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.

How to Turn Your Spine Into an Owl Pellet

Backpacking for Pack Rats

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My bivvy bag and camp chair. If all else had failed, I could have slept in the chair.

(From My Outdoors Column)

Last week I took my own advice. In a previous column, I recommended taking a hike for temporary relief from coronavirus anxiety. So I did. Three days later, I emerged from the woods a happier, wiser and sorer man.

The experience reminded me why I took up canoe camping instead of backpacking. With canoe camping, the water bears the weight of your gear for the most part. With backpacking, as the name implies, your vertebrae and back muscles are packed into a tight wad.

If you were to get an MRI after a few days of backpacking, your spine and supporting tissue would look like an owl pellet.

So, how does a seasoned canoeist approach backpacking? I cheated. I divided my gear into two packs and made two trips.

In backpacking — and day-hiking, for that matter — you’ve got your loop trails and your out-and-back trails. In backpacking Irv-style, you’ve got your out and back and back and back out trail.

I tried my best to pare my load down so I could make it in one trip. I packed freeze-dried meals, lite beer, and put two batteries in my headlamp instead of three. I even opted to use a bivvy sack in lieu of a tent.

For those unfamiliar with bivvy sacks, they’re kind of like body bags with an escape hatch.

I bought mine about 20 years ago; I’ve used it all of three times. Truth be told, I hate it.

If you’re the least bit claustrophobic, bivvy sacks are not for you. Rooting around inside one when you’re preparing to bed down for the night is like spelunking in a groundhog burrow. I suppose you could stand outside the bivvy sack, get into your sleeping bag like putting on a pair of overalls, then flop onto the ground and shimmy into the bivvy sack.

You get inside and settle down to try and sleep, but you can’t because the mosquito netting is practically resting on your face. Now you know how a bank robber feels when he pulls pantyhose over his head to conceal his identity.

But all was not lost. I figured that, if I couldn’t sleep, I could hike back to the house, crawl into bed and hike back to get my gear in the morning.

In a future column, I’ll discuss the concept of base camp backpacking. But first I’ve got to hike back out there and retrieve the rest of my gear.

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Virtual version of my works from the M.A.D.E. in Ashland Pop Up Art Exhibit

 

After taking the Loundonville Public Library exhibit down early in connection with the Coronavirus epidemic, some of those who didn’t make it there in time requested a virtual exhibition. Here it is, along with the photos displayed in Copper Top Gallery.

 

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Always the Bridesmaid

 

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Murray Hill

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Gothic Meets Gehry

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A Tree Outside of Perrysville (B&W Version) — on loan from Susan Lime

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Puddle

PH Sunset

Pleasant Hill Lake

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Morning on Big Porcupine Lake — on loan from Susan Lime

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The View from Mohican Lodge

Despairica

Despairica

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Time Travel

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Morning at Malabar — on loan from Lisa A. Miller Newcomer

 

Because of a last-minute request for more photos to cover two venues, I had to borrow some of my framed prints. Thanks to Susan Lime and Lisa A. Miller Newcomer. Also thanks to Neos Dance Theatre for producing the M.A.D.E. in Ashland event. Hope to see it back next year, after the epidemic subsides. And thanks to the Loudonville Public Library and Copper Top Gallery. 

 

 

 

Sub Alpine Club and Wolf Pen Springs – Sojourners through Time

Wolf Pen Springs then and now. The photo on the left was taken around 1930, the other on the Feb. 15, 2020, on the Sub Alpine Club’s 90th anniversary hike. (Not all of those on the 2020 hike are in the photo.)

 

Jim Buchwald, the oldest living member of the Sub Alpine Club of America, described Wolf Pen Springs as seen from a plane he was flying.

“It was like a fairy castle in the woods,” Buchwald said.

His description proved to be spot on — even when seen from the ground. Buchwald, 92, was among those present Feb. 15, when I joined the Sub Alpine Club on its 90th anniversary hike. (These days he makes partial hikes.) To commemorate the occasion, the club took the same hike the founders did on Feb. 15, 1930.

After wending our way a mile so up forested hills, we found ourselves in a clearing. At the center of the clearing, a modest sandstone mansion rose from the grounds of the estate.

Over the years, Wolf Pen Springs has seen better days. These are among them. Now refurbished, the French Gothic structure looks a lot better than it did when Sub Alpine founders Frank Van Voorhis, Dr. James B. Nelson, and Dr. L.B. Walton first hiked there. It was abandoned and run-down then.

Van Voorhis wrote a brief history of Wolf Pen Springs in his journal. Eli Nichols built the house around 1840. It was made of sandstone quarried on the property and cut by hand by Charles Timm. Nichols imported Timm and the window glass from England. The house and springhouse took six years to build. Nichols and his wife were outspoken abolitionists and the house served as a haven for runaway slaves.

From time to time, Wolf Pen Springs was abandoned and fell into disrepair. As Buchwald observed on our 90th anniversary hike, “It has consumed three fortunes.”

Another hiker that day, Dennis Tuttle, described his first trek to Wolf Pen Springs in the early 1980s.

“The first time I went on that hike, it had not been lived in for quite a few years and sheep were running through the house,” Tuttle said. “The inside was pretty well trashed but the magnificent stonework was still in mint condition.”

Among those who restored the house over the years was Mary Staats, who died in 1994. Tuttle recalled that, on one hike to Wolf Pen Springs, Staats invited Sub Alpine members to come inside.

“Mary invited all of the hikers to the basement where she showed us pictures of the glory days, where the runaway slaves would stop for food and water while on the underground railroad,” Tuttle said.

On the Feb. 15 hike, I had the opportunity to speak with Wolf Pen Springs’ current owner, who has gone to great lengths to refurbish it. He asked that I not publish his name. One of my shortcomings as a journalist has been my respect for people’s privacy, so I’ll honor his request.

He described the project not as a restoration but a “repurposing.” (Few mortals could afford to undertake a full historical restoration.) It was a huge undertaking that required stripping the house down to a sandstone shell. The result is a hybrid of form and function. The exterior has been restored to its former glory while the interior serves as a residence.

We can all be grateful to the current and past owners for resurrecting Wolf Pen Springs. This “fairy castle in the woods” will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Sub Alpine Club members, those who lived and toiled there, descendants of the slaves it sheltered, and all who value history.

This originally was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette and online GateHouse Media outlets.

Postscript courtesy of Ann Laudeman:

The house was actually restored by my uncle George Kahrl in the ’70s where they lived for 10 years before he sold it to Mary Staats. George’s father Fred Kahrl was one of the original hikers and George was a great admirer of the Sub Alpine Club, also how he knew about the house and learned it was available when he and his wife Faith were considering retirement to Knox County. My father Allin Kahrl brokered the deal for Uncle George to purchase the house and land. Jim Beam was contracted to do most of the work, including the addition of an elevator and a new kitchen. He glassed in the back porch and made a library in the basement with paneling and bookcases out of butternut wood.

Sub Alpine Club has evolved, but remains true to its roots

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The Sub Alpine Club has bridged the gender gap.

Had I encountered the Sub Alpine Club of America earlier in its 90-year history, it would have been a far different scenario than what I witnessed 10-15 years ago. On my first encounter with the club, I looked across a field to see a happy band of hikers — men and women — coming toward me. In the club’s early days, there likely would have been no women.

The hikers would have been dressed differently, more like country gentlemen. Their pace would have been slower. They would have paused to marvel at the flora and fauna. They would have stopped for lunch, cooking a leisurely meal over an open fire.

As the club turned 50, all that began to change. More and more women joined, the pace quickened and the cookouts turned into short snack breaks.

Ann Laudeman witnessed those changes firsthand. Her grandfathers, Mount Vernon businessmen Fred Kahrl and Clyde Conley, were among the original Sub Alpine members. As was her father, Allin Kahrl. She was among the roughly 25 members on the club’s 90th anniversary hike in February.

“The hikes are more like power walks now,” Laudeman wrote in an email. “In the past, the hikers would take the pace more as a stroll, where people would mingle, visit, identify some of the flora, and relate local history and stories. We always used to stop and build a little cooking fire so that anyone could heat a pot of soup, a hot dog, or cheese on a stick. Now we are lucky to stop for half an hour at the most.”

She also commented on the makeup of the club.

“Some of the original ‘rules’ of the group were that husbands and wives couldn’t both hike, either one or the other, because they didn’t want any marital squabbling,” Laudeman wrote. “That rule was broken sometime around 1980 but occasionally it has been a problem. Some of the original women were my cousins, who would come to visit our grandparents and hike with our grandfather. Occasionally, in the last five years, there have been more women hiking than men. Once there were more dogs than people because some people brought more than one dog.”

Dennis Tuttle also witnessed the Sub Alpine Club’s evolution. He joined in the 1980s.

“I was asked by one of the old members who I used to see when swimming at the YMCA in Mount Vernon if I was interested in hiking with this group,” Tuttle wrote in an email. “I thought to myself that it was probably just some old geezers that did simple walks. The gentleman kept after me and offered to pick me up to do one of the Saturday hikes. All it took was one hike and I realized what I had been missing.”

He and his wife played a role in the club’s evolution.

“The rules at that time were to allow women to hike only during Christmas and New Year’s, when many brought their children and some grandchildren,” Tuttle wrote. “I enjoyed the hikes so much that I would do the hikes on Saturday with the men, then do the same hike Sunday afternoon with my wife Pat.”

Finally, Pat asked to join the Saturday hikes.

“I told her we could see what they had to say about that,” Tuttle wrote. “The first hike she did with the group she made a big batch of homemade cookies, which were very well received by the hikers. The rest is history. She was the first female to hike on a regular basis with the club. Over the years, women heard about the group and began coming until today there are just as many women as men.”

An informal organization, the Sub Alpine Club of America remains true to its roots — the enjoyment of winter hiking in Knox and surrounding counties. The club has little in the way of formal rules or structure, nor does it have a website. Information on hikes and photos can been seen on the Facebook page Sub-Alpine Hiking Club of Knox County Ohio.

 

This originally was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette and on other GateHouse Media newspaper websites.

Sub Alpine Club – trekking through time

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Jim Buchwald, left, waits to sign Sub Alpine Club book. Fellow club member Mike Nugent adds his signature.

My first hike with the Sub Alpine Club of America covered nearly four miles — and 90 years. If not more.

As mentioned in a previous column, about 25 people — their ages spanning seven decades — came out on Feb. 15 for the club’s 90th anniversary hike. It was essentially the same hike the founding fathers took 90 years ago to the day to an enchanting place called Wolf Pen Springs.

Wolf Pen Springs is a stone mansion dating back to the 1840s. A place rich in history, it once served as a safe haven on the underground railroad. On the day we saw it, the house was in much better shape than it was in 1930, when Frank Van Voorhis, Dr. James B. Nelson, and Dr. L.B. Walton took the club’s inaugural hike.

Van Voorhis described the abandoned house in his journal: “The building was open and we spent some time wandering through the vacant rooms and looking through old books and papers, which littered the floor. There was an old grand piano, falling apart, and I gathered some of the ivory keys, which I still have.”

The mansion was renovated starting in the late 1990s. The building and grounds sit atop a high hill, surrounded by mature forest, towering above the Kokosing River. I’ll dedicate a future column to the wonder that is Wolf Pen Springs.

For now, I’ll dwell on another marvel — the Sub Alpine Hiking Club of America. Over the past 90 years, the club has evolved and adapted. However, its mission has remained constant — the enjoyment of fellowship and winter treks through the rugged terrain of Knox and surrounding counties.

On the Feb. 15th hike, I met people who experienced the transitions from the club’s earliest days through modern times. Among them was Jim Buchwald. He’ll be 92 this month. He and Bobby Harold are members of the club’s exclusive Nelson Reed Society. A third member, Eugene Agin, will join their ranks this month. The society derives its name from the first Sub Alpine member to still be hiking past the age of 90. They don’t do full hikes but join in for part of them.

“There are hikes where I can bang along, have a good time, and believe that I’m younger,” Buchwald said.

The years have not deprived him of his enjoyment of the outdoors and his sense of humor. During the 90th anniversary hike, the group stopped for a snack. When it came time to press on, someone asked Buchwald if he was ready to press on.

“I’m ready as I’ll ever be,” he responded. “Which isn’t very much.”

Buchwald first hiked with the Sub Alpine Club in 1958. Club member James R. Israel invited him.

“I was honored,” Buchwald said. “The club at the time was a small group of the town’s (Mt. Vernon) leading citizens.”

Like Buchwald, the founding members and those who followed in for the first 50 years were primarily local businessmen, attorneys, and academics from Kenyon College. Buchwald, a Cleveland native, was an engineer who worked at Cooper-Bessemer and later founded the Ariel Corporation.

He lived out of town for several years but kept in touch with club members and returned for some of the hikes.

“I later realized how lucky I was to have hiked with the founders,” Buchwald said. “The original members were from back in the 1930s but were still active. They were alive and kicking and making some pretty long hikes.”

He recalled that, after Van Voorhis moved to Florida in the early 1960s, no one kept a journal anymore.

“Ralph Workman took over and the club continued with little communication,” Buchwald said.

However, the loose-knit — and now more diverse —Sub Alpine Club keeps on going. One thing members still have in common is their love of rigorous walks in the countryside and cold weather.

Buchwald embodies that spirit.

“It’s no fun otherwise,” he said. “I remember walking across an open field. It was 20 degrees out with 20-knot winds, and I don’t think I could have felt any happier. A long walk across an exposed meadow — you knew you were outdoors and it felt great.”

 

(This column first ran in the March 5, 2020, Ashland Times-Gazette.)

Sub Alpine Club of America – Funny name, serious about hiking

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Doug McLarnan waits on the bank while Sue Siegel crosses a stream on Doug’s plank bridge.

 

I first encountered hikers from the Sub Alpine Club of America years ago. I thought it was a joke.

I was canoeing on the Mohican River and stopped at a spring near Brinkhaven to replenish my water supply. A long line of hikers emerged from a pasture and I said hello.

“We’re the Sub Alpine Hiking Club of America,” a man at the front of the line announced.

I thought he was kidding.

I later came to know one of the members, Doug McLarnan. Doug has long been active with the Knox County Park District. He and I serve on the Mohican Scenic River Steering Committee. Through him, I learned that there is indeed such a thing as the Sub Alpine Club of America. Doug joined in 2005 for the physical and mental health benefits that rigorous hiking and good company provide. He invited me to come along on the club’s 90th anniversary hike. How could I refuse?

Doug gave me directions: Meet at noon, Feb. 15, on the 600 block of East High Street in Mount Vernon.

“On the 600 block” said it all. Despite its longevity, the Sub Alpine Club of America has no clubhouse, no charter, no meetings, no formal rules. Don’t bother Googling it; the club has no website. The only online presence is a Facebook page.

“No internet,” McLarnan said. “Word of hikes spreads gradually. We show up at High Street and go, that’s it.”

To remain a member in good standing, just show up for hikes. And be willing to hike in the winter. That’s when the club traditionally hikes, from mid-November to mid-March. (From time to time, club members have hiked in the “off season.”) They generally trek in the hills and valleys around the Kokosing, Mohican and Walhonding rivers and Wakatomika Creek.

I arrived in Mount Vernon a little before noon on Feb. 15. I was the first one there, parking on a street lined with well-maintained Victorian houses. Doug pulled up in a minivan with a wooden plank strapped to the top. He explained that we’d need that to cross a stream.

By 12:30 p.m., East High Street was lined with vehicles. About 25 people showed up for the hike — men and women, their ages spanning seven decades. We car-pooled to a site along the Kokosing River near Newcastle.

In honor of the club’s 90th anniversary, we hiked to Wolf Pen Springs, the same hike founding members took 90 years ago to the day — Feb. 15, 1930. It’s documented in the book “The Journal of the Sub Alpine Club of America.” (The founders came up with the name in jest. It’s easy to see why I thought the Sub Alpine hikers were joking when I first met them. They probably got a kick out of the look on my face when one of them announced the name of the group.)

The book, compiled from journals of founding member Frank Van Voorhis, chronicles the club’s hikes from February 1930 to September 1963.

More on that and Wolf Pen Springs in a future column.

At the start of our hike, we crossed a small stream on Doug’s plank bridge — which didn’t quite span the full width. A few well-placed stones braced the plank just shy of the bank and allowed hikers to cross without getting their boots soaked. Not long after that, we found ourselves making a grueling climb up an impossibly steep hill.

It was clear that members of the Sub Alpine Club of America took hiking seriously.

To be continued.

A reference copy of “The Journal of the Sub Alpine Club of America” is available in the local history room at the Loudonville Public Library.

Enjoy solo paddling trips? You’re not alone

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My friend and mentor Bill Conrad patiently awaiting my book report – 10 months and counting.

Months ago, my friend and mentor Bill Conrad gave me a copy of Calvin Rutstrum’s “North American Canoe Country.” Bill told me he expected a book report. Here it is — better late than never.

Written in 1964, the book speaks to the timeless truths of canoe tripping.

For me, what really hit home were Rutstrum’s observations about going alone and equipment. I’ll split my book report into two parts. This week I’ll cover solo canoe camping. In a future column, I’ll compare notes with Rutstrum on camping and paddling gear.

In the chapter “Going Alone,” Rutstrum writes: “I have … labored in solitude for weeks over portage and water routes when a simple invitation would have secured a pleasant companion for the bow or stern of my canoe. Why, then, do we go alone? My experience has convinced me that, to feel profoundly the enchantment of the wilderness, we must go in complete solitude at one time or another.”

I agree wholeheartedly; I thoroughly enjoy my solo canoe trips.

All my life, solitude has been a welcome companion. I can be as gregarious as the next guy. But — in heavy doses — people annoy me. Especially as I get older. I’ve found a kindred spirit in Rutstrum. His observations on the psychology of solo canoeing serve as a reminder that, when I paddle solo, I am not alone.

He touches on the inevitable feelings of loneliness. He warns that a solo camper will miss the stories around the campfire, the shared adventures, or that one individual whose company you treasure. But, as Rutstrum points out, even that can become repetitive and tedious.

When sitting alone at my campfire, I can still hear peals of laughter from those group trips back in the day. Warm thoughts of my campmates bring a smile. But knowing I’m still out there — still canoeing and camping — brings an even bigger smile.

Rutstrum speaks of the circumstances that bring us to go it alone. For Rutstrum, it might be a lack of companions free to commit to his elaborate wilderness journeys. For me, I’ve simply outlived most my canoeing buddies — some literally, others in terms of ambition, ability or desire.

Rutstrum advises against seeking out companions just for the sake of companionship. “Barnacle attachments” he calls them. That’s a polite way of putting it.

There is much to be said for solo canoe camping. As a writer, I’m reluctant to admit this, but Rutstrum says it better than I ever could.

“There are … mixed emotions, but you have a great sense of relief,” he writes. “For you have been travelling by the methods of others; camping and eating their way, not yours.”

Solo canoeing frees you to travel at your own pace. You can pick your own campsite. A few times of trying to pitch a tent on boulder-strewn islands or mainland moonscapes convinced me not to allow my friends to pick our campsites. On group trips it can also be a challenge to find an area vast enough to accommodate several tents and a campfire.

Above all, as Rutstrum points out, solo tripping allows you to more deeply experience the wilderness. Not only are you free to explore more, but your senses are heightened and you become less threatening to wildlife.

“Life of the solitary man by its very nature becomes subjective,” he writes. “You are not the intruder; you feel yourself an integral part of the composite natural scheme.”

He concludes that, once you experience this, you’ll find it hard to resist the allure of solo canoe tripping. Amen.

I expect that my friend Bill Conrad will give me an incomplete grade on this book report. We’ll see what he says when I finish it in a future column.

 

(This is one of my columns, which ran in Gatehouse Media publications.)

Poetic Injustice

The intrigue behind Santa’s reindeer

Being born and raised in the inner city, I was disappointed to learn that chipmunks were not monkeys at all. They are, in fact, mice with racing stripes.

Funny how our perceptions of wildlife evolve.

Take reindeer, for instance. As children growing up in the Lower Forty-eight, we first learned about reindeer through Christmas lore. I suspect that many of us never gave them a second thought. At least not until we watched film footage of actual reindeer on nature shows or saw them in a zoo.

For our first impressions of reindeer, we have one of two men to thank: Clement Clark Moore or Henry Livingston Jr. Both claimed to have written the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” You might know it as “The Night before Christmas.” It was first published in 1823 in the Troy Sentinel, a newspaper in eastern New York State.

This iconic poem introduced the notion of Santa’s flying sleigh towed by “eight tiny reindeer.” The addition of Rudolph in 1939 made it nine. Robert Lewis May gets credit for that; Rudolph was his creation. As far as I know, no one has ever challenged May’s claim that he wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Although there’s been some speculation that May based his story on an old joke about a Russian couple arguing over the weather — the one with the punch line “Rudolph the Red knows rain, dear.”

However, the controversy over the authorship of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” drags on. The Moore and Livingston families are locked in a literary feud to this day. (In a previous column, my parody of “The Night before Christmas,” I mentioned both men with apologies — lest I find myself dragged into the fray.)

Moore, a poet and professor, was the first to take credit for “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” That was 13 years after it appeared in the Sentinel. Then, in 1844, he included it in a book of his poetry.

It probably didn’t help Moore’s case that — before claiming authorship in 1836 — he had contacted the newspaper asking whether anyone had taken credit for writing the poem.

Livingston was a judge and poet. His progeny — and at least one academic — pointed out that Moore wasn’t known for being a light-hearted chap, not the sort of guy who would write a whimsical children’s poem. They also claimed the reindeer’s names were of Dutch lineage — like Livingston himself.

Furthermore, Livingston’s children claimed that he had recited the poem to them in the early 1800s.

Legions of scholars — or a handful, at least — have been enlisted in the fight. In their arguments for or against Moore and Livingston, they have delved into the minutiae of each man’s writing style. Which poet preferred the anapestic meter used in “A Visit from St. Nick?” Which author tended to use “all” as an adverb? Which one dotted his “i’s” with tiny circles?

The whole affair conjures up images of a Mafia-style family feud. I can picture drive-by poetry slams on urban street corners in which members of the Moore or Livingston camp crumple to the pavement in a hail of iambic pentameters.

To avoid being dragged into the feud, in my parody I opted to go with carp pulling the sleigh. I, for one, don’t want to wake up some night to find a reindeer head in my bed.

This was originally written as one of my weekly outdoors columns for GateHouse Media.

A Visit from St. Nicholas Revisited

(With apologies to Clement Clark Moore, Major Henry Livingston Jr., or anyone who happens to read this.)

 

’Twas the night before Christmas when all through the camp

Not a creature was stirring, not even an ant;

Our stockings were hung from the clothesline to air,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

 

Joe in his hammock, and Curt in his sack,

Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap;

Then out on the stream there arose such a splatter,

I sprang from my tent to see what was the matter;

 

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;

 

He looked down in the dumps, a right haggard old elf,

And I gasped when I saw him, in spite of myself;

With a wink of his eye and a twist of his head,

He said, “Don’t call me Nick, because my name is Fred!”

 

He went on to explain as I cowered in shock,

That St. Nick got the kids from preteens to tots,

But the Yule gods had kicked Fred right under the bus,

And condemned him to working with riffraff like us;

 

He hoisted his sack and went straight to his work,

And he filled all our stockings, then called me a jerk,

And laying a finger aside of his nose,

He let fly with a booger that just missed my toes;

 

He sprang to his sleigh, to his carp gave a whistle,

And away they all swam, like a shot from a pistol.

But I heard him exclaim as he drove out of sight,

“You asked for some Foster’s, I gave you Bud Light!”

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Illustration by Joe Hughes

 

Next week — Poetic Injustice – The Intrigue behind Santa’s Reindeer

 

‘Big Fin’ – Honey Creek monster predated bigfoot

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Illustration by Joe Hughes

Long before Big Foot reached out with his big hairy mitt and grabbed headlines, speculation of a Loch Ness type Monster in Honey Creek made local newspapers.

It all started in 1915, more than 40 years before the first known newspaper account of a Big Foot sighting. The Loudonville papers reported that Shannon Simms found a mastodon tusk in Honey Creek on his farm about five miles north of town. From there, the story grew flippers and took on a life of its own.

 

Loudonville resident and local historian Sarah England recently shared some newspaper clippings from 1915 and 1927 chronicling the evolution of the Honey Creek Monster.

According to the 1915 articles, Simms’ discovery caused quite a stir. He put the eight-foot long tusk on display in the window of Covert’s Drug Store in Loudonville (now Danner Pharmacy). The spectacle drew a big crowd — and perhaps a windfall for the drug store.

However, mastodon remains were pretty common and the excitement died off just as mastodons had 5,000 years earlier.

Twelve years later, a West Butler chiropractor resurrected the story. While excavating mastodon bones on Simms’ farm, Dr. W.A. Moore claimed to have found evidence that at least one of the giant beasts lurking in the waters of Honey Creek had flippers!

In June 1927, P.J. Bailey reported in the Loudonville Times that Moore’s discovery drew people to the excavation site from as far away as Chicago. Sightseers’ vehicles lined both sides of what is now County Road 2654 for a quarter mile.

In an article dated June 30, 1927, Bailey waxed eloquent, dancing a frantic jig along the fine line between reporting and editorializing.

“It is conjecture that it may have been some sort of creature that formerly inhabited the prehistoric swamps of the Honey Creek region, and which had flippers instead of feet to aid its locomotion through the water and ooze of the vast swamp,” Bailey wrote.

Bailey went on to suggest that Dr. Moore’s discovery of this “prehistoric monster” would likely create a sensation in the scientific world and put Loudonville on the map.

“It is especially fortunate for the people of Ohio that the remains were found conveniently close to the famous Three C Highway, which makes it easy to reach the excavations by automobile after a pleasant drive over splendid roads through the finest scenery in the Middle West.” Bailey wrote.

In spite of the hype, the Honey Creek Monster never lived up to expectations. The story — like the mastodons and whatever it was Dr. Moore claimed to have found — were doomed to extinction.

However, Bailey’s words proved prophetic. It was Dick Frye who put Loudonville on the map in 1961 by founding Ohio’s first canoe livery. Loudonville became the canoe capital of Ohio and Frye’s vision led millions to discover — as Bailey said — that this area boasts the finest scenery in the Middle West.

That’s why folks around here call it, “God’s country.”

You’ve got to admit it has a better ring to it than “Godzilla’s country.”

Paddling into obsolescence at a leisurely pace

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Reflection on the water of billowing smokestacks at the Conesville Power Plant on the Muskingum River — like everything and everyone, destined for obsolescence.

We hadn’t yet paddled out of Coshocton when the Conesville Power Plant smokestacks came into sight. From there they look so close, but veteran Muskingum River paddlers know better; Conesville is more than five miles downstream of Coshocton.

That’s about an 80-minute paddle if you’re in a hurry. I never am. To me, that defeats the purpose of canoeing. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

My canoe partner for this trip, Ken Arthur, was OK with that. He’s all about exploring and discovery.

It was Ken’s first ever glimpse of the Conesville stacks — at least from the river. But, for both of us, it might have been the last time seeing them belching smoke. American Electric Power plans to close the 62-year-old coal-burning power plant at the end of May 2020.

According to a Coshocton Tribune article written by Leonard Hayhurst, the Conesville plant has become obsolete — another casualty of the flagging domestic coal market. It has been a slow painful death.

“In October 2017, the plant was devalued by the Ohio Department of Taxation, going from $72.2 million to $34.7 million due to coal-fired plants being not as valuable in the energy market as natural gas facilities,” Hayhurst wrote in October 2018. “This resulted in close to $2 million in revenue lost to local entities. The hardest hit dollars wise was River View Local Schools at $1.18 million annually and the biggest percentage drop was to Franklin Township which lost more than half of its annual budget at $87,193.”

Paddle upstream — physically and in time — and a similar scenario played out about 100 years ago.

Railroads had rendered canals obsolete. That included the Walhonding Canal, which I mentioned in previous columns. (Earlier in this trip, Ken and I portaged Six Mile Dam on the Walhonding River, where Lock 5 of the canal had been.) Six Mile Dam, which is between the town of Warsaw and Coshocton, was repurposed. The canal was reengineered to channel water down to the Village of Roscoe to power a hydroelectric plant. That also became obsolete; no doubt a casualty of coal-burning power plants.

Now the dam has become obsolete. It’s become a liability due to an undermined wing wall. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has slated it for removal around this time next year.

Traveling upstream even further in time — more than 2,500 years ago — Greek philosopher Hiraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Clearly, this stretch of the Walhonding and Muskingum rivers will not be the same. It will be much different without the dam and Conesville’s belching smokestacks.

Time will have changed us as well. This canoe trip served as a reminder that all of us are destined for obsolescence. As I said earlier, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

This was one of a series of five columns on my September 2019 canoe trip from Mohawk Dam to Dresden, Ohio on the Walhondong and Muskingum rivers.

 

 

Oriental Bittersweet – Strangling Our Landscape

I’m posting this with the hope that park managers and other government officials will start taking this invasive plant seriously and do something about it NOW. (Originally written for the Greater Mohican Audubon Newsletter.)

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Oriental bittersweet berries. Pretty — devastating.

There’s nothing sweet about Oriental bittersweet. Unless it’s watching the leaves wither up after cutting the vines or treating it with herbicide.

But don’t be lulled by temporary successes in controlling Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). This aggressive invasive is tenacious. And it seems to have more friends than enemies.

In a 2018 article on Buckeye Yard & Garden onLine, Amy Stone refers to Oriental bittersweet as the “kudzu of the north.”

“Oriental bittersweet is invasive vine that is native to China, Japan and Korea,” Stone wrote in her article. “It was introduced to the United States as an ornamental plant around 1860. This deciduous, woody, twining vine can climb on trees, shrubs and anything else in its way.”

It was also introduced for erosion control, similar that notorious invasive Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica).

Yes, like so many other invasive plants, careless or clueless entrepreneurs introduced Oriental bittersweet to the U.S. To make matters worse, Oriental bittersweet is still sold here and prized for its colorful berries, which are used as decorations.

It’s easy to see where that could go awry. It’s bad enough that birds are spreading the seeds far and wide. Add to that well-meaning consumers spreading a little holiday joy — along with a nasty invasive vegetation.

Oriental bittersweet should not be confused with native American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). But it can be. There are subtle differences between them. However, Stone advises that, “To add to the possible confusion, the two different species in the same genus (Celastrus) are crossing and producing plants that sometimes have characteristics of both the native and non-native species.”

What does it look like?

The University of Maryland Extension provides this description:

Growth habit: climbing, deciduous vine; leaves rounded to obovate, alternate, simple with bluntly toothed margins.

Reproduction: seed; flowers are inconspicuous followed by green to yellow fruits that burst open to display orange-red seeds persisting into fall after leaf drop.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it prefers upland meadows, thickets, young forests, and beaches.

What’s the harm?

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Bittersweet vines strangling trees at Charles Mill Lake Park – Mifflin, Ohio.

Oriental bittersweet quickly takes over the landscape. Its deciduous woody vines create thickets, encircling tree trunks like boa constrictors, climbing upwards and choking the life out of them. The weight of the vines can pull down large trees. For that reason, those working to control this horrible invasive are warned never to tug at vines to remove them from trees or branches. It also shades out understory plants.

How could things possibly get worse? Oriental bittersweet also spreads underground; it reproduces by putting out root suckers.

To see the devastation up close, visit Charles Mill Lake Park on the Ashland and Richland county border. Oriental bittersweet is everywhere, even on the islands. In some places, the infestation is so bad that bittersweet vines are actually choking themselves.

What can be done?

In Ohio, public officials in general have yet to demonstrate any sense of urgency when it comes to controlling Oriental bittersweet and other invasive plants. On your own property, you can control it by constant cutting or mowing, pulling small vines or cutting large ones and treating the stumps with strong herbicide such as Triclopyr. (Glyphosate just won’t cut it.)

Treatment can be done any time of year, but stump treating is best done in late summer.

For a good video on Oriental bittersweet control log on to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wmZ1Zuho1c.

This video also serves as a great resource for identifying Oriental bittersweet.

Here’s a less-widely accepted method to control Oriental bittersweet. Save lengths of vines as you cut them. Keep them handy in case you find someone selling Oriental bittersweet — and strangle them.