Lake Fork — The Mohican River’s Best-Kept Secret
Mention the Mohican River and most people think of hundreds of canoes, kayaks, rafts and inner tubes careening downstream like bumper cars at an amusement park. The birthplace of Ohio’s canoe livery industry more than 50 years ago, Loudonville area liveries bustle with activity on summer weekends. But there’s more to the Mohican River than the segment popular with tourists. The Mohican’s forks and less-traveled stretches offer more-adventurous paddlers pristine scenery, abundant wildlife, solitude and occasional bushwhacking.
Lake Fork is one such stretch. I call it the Mohican River’s best-kept secret. The last major tributary to empty into the Mohican, Lake Fork runs about 15.5 miles from its origin at the confluence of the Muddy and Jerome forks. That includes two miles of Lake Fork upstream of Mohicanville Dam.
There is only one canoe livery on Lake Fork. It’s affiliated with Camp Toodik Family Campgrounds on Washington Township Road 462 off Ohio 39/Ohio 60. The owners keep the stretch between the livery on Ohio 3 and campground free of downed trees and logjams during tourist season, so it offers paddlers an opportunity to enjoy the river without having to portage around obstacles.
Lake Fork is narrow and forested. Its steep hillsides add to its feeling of intimacy, especially in the summer when the river corridor is carpeted in lush vegetation. Lake Fork’s points of interest include a hobo shanty and a large heronry with more than 50 nests spread among three or four massive sycamores. The shanty might be hard to see in the summer and difficult to explore because it’s nestled into the side of the railroad bed embankment and overgrown with multiflora rose, poison ivy and stinging nettles.
Lake Fork’s most familiar landmark is a railroad trestle spanning the river at the confluence of Crab Run, about a mile downstream of the livery.
Lake Fork is ideal for day trips. It’s also well-suited for overnighters with 10.5 miles of river from the Mohicanville Dam to Toodik Campgrounds and nearly 10 miles from the campground to the public landing at Greer on the main branch of the Mohican.
On June 5 and 6, I did an overnight trip. I put in at the dam late Wednesday morning, camped at Toodik that night and pressed on the next day for the main branch of the Mohican. Shortly after 1:30 p.m. on the first day, it started raining and continued nonstop for about 12 hours. When the clouds finally parted, more than an inch of rain had fallen. By morning, the river had risen 2.28 feet.
For experienced paddlers — those who have mastered the basic strokes and know how to spot obstacles above and beneath the surface — Lake Fork is easier to run when water levels are higher. This makes for a wider, deeper river with more room to maneuver around or over obstacles. At normal levels, it’s rated International Class I, suitable for beginners.
In this situation, I normally would have used my Old Town Pack, a plastic solo canoe weighing 33 pounds and 12 feet in length. With the inevitable bushwhacking upstream of the livery and downstream of the campground, it’s better to have a smaller, lighter boat. But I needed a more stable platform to take photographs and GPS readings for this article, so I used my 17-foot Grumman. More a barge than a canoe, the Grumman weighs in at 75 pounds.
Before putting in at the dam, I pitched camp at Toodik and left most of my equipment there. For the day, I took along rain gear, extra clothing, a gallon of water and a cooler containing ice, pop and snacks.
The stretch from the dam to the canoe livery is notorious for logjams, some of which can be removed only with the help of explosives, heavy equipment or both. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for that.
I was pleasantly surprised to find only one logjam, which was a half-mile upstream of the livery. It was massive, but I was able to find spots where I could work my canoe over and under obstructions. This process involves teetering on wet logs and floating debris — sometimes wielding a bow saw or pruning shears. It helps to have sturdy wading shoes, sufficient upper body strength, a good sense of balance and dumb luck.
The latter was a factor in this case because I got through the logjam just before the rain started. Rain can make climbing around logjams even more treacherous.
Just downstream from the logjam are the remains of a swinging footbridge. I feel fortunate to have been able to walk across the bridge about 15 years ago, while it was still intact.
At the livery, I tried to wait out the rain under the Ohio 3 bridge. I snacked on a Clif Bar and peanuts with a Coca Cola chaser. By the time I finished, the rain had tapered off from a deluge to a mild downpour and was starting to pick up again — a pattern that would continue until after I retreated into my tent for the night.
I paused briefly at the railroad trestle then pressed on to the hobo shanty. As I approached, an immature bald eagle flew out of a tree near the shanty. Perhaps this was a good omen because the rain had slowed to a drizzle and I was able to get a few interior photos by ducking under what’s left of the roof.
The shanty was constructed of stacked railroad ties on three sides and wooden planks on the front. The roof and sides were covered with scrap sheet metal panels. I recall that, when I first saw the shanty some 30 years ago, some of the metal panels had paint and lettering and might have been signs of some sort.
To spot the shanty from the river, it’s on the right, two miles downstream from the trestle and a half-mile upstream of the bridge at Holmes County Road 22. It’s at a point on the river when the tracks begin to run right alongside of it. For the GPS-endowed, that would be N 40°38.985’/W 082°10.067’.
When I arrived at the heronry, at the last bend before Toodik, it was raining too hard to get a photo. The heron are on the nests from March or April until early July. Even if you can’t see them, you can hear them squawking when danger approaches or when a squabble erupts among neighbors. The latter can be instigated by attempts to snatch a stick from a neighbor’s nest.
Once at Toodik, I took refuge in a gazebo on the riverbank. Tired after a day of bushwhacking, paddling and dodging raindrops, I resigned myself to a modest supper of cheese cubes, another Clif Bar and a can of Molson Ice. In lieu of a campfire, I smoked a Garcia & Vega English Corona.
It was still daylight when I peeled off my rain gear and dove into my warm, dry tent. Before falling asleep, I amused myself by making videos of raindrops on the translucent fabric — beading up then rolling down the sides of the tent.
As is often the case on canoe trips, a day of slogging through the rain and mud is followed by a sunny day. I awakened to the sound of pileated woodpeckers hard at work in the forest behind my tent — and “God beams” of sunlight glistening in the mist.
After a warm shower and a hearty breakfast of biscuits and gravy, I headed out to paddle the last three miles of Lake Fork. I encountered a few downed trees but was able paddle under or over them — thanks to the higher water level.
It was a perfect morning on the river. To top it off, in a log pile at the confluence of Lake Fork and the main branch of the Mohican River, I found a large piece of driftwood shaped like a dragon. At the risk of falling in or capsizing, I wrestled the long heavy piece from the floating debris pile, strapped it on top my canoe and headed downstream. It will be integrated into the landscape at home, serving as a perch for feeding birds and a reminder of another glorious day on the river.
Next week: Is there life after Frye’s Landing? Exploring a less-traveled section of the Mohican.