Looking for the Beginning of Clear Fork
I spent most of yesterday scouting Clear Fork for “The Other Mohican,” my weekly Loudonville Times series on the forks and less-travelled sections of Ohio’s most popular river. Setting out mid morning in my “Canoebaru,” I drove to Ontario (Ontario, Ohio, not the real Ontario) and hiked back into the headwaters.
From there, I drove around the countryside, stopping at every bridge over the continually widening and deepening river, taking photos and notes. Not all of it can be explored by canoe. At least, not practically.
I was determined to find the origin of Clear Fork, to meet it “in person.” It starts as an intermittent stream fed sparingly by a pond north of Marshall Park in Ontario. I managed to get near the pond, which is surrounded by heavy underbrush, much of it thorny. Lacking a machete, proper clothing and time, I had to stop short of hacking my way to the pond.
Instead of rambling on here, I’ll let the photos do the talking. This installment in the series is slated to run Aug. 5. Previous articles have been posted in this blog.
In the beginning …
Found in the woods nearby
Also found in the woods
A little diversion at a small pond north of the park
Still an intermittent stream in the park
At Lexington Ontario Road
Very cool old bridge off Cockley Road
View of Clear Fork Valley from Orweiler Road
Pollution is patriotic
Dam at Clear Fork Reservoir
Benedict Road Bridge
I expect to get out on the Clear Fork next week to explore it further by canoe. Meanwhile, it’s time to write the Rocky Fork article for the series. Might put it all in a book later.
Part five of The Other Mohican series:
Upper Black Fork – for extreme bushwhackers only
It will never be crowded on the upper Black Fork. In more than three decades of canoeing the Mohican River, I’ve met only a few paddlers hard-core enough to venture up there. None ever made a habit of it.
Most of the Black Fork’s 58-plus miles are upstream of Charles Mill Lake. Black Fork originates west of Mansfield, within a mile or so either way of the origins of Clear Fork and Rocky Fork. It flows north through Shelby, turns east then wends its way south to Mifflin.
As mentioned in last week’s article, the 19-mile stretch from Charles Mill Dam to the Clear Fork confluence is conducive to day trips and overnight river excursions. However, Black Fork from its headwaters to Charles Mill Lake is in no danger of becoming a haven for paddlers.
Black Fork starts out as an intermittent creek south of U.S. 30 and west of Mansfield. A mere trickle of a stream — except after heavy rains — it snakes through a relatively flat landscape dotted with hills.
The folks in Shelby know all too well that this trickle can quickly swell into a raging torrent, turning their town into a muddy lake. If there’s such a thing as the “perfect flood” — the counterpart of the “perfect storm” — Shelby would be at the eye of it. That’s because the upper Black Fork undergoes a personality change when it hits town.
As explained by Joe Gies, project coordinator and surface water guru for the City of Shelby, the Black Fork is fed by runoff from the hills and accelerated by its descent from higher ground. It then comes crashing down on Shelby, where the gradient drop tapers off dramatically.
“I compare it to a waterslide because it hits the bottom and spreads out,” Gies said. “Our biggest problem is you have an elevation drop of 355 feet, then it just flattens out.”
This elevation drop occurs over a nine-mile stretch of Black Fork.
Completing the “perfect flood” scenario, two streams empty into river just upstream of Main Street.
Downstream from Shelby, it’s a different story. From Plymouth Springmill Road northeast of town, the elevation drops only 50 feet over the next 28 miles before the river eventually flows, for want of a better word, into Charles Mill Lake.
By the time the upper Black Fork becomes wide enough and deep enough to be paddled at normal levels, it’s choked with logjams and downed trees. In the summertime, add mosquitoes, deerflies and poison ivy into the equation and it’s not hard to see why this part of the stream doesn’t hold much appeal for paddlers.
It’s a shame because much of the upper Black Fork flows through lush woodlands, farm fields and wetlands heavily populated with wildlife.
I found this out 16 years ago when I paddled Black Fork from State Route 13 to the Charles Mill Lake Park campground. The trip was a little over 17 miles, a distance that can be covered in under six hours when paddled at a leisurely pace. With all the portaging and dragging over downed trees, it took 8 ½ hours — and a pint of blood extracted by the mosquitoes.
Regardless, I enjoyed the scenery, the wildlife and a chance to spend a day on the river. Plus, exhausted from all that bushwhacking, I got a good night’s sleep.
There is something to be said for paddling on Charles Mill Lake — and a short stretch of Black Fork upstream of the lake. There are plenty of coves to explore along the 34-mile shoreline, exploration that could yield a sighting of bald eagles, osprey and other wildlife. It’s not uncommon for exotic birds to stop off during migration, including sandhill cranes, egrets and American white pelicans.
With a 10-horsepower limit for boat motors, Charles Mill Lake is relatively peaceful.
The lake is home to the Mohican Sailing Club, which conducts sailboat races on Sundays throughout the summer.
The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District provides access at a public boat ramp off State Route 430. MWCD owns and operates Charles Mill Lake Park, it’s main campground and Eagle Point Campground as well as recreational facilities around the lake. (The dam falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)
For years, boaters have camped on an informal basis on some of the lake’s islands. In the Charles Mill Lake Park master plan, MWCD has proposed the establishment of officially sanctioned campgrounds on some of the islands.
Charles Mill Lake was formed in the 1930s with the construction of a flood control dam on Black Fork. This was part of a comprehensive program in response to chronic flooding, including the devastating 1913 flood, which killed 467 people statewide. Charles Mill Dam is one of 14 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams built along the Muskingum Watershed. Two of those dams, Pleasant Hill and Mohicanville, are located on Clear Fork and Lake Fork of the Mohican River respectively.
The water impounded by Charles Mill Dam turned a chain of three small lakes into one 1,350-acre lake. Historian Abraham J. Baughman wrote in 1909 that the Mifflin Lakes, originally named the Petersburg Lakes, were remarkably deep. Baughman claimed that the 60-acre lower lake — the biggest of the three — was believed to have been 50-100 feet deep. However, with the massive expansion of surface water forming Charles Mill Lake, the average depth was reduced to eight feet.
Over the years, topsoil that washed downstream from the upper Black Fork reduced the average depth to five feet. I recall that, about 15 years ago, a miscreant fleeing from park rangers and sheriff’s deputies jumped into the lake and attempted to swim to freedom. The officers didn’t pursue him. Instead, one of them yelled out the fugitive, “When you get tired of swimming, you can turn around and walk back.” He did.
A word of caution to paddlers: Although the water might be only a few feet deep, stepping out of a canoe or kayak can be perilous. One morning, after the lake had been drawn down for the winter, I was walking on the lakebed about 50 feet from the shoreline and suddenly sank into the sediment up to my thighs. I flopped onto my back, pried my legs from the muck and crawled to shore.
Although there are logjams, downed trees and a low-head dam to deal with, canoeists and kayakers occasionally paddle a few miles of Black Fork from U.S. 42 or one of the county or township roads upstream. The low-head dam is downstream of Crider Road. The Ashland County Park District has established five parks along the upper Black Fork. The latest addition, Carpenter Waterfowl Park, can be used as a put-in point. According to park district volunteer Tim Leslie, there are no immediate plans to establish a formal river access site, but it has been discussed.
Carpenter Waterfowl Park is located on Pavonia East Road in Richland County, 6 ½ miles upstream of the lake.
The park district also manages three parks along Jerome Fork and one further downstream on Lake Fork. Two of those parks, which will be discussed in a future article on Jerome Fork, provide access for paddlers.
The upper Black Fork offers interesting paddling during extreme high water. With no current to worry about, paddlers can make their way far upstream, paddling through forests and over roadways. When the river reaches this level, logjams are no longer an issue because they’re totally submerged.
Ten years ago, I had planned to do some canoe camping on the Mohican River. There had been a lot of rain and conditions on the river were far too dangerous. I thought about canceling my plans but decided to explore the upper Black Fork instead.
Putting in at the campground, I headed upstream. To pass under the State Route 430 bridge, I lay down in my canoe and propelled the boat by pushing off on the beams beneath the deck.
I spent three glorious days, exploring the flooded woodlands and camping on hilltops that had become islands.
I made it to the other side of State Route 545 before the water level had receded to the point that the river was slipping back within its banks. After portaging a few logjams, I decided to call it a weekend and headed back downstream.
During the trip, I came across a beech tree with names and dates that had been carved into it on Memorial Day 1936. This would have been at a time when the dam was under construction and the lake had not filled in. That didn’t happen until 1938. The scarred bark had obliterated some of the writing over time, but I was able to make out the name Sherman Hiner.
Afterward, I contacted the only Hiner I knew at the time, retired Ashland Symphony executive director Larry Hiner. He told me he wasn’t aware of having any connection with Sherman Hiner. I pressed on with my search, calling every Hiner in the Ashland and Mansfield phonebooks. Still no luck.
One of the Hiners I spoke with, an elderly woman, seemed a bit confused about why I was calling. Something in her voice told me that, through the fog of time, she might have envisioned glimpses of her youthful companions, the trunk of a beech tree and a pocketknife glistening in the late spring sunlight.
Next week: Rocky Fork, another stream with a split personality
Upper Black Fork photo gallery
Black Fork Pilgrimage – Returning to the place of my rebirth
When I launched a rented canoe on Black Fork of the Mohican River 34 years ago, I had no idea where I was or where I was going. When I came to the confluence of Clear Fork, where the mainstream of the Mohican River begins, I stopped to ask directions.
However, I did know the second the canoe slipped free of the bank and began to drift downstream that this was where I wanted to be and this was what I wanted to do.
I found my life’s passion at what was then Mohican Canoe Livery on the last mile of Black Fork. Still under the same management, the livery is now part of Mohican Adventures recreational complex. For this week’s article in my series on the forks of the Mohican, I decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts from Charles Mill Dam to the place of my rebirth, the place where I first put a canoe in the water.
At more than 58 miles, Black Fork is by far the longest of the Mohican River forks. Unfortunately, much of it — the stretch above Charles Mill Lake and Dam — is choked with logjams and fallen trees not particularly attractive to paddlers. We’ll take a look at that section next week.
It’s about 19 miles from Charles Mill Dam near Mifflin to the Clear Fork confluence south of Loudonville. While not as pristine as the lower Mohican River, this stretch of the Black Fork offers canoeists and kayakers more solitude than the Loudonville to Frye’s Landing section that’s so popular with day paddlers. Some of the Loudonville-area liveries offer trips on Black Fork with put-in sites as far upstream as County Road 1075 north of Perrysville.
During tourist season, the section served by the canoe liveries is kept free of logjams and deadfalls. Paddlers will encounter some logjams and downed trees between Charles Mill Dam and County Road 1075. However, most obstructions can be gotten over or around easily. The exception is the stretch from the dam to the State Route 603 bridge, which is narrower and more prone to logjams. For that reason, a lot of paddlers opt to put in two miles downstream at State Route 603.
Except when there is a major water release from the dam, there is little or no current to speak of between Charles Mill and the confluence of Rocky Fork, about 4.5 miles downstream. The confluence of Black Fork and Rocky Fork is almost a reunion. Both originate west of Mansfield, a little over a mile apart. (In turn, Clear Fork of the Mohican originates about a mile from the start of Black Fork.)
Black Fork undergoes a personality change just past the Rocky Fork confluence, with plenty of gradient drops, riffles, chutes and turns. It’s rated International Class I and suitable for beginners at normal water levels.
The river level was perfect for my three-day “pilgrimage trip” in early July. Online river gauges have taken a lot of the guesswork out of paddling the Mohican. For Black Fork between Charles Mill and the Clear Fork confluence, the gauges to watch are Black Fork below Charles Mill Dam, Melco (at Rocky Fork) and Black Fork at Loudonville. The Charles Mill and Loudonville gauges can be accessed at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/oh/nwis/rt and the Melco gauge at http://www.lrh-wc.usace.army.mil/wc/musns.htm (listed under Walhonding River).
I knew there was a sizeable logjam below the dam, so I opted to start my journey from the Mifflin Township Road 1265 bridge. I was able to wend my way through the maze of downed trees without having to get out of my canoe. Just downstream of the bridge, I spotted an immature bald eagle, one of many I’d see during the trip.
The forecast called for rain and Mother Nature delivered. I’d stopped to take a few photos at the canoe livery put-in at County Road 1075 and foolishly left my rain gear and camera dry box in the canoe while I wandered around. I hadn’t seen the dark clouds lurking beyond the tree line and was ambushed by a sudden downpour. I covered the camera with my hat and ducked into a portable outhouse. Not the most pleasant place to hang out, but my camera stayed dry.
After about 20 minutes, the storm passed and I was on my way.
Not far downstream from the livery put-in is the Greentown Indian village site. Between 1782 and 1812, more than 150 families — primarily members of the Delaware tribe — lived and farmed in the village. They had been driven from the East Coast by encroaching white settlers and struck up an alliance with the British. When hostilities between the U.S. and England came to a head in 1812, the American militia forcibly evicted the Greentown inhabitants, telling them they could return after tensions died down. As the soldiers ushered them to their new home in Piqua, some members of the militia stayed behind and torched their village.
After paddling through Perrysville, I was waylaid by a second storm. I took shelter under the eaves of a maintenance building at the former Pleasant Hill Canoe Livery on State Route 39. The livery was established in the 1960s by Clayton Drouhard, who died in 2006. George and Amy Smith bought the property in 1999 and operated a livery and campground there before moving operations downstream to Smith’s Campground and Cabins south of Loudonville on Wally Road.
The section of Black Fork between Perrysville and Loudonville figured prominently in the pre railroad era. According to regional historian Lee Cavin, farmers found it too costly to ship their grain, lumber and whiskey overland to Lake Erie ports, so they sent it by flatboat to New Orleans. In his book, “The Edge of Paradise … revisited, Loudonville, Ohio,” Cavin wrote that retired sailor John Bull, who initiated this practice locally in the early 1820s, “was joined on the river by other area entrepreneurs and boatyards flourished as far upstream as the entrance of Honey Creek … ” Flatboat operators dismantled their boats in New Orleans, sold the lumber and returned home on foot or by horseback.
Honey Creek flows into Black Fork about halfway between Perrysville and Loudonville. It’s a nice quiet spot to stop for shore lunch.
There were only a few hours of daylight left when I reached Loudonville, so I stopped to camp just outside of town. The land where I camped belongs to Becky Augustine. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know landowners along the river who allow me to camp on their property.
It wasn’t always that way. Like many canoe campers, I labored under the illusion in my earlier years that you could pretty much camp where you liked. That’s not the case. Most of the land along the banks, the islands and the riverbed itself are private property. The river is considered public property and paddlers can float on any navigable body of water in the state. But, step out of the canoe or kayak, and you’re technically trespassing.
There’s peace of mind in knowing that, when you have the landowners’ blessings, you won’t be rousted from your tent in the middle of the night by police. Or, worse yet, by a gun-toting landowner.
The first time I camped on the Augustine property, I was trespassing. That’s when I met the landowner’s husband, the late John “Moxie” Augustine. Moxie was accompanied by a Loudonville police officer. Moxie, who passed away in 2007, had a reputation for being a colorful character who was prone to using colorful language.
On the day I met him, I was stooped over the campfire making breakfast. There were about eight people in our party, most of them still in their tents sleeping. We were a colorful bunch in our own right and our encampment looked like a Gypsy caravan with canoes in lieu of wagons.
The police officer asked Moxie if he wanted to press trespassing charges.
Moxie surveyed our campsite and, with a sly grin and a gleam in his eye, he replied, “No, I just want to know how they get all this stuff in their boats.”
Although “stuff” was not the term he used.
A few years later, I came to Ashland County to work at the Times-Gazette and got to know Moxie. He was a dispatcher for the Ashland Fire Department at the time and I always looked forward to visiting him on my daily rounds. I don’t often camp on the Augustine property. But, when I do, I enjoy reflecting on fond memories of Moxie and I always drink a toast in his honor.
I enjoyed my stay at the campsite. The mosquitoes enjoyed it even more. I broke camp in the morning and canoed a short distance to the Mohican Adventures landing — the place of my rebirth. Every time I paddle by this spot, I look upon it with reverence. On this trip, I stopped and thanked the owners, Doug and Patty Shannon, for the role they played in helping me find my passion in life.
I pressed on past the confluence and accepted George and Amy Smith’s longstanding offer to stop at their campground to socialize and sample a few specialty beers. I pitched camp and spent a relaxing afternoon watching the river flow, reflecting and writing.
Mother Nature wasn’t done with me yet. Just before sunset, I got hit with another rain shower. It quickly passed, leaving a double rainbow in its wake — a fitting end to my Black Fork pilgrimage.
Next week: The upper Black Fork — for extreme bushwhackers only.