I found a friend but lost my sole on Lake Fork

Bowling balls float. Did you know that?

I lost my sole on Lake Fork

I learned that years ago when I found one floating among the debris in a logjam on Lake Fork of the Mohican River.

I remembered that last week while paddling on Lake Fork at the start of a three-day canoe trip. Not five minutes after that thought crossed my mind, I spotted a dark blue bowling ball bobbing in the water near a half-submerged log. I hoisted it into my canoe, being careful not to capsize. (I did not want to have to explain to rescuers how I swamped my canoe fishing a bowling ball out of the river.)

On closer examination, I noticed the bowling ball had a name — Charlene.

The name was inscribed right above the finger holes.

What incredible luck, I said to myself. If Tom Hanks could have Wilson the volleyball to keep him company on a desert island in “Cast Away,” I could have Charlene join me on my solo canoe trip. I imagined what great fun we’d have — sitting in front of the campfire, exchanging yarns about canoe trip adventures and nights at the bowling alley.

I had started my trip at Mohicanville Dam expecting to encounter a logjam or two. I was not disappointed. Upstream of Lake Fork Canoe Livery I encountered a series of logjams 150-200 yards long. Charlene and I got out and began our portage.

There’s nothing worse than trekking hundreds of yards through underbrush wearing sandals. Fortunately, I opted at the beginning of the trip to wear an old pair of boots instead. The boots were on their last leg, so I didn’t mind getting them wet.

Besides, they didn’t owe me anything; I had invested more in Shoe Goo to keep them intact than I’d paid for the boots in the first place.

The river gods shone mightily upon me that day. As I raised my foot to step into my canoe at the end of the portage, the sole peeled off of my left boot.

I stowed the sole in my canoe and pressed on.

“Charlene,” I said, “This has been one lucky day.”

This originally was published as my Oct. 11, 2020, outdoors column in the Ashland Times-Gazette.

Don’t Get Mad: Get Better

Curtis Casto’s Journey, Part Two

Big River — One of Curtis’ photos from his Muskingum trip

Some say, “Don’t get mad, get even.” I say, “Don’t get mad, get better.”

That’s exactly what Curtis Casto did. After finding himself overweight and in bad health, the 64-year-old Mount Vernon man took up kayaking and whipped himself into shape. He lost 110 pounds and, with one year of paddling experience under his belt, he set out in May on a 160-mile kayak trip from Mount Vernon to Marietta.

His inexperience quickly caught up to him. On the first day of the trip, his kayak became lodged under a log on the Kokosing River and he nearly drowned. Fortunately, there were plenty of other kayakers around to rescue him. Curtis was on a group excursion — Paddle For Heroes’ annual trip to Marietta in support of military veterans and first responders.

Curtis ended up in Knox Community Hospital, where he was treated for hypothermia.

He knew what he had to do — get better.

I’ll let him tell it:

“I was very disappointed to say the least. I fell into a depression for a couple days, but then decided that I needed to keep training. I got an idea to take the more dangerous parts out of the Mount Vernon to Marietta trip and do the rest (the Muskingum River) by myself. I called several of the supporters of the Paddle For Heroes group and made arrangements to stay for the nights that I would be on the river. I got some kayak specific equipment to use, like dry bags for my equipment and supplies and a better paddle. I made some modifications to my boat so it would not fill up with water anymore. I planned the trip for Thursday the 17th of June to Monday June 21st so I would go through the locks on the river at the correct times.”

Before we continue with Curtis’ story, a few notes on the rivers between Mount Vernon and Marietta. That journey begins on the Kokosing, which becomes the Walhonding, then the Muskingum. The Kokosing is a relatively narrow and winding river and can be challenging at certain levels. Especially near Millwood at a place known as the Factory Rapids. Curtis was wise to avoid the Kokosing on his first long solo trip. That still left him with 110 miles of the Muskingum to cover.

The Muskingum is a big lazy river. Except during periods of high flow. There are plenty of dangerous obstacles on the Kokosing and a few on the Walhonding in the form of rapids, boulders, and partially submerged logs. Six Mile Dam on the Walhonding was removed last year but a partially submerged causeway remains in place across the river. (The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to sign off on removing part of the causeway to accommodate canoes and kayaks.)

There are bigger obstacles on the Muskingum — locks and lowhead dams. Ten of them. One of them, Ellis Lock and Dam, is a mandatory portage. The lock fell into disrepair long ago and probably will never be restored. Speaking from experience, it’s an easy portage. Some of the other dams on the river are not. Particularly Philo — which one Ohio Department of Natural Resources employee described as “impossible to portage.”

I’ve portaged Philo Lock and Dam twice. The second time, I paid a local with an old Crown Victoria $50 to haul me, my canoe, and my gear around the dam. It was worth every penny.

The locks are open and operational during certain times of year, days of the week, and certain hours, so you have to schedule your trip to arrive at those times. For information online: https://ohiodnr.gov/wps/portal/gov/odnr/go-and-do/plan-a-visit/find-a-property/muskingum-river-state-park

That said, I’ll let Curtis continue his story:

“The 17th came and my wife Marsha took me to Coshocton and I started my trip. It was an uneventful first day, making it to Ellis Lock and camping there. I left very early the next morning, hitting the water just before sunrise. I got to Zanesville before the lock opened so I portaged the boat and headed to the most scary part of the trip, Philo Lock. 

“There is no safe place to portage if you do not get through the lock. I got to the lock, followed the procedure, whistling to the lock operator as a signal to let me through. I whistled and whistled but no one answered. I was not going to let anything stand in my way of making it to the end of this river. I paddled back up the river a few hundred feet, got out  and started hauling my equipment through the woods to a road and down the road to the new bridge over the river at Philo. This was about a half mile. I did not know how I was going to do it but I went back to get the boat and was going to carry it the same way but I saw the lock operator and she let me through with the boat. On my way again.”

Next week: A determined Curtis Casto soldiers on.

A real cliff-hanger (or log-hanger) – Curtis Casto’s perilous and victorious journey, part one

Curtis Casto and his modified kayak

Perseverance. In my book, that’s the most admirable of all traits. That’s why I just had to meet Curtis L. Casto.

Late Sunday morning I drove down to Mount Vernon to meet Curtis and see the kayak in which he nearly lost his life. In May, he set out with a group of paddlers bound for Marietta via the Kokosing, Walhonding and Muskingum rivers. It was the annual 160-mile Paddle For Heroes kayak trip — a show of support for military veterans and first responders.

Curtis didn’t make it very far.

As he explained in an email he sent the previous week:

“On the first day of the trip to Marietta I was not prepared with the proper equipment for kayaking and too much equipment for the trip. My boat was overloaded. I went around a log in the river that I had went around already at least five times this year. But this time was different. The boat got caught under the log, pinning me inside the boat, filling up with water. Hanging on with one arm, I kept going down, almost to my neck.

“By this time other paddlers came to my rescue. It took five guys to get me out from under the log so I could get out of the boat. It was very cold that day, 53 degrees, which is too cold to be wet all day. I continued on with the trip, but my boat kept filling with water and dragging on the bottom and I kept getting colder. I called my wife to meet me in Howard and decided to end my trip. I did not realize how cold I had gotten and was suffering from hypothermia. I ended up in the Knox Community Hospital ER with a bag of IV and many warm blankets.”

When I first heard of his misadventure and his determination to persevere, I contacted Curtis. I told him I wanted to tell his story in my outdoors column. He didn’t need me to tell his story; his email did that nicely. And it goes much deeper than an aborted paddling trip — he included the backstory and an account of how he later set out on his own to complete the trip to Marietta.

More on that in a future column, but here’s the backstory. Curtis, 64, had taken up kayaking only a year earlier. The sport that almost killed him, helped keep him alive. Curtis, a six-year U.S. Army veteran, was overweight and had a number of health problems.

I’ll let him tell it:

“I struggled with weight my entire life — slow health deterioration over the last 20 years with diabetes, back pain, high blood pressure. Very out of shape, with severe pain and arthritis. Weight had gotten up to 314. I was using a rolling walker to walk anything over 50 feet. Didn’t go anywhere or do much of anything. I was becoming housebound.

“In March and April of 2020, after reading much about COVID and seeing that people like me were being killed by it, I started taking my health seriously. I contacted a dietician at the VA Outpatient Clinic in Columbus and began the M.O.V.E. program with her. I began to lose weight. In May (2020) I bought a kayak. This seemed to be one exercise that excited me. I started using the Paddle For Heroes ADA Kayak Launch at Ariel-Foundation Park almost daily, paddling 3 to 5 miles a day. I paddled up until about the end of November when it became too cold.”

Ariel-Foundation Park in Mount Vernon is where I met with Curtis on a recent Sunday morning. We talked for an hour or so and he showed me his kayak, which he modified after his mishap on the Kokosing River.

In a future column, I’ll tell you more about the boat and let Curtis tell you about his quest to finish the trip to Marietta.

Paddling with small children – You can get a lot of mileage from a short trip

My tent is nearly 30 years old. How do I know this? I first used it on a canoe trip with my 3-year-old daughter. It was a learning experience for both of us.

The tent served us well on that trip. We camped on an island on the Walhonding River between Mohawk Dam and Six Mile Dam and got absolutely dumped on. It started pouring early in the evening and didn’t let up till the middle of the night. We ended up eating cold spaghetti out of a can inside the tent. Ramona loved it.

So did I. Not exactly a hearty camp meal, but it served as a reminder of the joy of novel experiences.

There would be plenty of that on our little overnight outing.

Her mom asked what clothes she should pack for the trip.

“A few dresses,” I told her.

“Dresses?”

“Yes,” I said. “It’ll make life much easier when she has to pee.”

We were city folks and Ramona had not yet learned the art of peeing in the woods. It was a novel experience for her. The novelty didn’t wear off till weeks after the canoe trip. It’s a good thing we had a privacy fence in the back yard.

This novel experience led to another adventure during our trip. Ramona asked me to pull off the river so she could go. As I back-paddled into a landing, a small bass — spooked by the paddle — jumped out of the water. The canoe rotated while the bass was in midair and it landed on the floor in front of my daughter.

The canoe trip was a learning experience for me as well. It taught me how to tailor outdoor experiences for young children.

First and foremost, you have to account for their short attention span. Not much of a leap for me; I never developed much of an attention span myself. I instinctively knew to keep the trip short — about 10 miles in two days.

Once on the river, I let her set the pace. If she wanted to stop and root around in the shallows for crawdads, that’s what we did.

My nephew and his wife recently came down to the Mohican area with their three young children to camp and spend time on the river. In lieu of canoeing, they wisely opted to take a rafting trip with one of the local liveries. Inflatable rafts offer a more kid-friendly environment. The down side is, rafts are not built for speed. They ended up spending more time on the river than the kids could tolerate.

(By the way, three years ago their oldest daughter served as the poster child for the Friends of the Mohican River Watershed’s first annual litter sweep. This year’s river cleanup will be Sept. 18.)

In my daughter’s case, I learned early on to accommodate youngsters with other diversions while on the river. I stocked the floor of the canoe with “balooking stones.” That’s the name we gave them because of the sound they make when you toss them into the river. Of course, we had to stop often to replenish our supply of stones, which allowed for more crawdad hunting.

Kids are good at finding their own diversions as well — things like splashing their siblings or whacking dad with a canoe paddle. By the way, that old tent of mine still works fine. Maybe I can interest the grandkids in a canned spaghetti supper on the river.

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

Filming Forest Bathing – Lights, Camera, Forget the Action

Night settles in at my Mohican River campsite.

Camping is forest bathing on steroids.

As a rule, I avoid trendy terms like “forest bathing.” But I’ve got to admit there’s something to it.

For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means immersing yourself in the forest — mind, body and spirit. In other words, “getting lost in the woods.”

The term originated in Japan. Except they pronounce it differently; they call it “shinrin-yoku.” Which is Japanese for “getting lost in the woods.” And, instead of walking off into the woods, they plant bamboo, sit in one spot, and wait 15 minutes for a forest to grow around them.

Unlike regular bathing, forest bathing can be done fully or partially clothed. There are times and conditions in which it might be clothing optional. Mosquito season is not one of them. Or in places where there a lot of stinging nettles. Or at a public campground.

Forest bathing is a form of meditation. As with most meditation, the idea is to try to be present — to focus your mind on the here and now. That’s not to be confused with being old, where your mind focuses on the now and what. Now what did I come in here for?

But seriously, on my last canoe trip I experienced a new level of being present — during the time spent on the river and especially during my time in camp. I remained keenly focused on the experience. My mind seldom wandered to places it tends to go on camping trips — trivial things like why I shouldn’t wear open-toed sandals at the campsite, where I packed the first aid kit, and where I parked my truck so I can drive to the hospital for a tetanus shot after the trip.

On both nights I pitched camp quickly, ate supper, then positioned myself to do one of my favorite things in the world — sit and watch daylight morph into darkness.

If you want to master meditation or forest bathing, it helps to be easily amused.

On the first night, I set up a cellphone camera on a tripod in front of my folding chair. It was a site with a particularly picturesque view of the river. Every 10 minutes or so, I shot 30 seconds of video – with the gently flowing river in the foreground and setting sun through the trees in the background.

I’m hoping to edit that together so I can share the experience. That way readers can experience a few moments of forest bathing. Without the mosquitoes. For the record, I was fully clothed while shooting the video.

To view the video, click on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OQIfUPWtL2U

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

Itineraries come in handy for canoe trips – if you need to start a fire

Todd Crocker mans his t-shirt shop on the Mohican River.

Canoe trips tend to take on a life of their own. To me, an itinerary is a suggestion.

Such was the case with the latest trip. On the morning of the day I was to start, my waking thought was “The Bridge.” Which meant I’d put in at the covered bridge in Mohican State Park and start the trip by floating under the new cable footbridge downstream.

I dropped my truck off at Mohawk Dam. My friend, Annette, drove me, my canoe and 8,000 pounds of gear to the covered bridge. The river was too shallow to put in there. She drove down to the end of the primitive campground. It was clear I’d have to get out and wade a few times, but it was deep enough to start from there.

I approached a man fly fishing nearby and asked whether it would disturb him if I put my canoe in there. He said it wouldn’t. As Annette and I started unloading the car, he probably had second thoughts. When I go canoeing, I pack for comfort — folding chair, tripod grill, several gallons of water, and a cooler full of food and beer. Not necessarily in that order. Loading the canoe is a ritual that can take 20 minutes or more. Especially when you’re cramming all that stuff into a solo boat.

I had to get out and wade four times before I made it to the swinging bridge. Open less than a month, the bridge is already a hit with tourist. There were at least a dozen people there when I floated by. There was also a steady stream of people on the trails along the river. With all those spectators you just hope you don’t find yourself in an awkward maneuver — like getting hung up on a boulder in the middle of a rapid or flipping your canoe altogether.

I lucked out and managed not to embarrass myself.

Clear Fork widens and deepens as it nears the confluence with Black Fork, where the Mohican River proper begins. That’s where you start to encounter canoes, kayaks and rafts from the liveries. Add to that flotillas of revelers in private watercraft, including inner tubes and plastic rafts destined to become river trash — deflated, shredded and tangled in snags along the banks. (The inner tubes and rafts mostly. Some of the revelers don’t fair too well either.)

It was a Friday and the river was relatively uncrowded. It was early in the day and the boaters had not yet reached that state of liquid nirvana that renders them annoying to others.

Downstream I encountered a first — for me anyway — a man hawking T-shirts from a deck along the river. I struck up a conversation with the proprietor, Todd Crocker. Seems he’s been in business about four years.

Like me, Todd discovered the joys of the Mohican River in his younger years — and came back for more. Todd told me he used to joke that, after he retired, he’d end up selling t-shirts from a hut on a beach. Not a hut, not exactly a beach, but here he is.

Like our canoe trips, we never quite know where our journeys will take us. That’s how some of us like it.

To be continued.

This originally was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette.

There’s something to be said for postponing dessert

The breathtaking scene outside was too hard to resist.

We gathered with friends Saturday evening at their family farm in Richland County. It had been overcast all day and unseasonably cool. Which seemed fitting — like the long cold absence dictated by the pandemic.

What had been the norm for so many years now seemed surreal. A small gathering over dinner, sans masks. Serving up second helpings of steak, grilled russet potatoes, salad, and stories. Jack surprised us with one we hadn’t heard before.

Through the window — not one of those modern double-pane windows, but one with small panels of wavy glass — I watched a groundhog grazing in the distance. It scampered away when two wild turkeys strutted up the lane. Then a cat appeared in the foreground, hunkering down in a stalking position, nervously flicking its striped, yellow tail.

I called the scene to everyone’s attention.

The turkeys were in no danger; they were a good hundred yards away. They continued to forage nonchalantly. Suddenly, the cat seemed to realize that these birds were much bigger than he thought. He turned and bolted toward the house, drawing a chuckle from his human spectators.

We carried on with our post-dinner conversation — talk of photography, writing, and the evolution of electric vehicles for better or worse. It occurred to me that, a century earlier in that same house, they probably had similar conversations about horseless carriages.

Suddenly, the treetops across the hayfield lit up in gold and green against the darkening gray sky. Rays of sun — God beams, if you will — had broken through the clouds on the western horizon.

Awed, we postponed dessert, scrambled to find our jackets, and headed outside. Five adults and one cat migrated down the lane, across a hayfield and down to the pond. (I’m told it’s the biggest one in Richland County.)

As we descended a hill to the pond, Canada geese near the opposite shore noisily took wing, glowing specks in the golden sunlight. Overhead, a great blue heron soared with minimal movement of its huge wings, its elegant plumage illuminated from below by the setting sun.

It was a glorious ending to what had been a long dreary day — with a glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow.

After we had our fill, we headed back to the farmhouse for a second helping of dessert.

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

Karma and a Good Cigar

One of my favorite canoe stories happened on a Memorial Day weekend. I’ll call it “Karma and a Good Cigar.”

It was, in fact, a good cigar. Very expensive too. It was a gift from a tobacconist in downtown Columbus.

Even if it had been a mediocre cigar — or a lousy one — it would have been the best cigar I ever smoked. Here’s why.

It had been a rainy spring and the Mohican River was running high. So high that canoe liveries weren’t putting people on the river on a holiday weekend. At least not for the whole weekend. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was kind enough to close the dam gates to lower the river for one day so people could canoe.

My friends and I were used to three-day canoe trips on holiday weekends but we settled for two nights of camping at one of the local campgrounds and an afternoon on the river.

The Mohican was moving at a pretty good clip, which made for a quick trip. Since we were only going to be out there for a few hours, I milked it. I tied off my canoe in an eddy while my friends continued downriver.

I lit the cigar and settled back, reclining on the rear deck propped up on one elbow and watching the canoes go by.

The river on that stretch was only three feet deep. But it was muddy, which concealed submerged debris — a combination of sunken tree limbs and litter.

As paddlers floated by, we exchanged pleasantries. I warned them of the hidden obstructions ahead.

Along came a couple in a canoe. They seemed out of place in their spiffy white outfits and had an air about them that told me they were from one of those posh suburbs that everyone makes fun of. You know, places like “Yupper Arlington.”

As they approached, I said hello.

“Oh, hello,” the woman responded through clenched teeth. Which is how people from Yupper Arlington begrudgingly acknowledge your existence.

The male half decided to crack wise. He used a scatological term to describe the cigar in my mouth.

The woman tittered at her companion’s witticism just as the canoe hit a partially submerged log. Over they went.

The couple struggled to corral their paddles and right the canoe. They attempted to climb back into the boat and flipped. Again and again. Eventually the muddy water turned their white outfits into what looked like used teabags.

All the while, I watched — reclined on the deck of my canoe — enjoying my cigar and not saying a word.

The Teepee-Dwelling Tree Monster of Charles Mill Lake

Stylin’ in my Tabonga tree monster toggs, circa 1997.

Yes, it’s true; I did stay in a teepee when I first started working for the Ashland Times-Gazette.

Why? Because I’m marginally domesticated at best. Case in point, a friend visiting my apartment for the first time remarked, “If you gave a bear furniture, this is how it would live.”

Also because of the outrageous rent landlords were charging in town.

When I started working for the paper, I was still living in Columbus. Commuting got old in a hurry. So I started staying in Ashland County during the week and Columbus on weekends.

At first, I camped at Mohican State Park and Charles Mill Lake. Which became an adventure in itself.

Like the night a raccoon crawled into my tent while I was sleeping. I felt its warmth against my feet, which caused me to stir. Half awake, I thought, “Oh, it’s just the cat.” Then I opened my eyes. Instead of the ceiling of my bedroom, I saw the roof of the tent. I recoiled into a corner of the tent. The racoon did the same, retreating to the opposite corner. I slowly made my way to the door, pulled back the flap and tied it off. Then I shooed the raccoon out of the tent.

Then there was the night of the clown car tent. I rolled into the campground late and there was a family — an extended family of sorts — camped on the next lot. They had a fairly large tent, not one of those Taj Mahal size tents, but pretty big. It was probably designed to hold six adults. When I arrived, a man and woman were sitting by the fire. The rest of the family was inside the tent. In the morning, as I made breakfast, they started coming out one by one. About a dozen people of all ages and sizes came out of the tent.

Who knows, maybe the raccoon was in there too.

Eventually, I got to know Dan Mager, who managed Charles Mill Lake Park. I had noticed a disused teepee on one of the lots. It was a large canvas teepee on a wooden platform — a bit rough on the outside but in good shape inside. It was plenty roomy and showed no signs of leaking.

Our conversation went something like this:

“Is anyone using that teepee?”

“No”

“Mind if I stay there?”

“Go ahead.”

So I did. I paid my camping fee by working part-time in the park, picking up litter, pulling out poison ivy, whatever.

I stayed in the teepee through the fall and winter.

An insulated hunting outfit served as my pajamas. It was camouflaged with a tree trunk pattern. I called it my Tabonga suit, after the tree monster in the movie “From Hell It Came.”

In the mornings, I’d join the park staff for coffee in the break room of the maintenance building. One chilly morning, a camper stopped by to chat with the staff and saw me in my Tabonga suit. He asked if I was a camper. I told him I was.

“It sure must be cold in your RV,” he said.

“He doesn’t have an RV,” Dan told him. “He lives in the teepee.”

The camper recoiled into a corner of the break room, eying me like a frightened racoon.

A river mystery that’s all that and a bag of chips

Illustration by John Bailey

Ah, the stories an abandoned cooler could tell.

Of all the coolers I’ve ever owned, I’ve gotten the most pleasure from a blue 48-quart Coleman that I picked up for next to nothing. All it took was the effort to paddle across the Mohican River, pick it up from the shallows, and put it in my canoe.

It had been abandoned. Really. It wasn’t lost or temporarily misplaced. How do I know? Circumstantial evidence. Overwhelming circumstantial evidence.

It was on a warm summer day, many years ago, when Britt and Nancy Young still owned Lake Fork Canoe Livery. I got a call from Nancy asking me to guide an overnight canoe trip for a couple. That’s what’s known as a rhetorical question. She knew I was always up for a canoe trip. Especially a free one.

I don’t remember their names. Let’s call them Jack and Diane. They might have been from Kent or thereabouts.

We set out on an overnighter from the livery to Mohawk Dam. On the last leg of the trip — a couple of miles from the confluence of the Mohican and Kokosing rivers — I spotted the cooler. It was sitting upright in a couple inches of water.

I started to paddle toward it, looked over my shoulder and jokingly said, “Watch, it’ll be full of beer.”

I beached my canoe on a gravel bar, waded over to the cooler and opened the lid. It was loaded to the top with Miller Genuine Draft.

I’m no fan of cheap American beer. Give me a Foster’s or one of the local craft brews any day. But, as cheap American beers go, MGD is not bad. It’s my go to beer when I’m low on cash.

“Well bless my soul,” I shouted (or something to that effect). “This cooler’s full of beer!”

Jack and Diane thought I was joking and paddled over to see.

We had a good laugh over it and I hoisted the cooler into my canoe.

Of course, this begged the question, “How did a cooler full of beer end up in the river?”

A trail of evidence gave us our answer.

The river was running low and the water was clear. As we drifted downstream, we saw several items on the riverbed — a cup cozy, cigarette lighter, a ballcap. Then, about a hundred feet from where I found the cooler, we could see where someone had dragged a canoe up a steep, poison ivy-infested bank and off into the brush.

Our conclusion? Two paddlers got into an argument — before or after they capsized. They ended up aborting their trip, dragged the canoe out to the road, and hiked to their shuttle vehicle.

We also concluded that it happened at night.

How did we know that?

On the opposite side of the river, was a nice easy landing — with steps.

About a mile downstream, we found an unopened bag of potato chips floating in the river.

“Ah ha!” Diane exclaimed. “Now we know what happened. They got into a fight over a bag of chips.” That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.

This originally was published as one of my outdoors columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette and other Gannett/Gatehouse online papers. By the way, this week I took first place in column writing in Ohio in the 2020 AP contest. Not to brag or anything. Also, thanks to my old Hoot co-conspirator John Bailey for doing the artwork for this column.

Six Mile will be a dam site better

Six Mile dam before the foot of the island had grown to be within 30 feet of the dam.

WARSAW — If all goes according to plan, things should be a damn sight better at the Six Mile Dam site.

I’m talking about the latest plan. This one calls for notching the causeway connecting the north bank of the Walhonding River to an island. An excavator will remove a section of the causeway — 40 feet across and one to two feet deep. This will create safe passage for paddlers. At last report, work was to begin the first week of May.

Previous plans were scuttled when the river gods decided — after the dam was removed last year — to reroute the Walhonding into the channel between the island and the north bank. Engineers had expected the river to flow primarily between the island and the south bank. That was roughly the original channel.

A little something came up that the engineers hadn’t counted on. Actually, it was a big something — a wall of bedrock across the south channel. According to Gus Smithhisler, a deep layer of silt prevented engineers from detecting the bedrock when they sounded the river bottom in preparation for removing the dam.

Smithhisler, a natural resources engineer with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the river depth just downstream of the bedrock drops about two to three feet. After the causeway is notched, this will increase flow through the north channel. That means the south channel will become even shallower. And more hazardous for paddlers. It likely will become impassible.

There is an irony in this. Original dam removal plans called for totally dewatering the north channel. That channel was made around 1916 to more evenly distribute current flow across the 300-foot wide dam. The channel created a manmade island.

ODNR revised the original plan. Under plan B, the north channel would remain open and a causeway built connecting the bank to the foot of the island. The causeway was supposed to allow a few inches of water to flow over the top, so people could wade to the island.

This was meant to be part of the historical preservation component of the dam removal project. Canal preservationists were hoping to have access to the island, where a section of Lock Five of the Walhonding Canal is situated. Under the latest plan — which I call plan C — ODNR has offered to provide boat rides to the island one day a year.

The original plan also called for the placement of a kiosk at the site, explaining the history of the dam.

Six Mile Dam was built around 1840 to create slack water for the Walhonding Canal. The canal was abandoned late in the 19th century. Around 1907, the dam was rebuilt to supply water for a feeder canal to power a hydroelectric plant in the Village of Roscoe. Which is across the river from Coshocton.

Under plan C, the kiosk will be erected in Roscoe Village instead. ODNR also plans to place signage at the dam site. It will provide a brief description of the dam’s history and online links to more in-depth information.

Plan C wasn’t what the folks at the Canal Society of Ohio had hoped for. Nor was the demolition project popular with the folks at Whispering Falls Campground on the downstream side of the dam. Fishing in front of the dam had become a way of life for them. The dam is gone; it will never be the same.

But it had to be. The dam was in danger of failing. It was a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Once the river was dewatered for demolition, it was clear that the northern section of the dam had sunk six to twelve inches. There also was a major crack from top to bottom. In addition to that, the demolition crew expected to find a 10-foot scour hole in the riverbed downstream of the dam. It turned out to be 30 feet deep. One worker at the site remarked that pretty much all the concrete removed from the dam went to fill the hole.

This might have been an exaggeration but it certainly took a lot more of the scrap concrete to fill the scour hole than they had anticipated.

Once the causeway is notched, it should be safe for paddlers. Even at periods of low flow, the notched section should be six inches deep. Six Mile will no longer be a mandatory portage. The Walhonding will be free-flowing from Mohawk Dam to Ellis Dam on the Muskingum River.

Paddling through the dam site will be a damn sight better without the portage. Regardless, I’ll stop by Whispering Falls Campground from time to time. In my 41 years of paddling, the folks there have always treated me well.

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

Exploring East Harbor State Park at 17 and 70

Sleep comes soon enough …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Harbor State Park – My Original Happy Place

Painted turtles sun themselves near my campsite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

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

Good Riddance to March — and Bad Rubbish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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