bird sanctuary we spotted a turkey hen leading her poults across Orweiler Road. It was a good omen and a fitting conclusion to a weekend well-spent. And a reminder that, even in times of pandemic, life goes on.

Info on donating fish to the Ohio Bird Sanctuary is available at https://www.facebook.com/ohiobirdsanctuary.org.

Canoeing brings me closer to the best things in life

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The bouquet of flowers I picked for mom — placed in an appropriate vessel.

A few days before my latest canoe trip I visited my mother at her apartment in an assisted living facility. In spite of the pandemic, my siblings and I are allowed in-person visits because mom’s in an end-of-life situation. I told her I planned to go canoeing soon.

“Take me with you,” she said.

“I always do,” I told her.

In her honor, I made it a point to take along a six-pack of Pepsi. Mom’s been a Pepsi drinker all her life. In the ’60s, she’d send us to Huth’s grocery store on West 41st Street to get her a six-pack. We’d take the empties back to get the two-cent deposit. (In those days two cents was roughly the equivalent of $45 in today’s money.)

At the risk of alienating half my readers, I prefer Coca Cola for my mid-day caffeine fix. Its syrupy sweet taste is like a sultry lover, gently awakening you. Pepsi’s sharp, crisp taste slaps you in the face and says, “Wake up, bucko!”

In my last column, I left off at Bill Conrad’s place along the Mohican River near Greer. I’d stopped there for a chat on the second day of a three-day canoe trip. After visiting with Bill, I slid my canoe from the muddy bank into the river and drifted further and further from civilization. That’s what canoe trips are all about.

Come late afternoon, I found a campsite with a great river vista. It was situated on a point that afforded a 190-degree panorama of gently flowing current with trees, meadows, and towering hills in the background. With a view like that, I knew that I wouldn’t need a campfire that night. I placed my folding chair at the best vantage point. From there I could sit for hours, watching day turn into night.

Civilization found me temporarily; a group of kayakers drifted by. They didn’t seem to notice me. The women were lost in conversation and the men were busy sharing a hand-rolled cigarette. I thought to say something to startle them but was content just to sit there and chuckle to myself.

Along the riverbank, butterflies and bees flitted from flower to flower — dame’s rocket mostly. Phoebes, cardinals, and Baltimore orioles darted in and out of the foliage in the trees above. That’s another benefit of sitting quietly with no campfire; the wildlife grows comfortable with your presence.

In the morning, I drank a Pepsi in mom’s honor. I made up a bouquet of wildflowers, put them in the empty can, and set it on the deck of my canoe. I took a photo to share with mom on my next visit.

When I showed her the photo, she smiled. That’s the most we can hope for these days — a smile and an “I love you.”

 

 

This originally ran as an outdoors column in the Ashland Times-Gazette, Loudonville Times Shopper and GateHouse Media websites.

A campsite visit from the ghost of Christmas poems past

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Lake Fork was the setting for my Christmas poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas Revisited.” It debuted in this column six months ago.

The poem — in part — went something like this:

The moon lit the river a mile upstream,

And revealed a glimpse of an unlikely scene;

What I saw then, gave me a start —

’Twas a miniature sleigh pulled by eight thrashing carp!

 With a gaunt little driver who looked kind of sick,

Was this just a nightmare, or was it St. Nick?

I dove into my tent and crouched low to the ground,

Past Joe’s hammock St. Nicholas came with a bound …

The poem was inspired by many joyful evenings spent camping with friends along Lake Fork of the Mohican River. There might have been some liquid inspiration involved as well.

On my most recent canoe trip, I opted to spend the first night at Toodik Family Campgrounds. I prefer wild camping but sometimes it’s hard to resist the creature comforts of a campground and the hospitality of its hosts. After a long day on the river — which included a demanding portage — it was nice to settle down at a place with an easy landing, mowed grass, picnic tables, and flush toilets.

There’s another advantage to using a campground the first night of a canoe trip; you can set up a basecamp there. That allows you to run an empty boat on the first leg of the trip. That really helps when you’re paddling in the headwaters of a stream where you’ll be carrying around logjams.

It’s also nice to have a tent set up and your bedroll ready when you get off the river. Especially if you arrive early enough to catch a quick nap before dinner.

When setting up a basecamp, I sometimes pack a small bag of ready-to-light charcoal. That way I’m not spending a lot of time building a fire and waiting for it to burn down so I can cook supper.

Another advantage of this scenario is you can bring firewood from home. Firewood can be scarce at public and private campgrounds, especially as the summer wears on. For my latest trip, I packed about a dozen pieces of seasoned, split firewood — mostly cherry. It made for a pleasant fire that lasted long enough to allow me to nurse a few beers and savor a quiet evening before settling in for a long summer’s nap.

After a glorious day on Lake Fork, I lay in my tent, eyes closed, listening for the sound of St. Nicholas and his eight thrashing carp.

You can revisit “A Visit from St. Nicholas Revisited” at https://irvoslin.wordpress.com/2019/12/23/a-visit-from-st-nicholas-revisited/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Babbling Brook – The Wild Tales Lake Fork Could Tell

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If the banks of Lake Fork could talk, I’d probably have to move to a different planet. Oh, the canoe trip stories that branch of the Mohican River could tell!

A few of the stories might be suitable to tell in mixed company. Although that might be stretching it.

For years, my canoeing buddies and I considered Lake Fork our “home river.” Ninety percent of our canoe trips started there. On occasion, things would get out of hand and we wouldn’t make it beyond Lake Fork. It’s pretty sad when you take three days to cover 13 miles of river.

Among the more memorable stories is the one about Joe’s tarp blowing away one February night. It can get pretty breezy when the temperature drops 35 degrees in a couple of hours.

Then there was the time I stepped out of my tent in the middle of a rainy night to find myself standing at the edge of the river. Four hours earlier, when we turned in for the night, the river was nearly 100 feet from our tents.

On another night — in the middle of summer — one of the guys decided to cook a whole pig over a campfire. That did not go well. To make matters worse, he insisted on lugging the half-cooked pig in his canoe for two more days. He planned to finish cooking it when he got home. The pig remained in the closed bed of his pickup truck for another week or so.

I brought all this up because I’m headed out soon for a canoe trip on Lake Fork. This time I plan to make it to the mainstream of the Mohican River — maybe go as far as Greer or Brinkhaven. I won’t be bringing a whole pig to cook. It’ll only be me, so a few sausages will do.

I always look forward to returning to Lake Fork. Haven’t been on it in a few years, so this will be a homecoming of sorts. If you happen to be in the area, don’t be alarmed if you hear someone chortling in the distance. That’ll be me — recalling another one of our misadventures.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even find Joe’s tarp.

This originally was published as one of my outdoors columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette and other GateHouse Media newspaper websites. There will be a few more columns on this trip, which was May 31-June 2. It officially marked 40 years of canoe camping.