Bridge to nowhere — Canoe trip journal, April 2012

Stillwell Bridge deconstructed

On this canoe trip, I set out to get one last look at the Stillwell Bridge. I had learned through Google Alerts that it was being torn down.

It turned out to be a misguided tour of crumbling ruins, ruins in progress and progress in ruins. The trip left me feeling that, if mankind had a universal motto, it would be “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

As for logistics, I originally planned to paddle two days, float past the Stillwell Bridge and maybe camp near there.

But Saturday’s forecast was bleak. Rain and temperatures in the low 40s. So I decided on a “reverse base camp” itinerary. Typically, when you set up a canoe trip, you start with a base camp, spend the night and set up your shuttle that night or in the morning. With a reverse scenario, you do your floating first, set up a base camp at the end then deal with the shuttle. (You basically end up car camping on the last day, with maybe a day trip on the last stretch of river with an empty boat — except for the all-important cooler.)

In this case, I planned to hit the river Thursday afternoon at Mohawk Dam, camp on an island just downstream and end up at Six Mile Dam Friday evening. I was resigned to spending Saturday exploring the riparian corridor by car, stopping at the Stillwell Bridge and checking out a few other things. I also wanted to scout out Wills Creek to find a base camp that will allow me to do overnight trips to Ellis Dam or Zanesville.

I slipped out of work early on Thursday. Although, with 50-plus hours under my belt that week, it was more a case of running out the door screaming into the afternoon.

As I drove down State Route 715 to Mohawk Dam — with the car crammed full of more crap than I really needed — I thought about how, on the last trip, I hadn’t seen a bald eagle until the last 20 minutes of the trip. As I arrived at the dam, an eagle appeared over the rim of the earthen dam. It wasn’t exactly soaring majestically; it was being dive-bombed by some little shit of a bird. I took it as a good omen nonetheless.

One of my favorite campsites on the Walhonding River

It had been raining lightly all afternoon. As I arrived at the put-in spot, the rain stopped. I loaded the boat and floated down to the first island past the dam. My plan was to enjoy a quiet evening, have a leisurely breakfast and spend all Friday playing on the river.

The sky cleared as the evening wore on. In spite of being alone, I laughed out loud when I first saw the sliver of a waxing moon winking at me through the parting clouds. Temperatures dropped into the mid to upper 30s but, with a good layer of wool, I was comfortable.

Friday was sunny and mild as advertised and I milked the day for all it was worth. I paddled about a mile up Mohawk Creek, which is downstream from the U.S. Route 36 bridge. There I saw a bullfrog as big as a squirrel and spectacular wildflowers.

The water quality left to be desired. I didn’t have to look far to see why. There was a spot along the bank where a farmer allowed his cattle to drink. And crap.

Not far downstream from the U.S. 36 bridge, an immature eagle perched on a branch. This one was accustomed to people, didn’t budge as I floated right under him, and he stayed long enough for me to get a few pictures. The rest of the day I drifted with the current, stopping at a gravel bar for a cookout.

I arrived at Six Mile Dam at about 4:30 p.m. A huge cottonwood had fallen into the river, blocking the designated takeout. I pulled out about 30 yards upstream.

The caretakers, Roy and Angie, were away on a family emergency, so I called Coshocton Cab for a ride back to my car. My driver was a real trooper. She had a migraine headache that day, but came into work anyway.

I decided to car-camp at Lake Park in Coshocton and head to Adams Mills first thing in the morning.

At Adams Mills, I photographed the ruins of the locks along U.S. 36. The road follows the old canal. I’ve often thought about how short-lived the canals were. Canals that represented intensive labor and loss of life. I recall reading somewhere that 900 men died in Ohio alone digging canals in mosquito-infested lowlands.

Old locks along State Route 16

They labored under the delusion that they were building something that would serve commerce for generations. Their legacy didn’t last long enough to generate the kind of folklore the railroads did or the automobile for that matter.

I’m in the process of researching Adams Mills, which apparently had been a thriving canal port. The railroad also runs through the village and there’s evidence there might have been a station there.

As for the Stillwell Bridge, I contacted the Muskingum Pioneer and Historical Society for information prior to the canoe trip. Curator Mitch Taylor responded by e-mail. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

There is not much information out there regarding the bridge, probably because it is the most remote of all the Muskingum River bridges. Even though I have lived in Zanesville all my life I remember how surprised I was when I accidentally came across the bridge on a Sunday afternoon drive many years ago.

The first bridge at that location was built in 1883. The last covered bridge on the river was built in 1887 but I can’t find any indication as to whether the Stillwell bridge was covered or an open metal truss. The present bridge was built in 1904 and was rebuilt after the 1913 flood.

The bridge has been closed for many years and there has not been any public demand for a replacement although a couple of years ago the county commissioners mentioned the possibility of replacing it. Given the current economy, I can’t see a new bridge being built unless the Federal government foots most of the bill.

The rest is history. Or soon will be.

The bridge debris in the river from the 1913 flood poses a navigational hazard when the water level drops. It wasn’t until about three years ago that I found the best channel to navigate it. Fortunately, the bridge was still there at the time and I could walk out on the crumbling deck and scout a clear channel from above. The best course was in a spot I would never have guessed — about 30 feet off the west bank. It runs directly toward the head of a gravel bar downstream of the bridge, then veers about 45 degrees to the left.

Mansion at Trinway

I photographed the bridge from the west bank, then set out to get it from the other side — by way of Trinway, Dresden and Ellis Dam.

At Trinway, there’s an old mansion that has always fascinated me. According to a sign posted on the iron gate, it’s the Prospect Place Estate. Apparently it’s being restored and tours are available.

In Dresden, I found that a paved recreational trail had been built along the river. This used to be an old dirt road that led to a pavilion in the woods and the take-out spot. I believe the Jaycees had built the pavilion, which had provided much-needed shelter for me the one and only time I capsized on a canoe camping trip. That was in the early ’80s. Now, all that’s left of the pavilion is the concrete floor. The river has reclaimed the take-out spot for the most part, filling in the landing with silt to eradicate the gradual slope to the river.

The newly paved bike path was once a deeply rutted dirt road. During a canoe trip in the ’80s. some friends had driven down from Cleveland to camp out with us. We went into town on a beer and ice run. On the way back, I was riding shotgun. The driver asked me to dig an opener out of the glovebox. As I craned my neck to look inside the glove compartment, he hit a big mud hole that jolted the car. Then I heard commotion and laughter in the back seat. I sat up and looked over my shoulder. A huge glop of mud — that was destined for my kisser — instead sailed into the back seat, nailing one of the passengers square in the face.

New bike path in Dresden, note the mystery tower

For some reason, a wooden platform has been built at the head of the recreational trail. I plan to make a few calls to find out what it is.

I pressed on to Ellis Dam Campground to see if my friends Terry and Ethel were still caretakers. I wrote a story for the Zanesville paper about what a great job they had done chasing away the riffraff (other than us) and making the campground reasonably safe. But I hadn’t seen them the last three or four times I canoed through there.

There were two older guys camped at the dam. I talked with one of them, who told me he had seen the caretaker, but described him as a young bearded man. Definitely not Terry. Or Ethel.

The side trip to the dam afforded me an opportunity to scout a better land route, one Ethel had described. For years, I have been leading people on a convoluted route off of old State Route 60 in Dresden, meandering through impossibly sharp curves, over steep hills and past farms that hadn’t changed since the 1930s. There are also ATV trails and a survivalist encampment. The encampment has a sign that reads “Trespassers will be.” The words that had been on the bottom of the sign were covered with paint smears. Leaving that part to the imagination probably sent a much stronger message.

Clearcut upstream of the bridge

I wended my way to the east bank of the Muskingum and took some photos of the bridge from there.

Next stop, Wills Creek Dam, in search of a new base camp.

Along the way, I came upon a clearcut of what appeared to be at least 10 acres, some of it on a slope but most of it bottom land going right down to the river.

It had been of the most picturesque spots on the river.

A sign down the road — posted by a hardwood company — touted it as sustainable logging. The theory is that a new forest will generate. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of invasive species in Ohio and elsewhere, that practice no longer works as advertised. It didn’t help my confidence in “sustainable clear-cutting” that, along the way, there were stands of Japanese knotweed sprouting.

Unless there is a sustained effort to replant the clearcut area with trees, invasive plants will render it a wasteland for generations to come. It will likely serve a “base camp” for the spread of Japanese knotweed in southeast Ohio. It reproduces by sprouting from nodes on the stems and roots. Which means, if it’s hacked down, pieces float downstream and establish colonies, choking out all other flora. Ask the Brits about that. Japanese knotweed has choked waterways in Great Britain to the point that it’s regarded as hazardous material.

Ruins in progress.

It literally brought tears to my eyes, seeing the destruction.

Ironically, just as bald eagles seem have established healthy populations, their habitat is being hacked away with a vengeance. What DDT couldn’t accomplish, bad forest management practices might.

Sadly, as people struggle to maintain this delusion called prosperity, we’ll see more and more destruction.

On the other side of the coin, sustainability is also delusion. Both in the big picture philosophically and short-term because of our shortcomings as a species.

The truth is, mankind is in decline, having overpopulated through other delusions — cornucopian philosophy and the miracles of science and medicine that keep a population on artificial life support.

I realized this long ago. But, it was still overwhelming to come face to face with example after example in the course of one morning.

That’s what I took away from this canoe trip. That, and a sunburned nose.

At Wills Creek, I stopped at an old campground. You see a lot of them along the rivers, with trailers dating back to postwar times, some meticulously maintained in spite of their age, others in tatters.

I spoke with the woman who ran the campground, Kate Hamilton. She’s a delightful 80-year-old woman who moved there with her family in the 1940s. She said it would be OK if I left my equipment there or a vehicle to set up shuttles. But the put-in looked a little dicey. I’d still take advantage of her offer just because I felt the place — and two people and two dogs who first greeted me — were welcoming and trustworthy.

Down the road, I found a more suitable put-in spot, Wills Creek General Store, which has a campground and easy river access. My canoeing buddy Joe would love it. Only $10 a night for tent camping and a beer store right on the premises.

In the course of the day, the temperature peaked at 52 degrees then dropped to 42. As I headed home, it rained harder and harder. When I got home, I didn’t unpack right away like I usually do. I showered and took a nap.

The Muskingum River. Ninety degrees to my right is the clearcut.

Other photos

Interesting juxtaposition of signs outside Dresden. This is out of focus because I shot it with my cell phone camera.

The take-out at Six Mile Dam has never been easy, now it’s a whole lot more interesting.

The ruins of an old house in the woods between Dresden and Wills Creek Dam

Bullfrogs the size of your brain, no fooling

Rock formations on Stone Church Road near Dresden