From the Underbelly of the Beast

Rocky Fork emerges from Mansfield to become a pleasant rural stream

Part Six of “The Other Mohican – Forks and less-travelled sections of the Mohican River”

Jekyll and Hyde had nothing on Rocky Fork. In its 21-mile run, Rocky Fork undergoes a transformation from open sewer to picturesque stream. The most urban of the Mohican River forks, it slips from its headwaters into Mansfield’s postindustrial wasteland. As it emerges from the city, it sheds much of its turbidity and stench, cascading into the rural countryside of eastern Richland County.

Rocky Fork at North Main Street, passing through the bowels of Mansfield

Rocky Fork at North Main Street, passing through the bowels of Mansfield

Rocky Fork is a tributary of Black Fork, flowing into it 4.5 miles downstream from Charles Mill Dam. Like Black Fork, it originates as an intermittent creek on high ground west of Mansfield and drops quickly in elevation as it flows downstream. During heavy rains, both become raging torrents of mud, water and God only knows what else.

However, Black Fork’s terrain flattens out nine miles downstream at Shelby and stays that way all the way to Charles Mill Lake, while Rocky Fork’s elevation plummets all the way to its confluence with Black Fork.

Between its point of origin and Shelby, Black Fork’s elevation drops 355 feet. Rocky Fork’s elevation level starts at around 1400 feet above sea level and ends at 980 feet. Furthermore, like the other forks of the Mohican River, much of Rocky Fork was dredged and straightened in the earlier part of the 20th Century, making it flow even faster.

Because of its tendency to drain quickly, Rocky Fork traditionally served as an open sewer for the city and its industry, which included steel mills and the former Ohio Brass (on Touby Run, a tributary of Rocky Fork). These days, a lot of Mansfield’s heavy manufacturing base has been replaced by salvage yards and similar operations — all prone to spewing dust and other contaminants into the soil, air and water.

Rocky Fork at Wayne Street – still murky from its journey through the city’s scrap yards and factories.

Rocky Fork at Wayne Street – still murky from its journey through the city’s scrap yards and factories.

According to Mansfield area history buff Timothy Brian McKee, the city originally was platted around Rocky Fork in the vicinity of State Route 39 and the I-71 interchange. It was later platted on higher ground because of flooding. This proved to be a win-win situation for residents and the river: The city was able to grow and prosper while the lower half of Rocky Fork retained some of its original personality.

In its final 10-plus miles, Rocky Fork flows past woodlands and well-kept farms. In some spots, the scenery would be worthy of a picture postcard.

Unfortunately, the persistent stench of gray water serves as a reminder of its sordid past. On some stretches the odor dissipates, only to return temporarily as the river flows past wastewater treatment facilities.

I recently spent a Sunday morning paddling Rocky Fork from the first Smart Road bridge to Black Fork, a trip of about five miles. It was a pleasant, but strenuous, paddle. Rocky Fork comes by its name honestly and it’s hard work dodging countless boulders and dragging the boat through shallow riffles.

I used my 17-foot aluminum canoe for this trip for two reasons: Its flat, expansive hull distributes weight over a wider area, resulting in less draft (the amount of hull that rides under the water). Plus, it can take a beating better than my plastic boat. Rocky Fork is not a stream where you’d take your prized cedar strip canoe. Someone else’s cedar strip canoe, maybe, but not your own.

Rocky Fork in its other personality – a scenic rural stream. Note my granddaughter's footprints on the deck plate.

Rocky Fork in its other personality – a scenic rural stream. Note my granddaughter’s footprints on the deck plate.

Rocky Fork can be run safely only when the water levels are normal or slightly above normal, preferably the latter. When swollen with storm runoff, it becomes a frothy brown torrent, rolling headlong through a narrow winding channel lined with low-hanging branches and downed trees.

I hadn’t paddled this section of Rocky Fork before and was pleasantly surprised with its beauty. Except for a few brushes with civilization — an occasional house and the outskirts of Lucas — it remains fairly remote. There was one sign of civilization I didn’t mind seeing: A little less than a mile downstream from Lucas, a stone railroad trestle arches majestically over the river — a monument to a time when people valued aesthetics and durability.

Rocky Fork runs through a wide valley, but the current has carved out a deep streambed. This gives it a feeling of intimacy similar to stretches of the Mohican River that flow through narrow valleys nestled in steep hills. For the most part, the banks are a combination of soil and rock. In only one location — between State Route 603 and the confluence — did I see a bedrock formation along the bank.

On my Sunday paddle I saw plenty of ducks, heron, hawks and songbirds. I also came upon a mature bald eagle upstream of Kaylor Road and rousted a large doe that had come down to the river to drink. With the canoe constantly banging on the rocks, I probably scared off a lot of the wildlife before I had a chance to see it.

Conrail bridge downstream from Lucas

Conrail bridge downstream from Lucas

The trip left the ’ol Grumman with a few more battle scars. There’s no harm in that with an aluminum canoe. Just gives it more character.

I had paddled a section of Rocky Fork on a previous occasion, a more somber one. Two years ago, the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office dive team asked me to assist with a search for the remains of a man presumed to have gone into a rain-swollen Touby Run five months earlier.

The victim, 56-year-old Gary Warner of Mansfield, had been riding a bicycle at night in an area plagued with recent scrap metal thefts. According to Mansfield Police reports, an officer spotted him and attempted to make contact so he could ask Warner what he was doing there. Warner — who was known to be excessively wary of police — bolted, leaving his bicycle behind at some point. The officer heard cries for help coming from the rushing water, then more cries further downstream, but was unable to locate or help Warner.

Richland County authorities later searched Touby Run and Rocky Fork as far as State Route 603 but found no trace of Warner. Seeking closure, his sister, Sandy Warner of Arizona, asked Ashland County authorities to search further downstream. The Ashland County Sheriff’s Office dive team mobilized to search Rocky Fork from State Route 603 to the confluence and Black Fork downstream to Perrysville.

Lt. Scott Smart, fellow dive team member Gabe Campbell and Chief Deputy Carl Richert of the Ashland County Sheriff's Office check out a piece of clothing found during a body search of Rocky and Black forks.

Lt. Scott Smart, fellow dive team member Gabe Campbell and Chief Deputy Carl Richert of the Ashland County Sheriff’s Office check out a piece of clothing found during a body search of Rocky and Black forks.

Dive team commander, Lt. Scott Smart, recruited me to help with logistics because of my familiarity with the rivers. I also was acting in the capacity of newspaper reporter, writing an account of the search for the Ashland Times-Gazette.

I can assure Sandy Warner that the guys gave it their best, combing the river by canoe and walking the banks on both sides. In fact, they were so thorough that I eventually had to hurry them along because we were in danger of not getting to Perrysville on time for our pickup.

They found nothing except a tattered pant leg and boot, neither of which belonged to the victim.

To me, a river is something that brings life and joy. But, as in Jekyll and Hyde, there’s a dark side to it. Dealing with death on the river in any capacity is a sobering experience. It leaves you with a deeper appreciation for the power of the river — and your own mortality.

Next week: Clear Fork, part one                  

This series is running in the Loudonville Times and Ashland Times-Gazette

Writer’s Journal – In Search of Genesis

Looking for the Beginning of Clear Fork

origin of clear forkI 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 …

Clear Fork – an intermittent stream about 100 yards past its point of origin

Clear Fork – an intermittent stream about 100 yards past its point of origin

Found in the woods nearby

Pontoons – Found one twice this size nearby. Were these two halves? Would they have been used for a floating bridge. They were either left by floodwaters or dumped in the woods.

Pontoons – Found one twice this size nearby. Were these two halves? Would they have been used for a floating bridge? They were either left by floodwaters or dumped in the woods.

Also found in the woods

A section of fence. Perhaps there was a pasture here. Next photo shows wiring hardware.

A section of fence. Perhaps there was a pasture here. Next photo shows wiring hardware.





A little diversion at a small pond north of the park

This and the dragon and damsel flies were in a small pond, fed by the intermittent stream, is just north of Milligan Road.

This and the dragon and damsel flies were in a small pond, fed by the intermittent stream, just north of Milligan Road.






Still an intermittent stream in the park



At Lexington Ontario Road

By the time it gets here, Clear Fork is no longer intermittent.

By the time it gets here, Clear Fork is no longer intermittent.


Very cool old bridge off Cockley Road

Now a private driveway. C-clamp holding the railing together. Must have been before duct tape was invented.

Now a private driveway. C-clamp holding the railing together. Must have been before duct tape was invented.


Self-explanatory bridge detail

Self-explanatory bridge detail


View of Clear Fork Valley from Orweiler Road



Pollution is patriotic

There was a nasty chemical smell and murky looking water at Patriot Park in Lexington.

There was a nasty chemical smell and murky looking water at Patriot Park in Lexington.


Dam at Clear Fork Reservoir


Potential put-in?

Kocheiser Road west of I-71. This was the first spot I found that looked promising as a put-in point.

Kocheiser Road west of I-71. This was the first spot I found that looked promising as a put-in point.


Benedict Road Bridge 

Downstream from Buttler. Used to be a mill here.

Downstream from Buttler. Used to be a mill here.


Taken from the bridge. A great blue heron stalks its prey in Clear Fork of the Mohican River.

Taken from the bridge. A great blue heron stalks its prey in Clear Fork of the Mohican River.


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.


A river runs INTO it — Shelby, Ohio, and the upper Black Fork

Part five of The Other Mohican series:

Upper Black Fork – for extreme bushwhackers only

Black Fork at Myers Road upstream of Shelby

Black Fork at Myers Road upstream of Shelby

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

Charles Mill Dam on a summer afternoon

Charles Mill Dam on a summer afternoon


Low-head dam downstream of Crider Road. There is a passage on the right, but paddlers should beware of the rocks and gravel bar below it.

Low-head dam downstream of Crider Road. There is a passage on the right, but paddlers should beware of the rocks and gravel bar below it.


Three forks of the Mohican River originate on high ground west of Mansfield.

Three forks of the Mohican River originate on high ground west of Mansfield.


Names carved into a beech tree along the Black Fork in 1936

Names carved into a beech tree along the Black Fork in 1936

The Other Mohican — Part 4 of the Loudonville Times series

Black Fork Pilgrimage – Returning to the place of my rebirth

A mist rises off the river near the Greentown Indian village site.

A mist rises off the river near the Greentown Indian village site.

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.

Downed trees downstream from the dam — why most paddlers opt to put in further down, at the SR 603 bridge.

Logjams downstream from the dam — why most paddlers opt to put in further down, at the SR 603 bridge.

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.)

Trestle at Rocky Fork, where the personality of the river changes — notice the riffle just past the bridge

Trestle at Rocky Fork, where the personality of the river changes — notice the riffle just past the bridge

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 and the Melco gauge at (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.

Seeing the world from a Port-A-John, just part of the wonderful world of canoe camping.

Seeing the world from a Port-A-John, just part of the adventure. Yes, that’s my canoe out there – where I left my rain gear.

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.

Mohican Adventures owners Doug and Patty Shannon, son-in-law Josh Gray and their dog Diesel — the folks who provided me with a venue to find my life's passion.

Mohican Adventures owners Doug and Patty Shannon, son-in-law Josh Gray and their dog Diesel — the folks who provided me with a venue to find my life’s passion.

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.

A double rainbow at Smith's campground after the final storm of the trip

A double rainbow at Smith’s campground after the final storm of the trip

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.




The Other Mohican, Part Three – Brinkhaven to Mohawk Dam

The lower section of the Mohican River wasn’t always pristine. These days, the stretch near Loudonville is bustling with commercial activity — primarily tourism — but Brinkhaven and Cavallo along the southern part of the river were once thriving commercial centers.

Bridge of Dreams – U.S. 62 bridge in background

Bridge of Dreams – U.S. 62 bridge in background

Progress and the 1913 flood changed all that.

For this week’s article on the forks and other less-traveled sections of the Mohican River, we’ll explore the 18-mile stretch between Brinkhaven and Mohawk Dam. This is the most pristine section of the river, densely forested, nestled in a gradually widening valley and teeming with wildlife.

In early June, I spent four days paddling from Mohicanville Dam on Lake Fork of the Mohican River to Mohawk Dam. (The latter is on the Walhonding River, which originates at the confluence of the Mohican and Kokosing rivers.) For part of the trip, my friends Kevin and Theresa Clark of rural Loudonville joined me, putting on at Mohican Wilderness Campground and taking out at Cavallo.

It had been an uneventful trip until Kevin’s kayak was swept into a log pile and capsized 2 ½ miles upstream of Brinkhaven. He survived the ordeal unscathed, but minus his glasses. Theresa and I reunited Kevin with has kayak, continued downstream and made it safely past Brinkhaven Dam.

The Mohican River is rated International Class I, which is suitable for all skill levels. However, Brinkhaven Dam is one spot on the river that demands paddlers’ full attention. Like other low-head dams, it can be a drowning machine. Low-head dams produce a churning hydraulic that catches and holds objects and people beneath the downstream side, pounding them on the rocks and debris. In paddling lingo, getting caught in a hydraulic is known as being “Maytagged.”

Over the years, Brinkhaven Dam has claimed its share of lives. I’ve been told eight people drowned there one summer alone. In the late 1970s, a section on the right side was chiseled out with jackhammers, making for relatively safe passage.

Brinkhaven — also called Gann — once had a population of more than 1,000 souls, two railroads, a gristmill and a woolen mill. The 1913 flood wiped out the woolen mill. The gristmill structure survived the flood, but burned down in 1951.

After clearing the dam, Kevin, Theresa and I stopped for a snack at the Bridge of Dreams, a former railroad trestle converted into Ohio’s longest covered bridge. It now serves as a river crossing for bicycles, hikers and Amish buggies.

A fawn makes its way to the bank

A fawn makes its way to the bank

As we continued downstream, I pointed out islands along the way, islands my friends and I have named according to certain characteristics or incidents that occurred there over the years. Not all of the names are fit to print in a family newspaper. We saw a few bald eagles and happened on a fawn swimming along the east bank. Hard to say what had rousted it. Perhaps the fawn heard us approaching, panicked and jumped into the river. The fawn managed to make its way back onto the bank.

At Cavallo, Kevin, Theresa and I parted company and I continued to my campsite just downstream.

Only a few houses remain in Cavallo. While the railroad brought prosperity to some regions, it eventually led to a decline for Cavallo. It had been the northern terminus of the Walhonding Canal and reportedly was a jumping little town. There were plans to continue canal north to Brinkhaven, but the Walhonding Valley Railroad rendered it obsolete and the canal was abandoned in 1896.

The bridge at Cavallo

The bridge at Cavallo

In turn, the construction of  Mohawk Dam in the mid 1930s, severed the railroad connection between Coshocton to Loudonville. During World War II, the tracks were torn out and the iron used for the war effort.

What remains of the canal trench can be seen along Township Road 368 in northeast Coshocton County. The ruins of a lock are located on the eastern end of the Village of Walhonding.

I camped at Cavallo Island, not its official name but my name for it.

To me, an island is a living thing. An island is born when the current carves out a channel and separates it from the mainland. It continually changes shape and position as the current undercuts parts of the bank or when sediment builds up behind debris that washes up on the island and behind trees that fall along its banks. In my 34 years on the river, I’ve seen a few islands come and go.

On this trip, I was surprised to find that Cavallo Island was whole again. For decades, it had been broken up into three sections. Sediment has filled in the channels that separated the segments.

I spent a peaceful evening in front of the campfire, watching daylight slowly fade through the tree canopy above, one of the things I love about summer camping.

I also enjoy waking up while the darkness gradually steals away and I can see just well enough to dig out my camp stove and make a pot of coffee. I never grow tired of sitting back with a warm cup of coffee, listening to the birds sing and watching wisps of mist swirl up from the surface of the river.

Wood duck ducklings near Cavallo Island

Wood duck ducklings near Cavallo Island

As I sat there eating breakfast, a bald eagle glided over the water at eye level. On this part of the Mohican River, there is an abundance of eagles, osprey, belted kingfishers, cedar waxwings, great blue heron and waterfowl. Later in the morning, I photographed a family of wood ducks swimming in the morning mist just downstream from my campsite.

After breakfast, I grabbed my GPS and hiked the perimeter of the island. I’d estimated the island to be 10 acres and wasn’t far off; it measured 9.29 acres.

With only 12 miles of river between Cavallo Island and Mohawk Dam, I had plenty of time to enjoy the day. It was warm and pleasant with no prospect for rain. In recent years, I’ve gotten in the habit of packing a weather radio. Knowing what kind of weather to expect helps in planning your day or adjusting your itinerary.

I stopped for a cookout just past the confluence, where the Mohican and Kokosing rivers meet to form the Walhonding. I grilled what was left of my brats and sausage, ate a few and put the rest back into the cooler. I like having leftovers to eat at home after a canoe trip. Nothing like a good snack that allows you to savor memories of time spent on the river.

This spot has become one of my favorite places on the Walhonding River for cookouts. I call it “the wash” because it’s located at the outlet of a swale that splits a steep hillside. There are plenty of fossils to pick through while waiting for lunch to cook. This is a part of the landscape where glaciers piled up debris before retreating and leaving behind reconfigured river valleys.

I camped at this spot one cold and wet New Year’s Eve. As I ate breakfast the following morning, two kayaks and a canoe passed my campsite. Yet, here it was a warm sunny day in June, and I hadn’t seen another paddler on the river the whole time.

From the confluence to Mohawk Dam, the river takes on a different personality. It meanders across a floodplain through a wide sprawling valley. The water is clearer, more like the Kokosing, which has a sand and gravel bottom. Consequently, the bass fishing is good. It once was on the Mohican, but siltation caused by poor land management practices has taken its toll on the bass population.

Mohawk Dam rises from the floodplain like a monolith in the middle of nowhere.

Mohawk Dam rises from the floodplain like a monolith in the middle of nowhere.

By late afternoon, Mohawk Dam came into sight. The gatehouse rises out of the vast floodplain like a monolith — with Art Deco undertones. Completed in 1937, this tall brick structure is an impressive sight. The earthen dam, which is not quite as high as the gatehouse, rises more than 100 feet above the valley.

For those paddling beyond Mohawk Dam, I wouldn’t recommend portaging it. The preferred method is to find someone with a pickup truck at the campground on the other side of the dam and offer them a few bucks to haul your boat and gear over.

Now that the statute of limitations has expired, I will tell you that I have paddled through the dam on occasion.

 Next week: Black Fork Pilgrimage, Paddling to the Place of My Rebirth

The Other Mohican – Part Two

Is There Life After Frye’s Landing?

Paddling a Less-traveled Section of the Mohican River

For many Mohican River paddlers, Frye’s Landing is the last stop. Most day-trips end there or at one of the other canoe livery takeout points a little further downstream.

Frye's Landing – the end of the line for many paddlers.

Frye’s Landing – the end of the line for many paddlers.

A few hearty souls might venture as far as Greer or Brinkhaven. Those who do, are rewarded with a glimpse of the more-pristine stretches of the Mohican River. Furthermore, they don’t have to deal with logjams because the river widens and — with rare exceptions — fallen trees don’t create total blockage. It’s about 25 miles from Frye’s Landing to the confluence with the Kokosing River, offering paddlers many options for day trips or overnight excursions.

For those dependent on creature comforts, such as flush toilets and showers, there are private campgrounds along the way. Heartier souls camp on islands further downstream.

On June 5-7, I paddled this stretch — and beyond to Mohawk Dam — stopping to camp along the way. For this week’s article, we’ll look at the Mohican River from Frye’s Landing to Brinkhaven. Next week, we’ll cover Brinkhaven to Mohawk.

Frye’s Landing is a little less than a mile downstream from the confluence of Lake Fork. It’s named after the late Dick Frye, the father of Ohio’s canoe livery industry. Frye started the state’s first commercial livery in 1961, renting his own canoe from the back of a station wagon on state-owned land at Ohio 3 and Ohio 97. His modest operation spawned an industry that would earn Loudonville the official designation of Canoeing Capital of Ohio.

Frye’s venture also catapulted the region’s campground business. In addition to the original Mohican State Park facilities on Clear Fork of the Mohican River, private campgrounds sprang up along the river. That includes four between Frye’s Landing and Brinkhaven: Mohican Reservation, Mohican Wilderness, and a primitive campground at Greer (affiliated with Mohican Reservation).

Theresa & Kevin at Brinkhaven

Theresa & Kevin at Brinkhaven

On this trip, my friends Kevin and Theresa Clark of rural Loudonville arranged to join me for a night of camping at Mohican Wilderness followed by a day on the river. We would part company at the once-thriving village of Cavallo. From there, I’d spend another night and day on the river, eventually taking out at Mohawk Dam. The dam is six miles downstream from where the Mohican and Kokosing meet to form the Walhonding River.

After a hearty breakfast of chili omelets — one of my campfire specialties — we set up a shuttle, taking Kevin’s truck to Cavallo, five miles downstream from Brinkhaven.

It was late morning when we set out on the river from Mohican Wilderness. I was paddling my 17-foot aluminum canoe; Kevin and Theresa were in kayaks.

It was a sunny, pleasant day. Thanks to more than an inch of rain two days earlier, the river was up and moving. At normal levels, the Mohican is rated International Class I, suitable for all skill levels.

As we made our way downstream, I pointed out various landmarks including an A-frame structure that housed Frye’s original canoe landing at Greer. Over the years, the A-frame has nearly been obliterated by the house built around it by Bill Conrad. Long active in promoting the region, Conrad bought the A-frame from the state after it had fallen into disuse and disrepair. He moved it upstream to its present location.

I told Kevin and Theresa that, when I first paddled past Conrad’s house 34 years ago, I saw what I believed to be a voluptuous woman silhouetted in a window of the A-frame. I waved. When I paddled by the following year, she was there again. So I waved. This went on for a few more times until I realized that I had been waving at a life-size cardboard cutout of Dolly Parton.

I blamed my faux pas on poor eyesight and the prodigious amounts of beer that fueled my early canoe trips. I met Conrad years later and told him about my encounters with Dolly. He assured me that I wasn’t the only one to be fooled by the cardboard Dolly.

For the record, Dolly never waved back.

Conrad’s place is just upstream from Greer, which is a little more than three miles from Mohican Wilderness. Greer’s public river access, just past the Ohio 514 bridge, serves as a takeout or starting point for day trips and overnighters.

Originally called Greerville, the village once boasted two hardware stores and a Post Office, which later became a dancehall. Greer also served as a stop on the Walhonding Valley Railroad, more commonly known as the Wally. Greer’s status as a commercial center faded over time. A smattering of houses and a church remain.

The river appears to have been channelized downstream of the access point, creating a straight, shallow section. Less than a mile downstream, the Mohican reverts to its natural meander and becomes more pristine with steep hills, forests and occasional farm fields along the banks. After flowing under the Brinkhaven Road bridge, the river turns sharply to the right at one of its most scenic points — Alum Rock.

Alum Rock

Alum Rock

As the river emerges from the bend, an intermittent stream enters from the east side. At that point, stunning rock outcroppings jut out of hillsides on either side of the stream. The most impressive part lies just beyond the stream, where an outcropping protrudes from the side of a 300-foot hill forested with pines and hardwoods. This is best viewed in the fall or early spring.

As we approached the former Camp Nelson Dodd, I told Kevin and Theresa about the tragedy that struck there in May 1969. At one time, a swinging bridge spanned the river at the camp, which was established in 1921 by the YMCA. It’s now operated by Joy of Living Ministries and serves as a camp for disadvantaged or at-risk children.

On that fateful day 45 years ago, the Mohican River was running high and a group of children had gone out onto the bridge. According to a story in the Toledo Blade, the bridge sagged under their weight, the raging current snagged it and swept 14 children into the river. Thirteen of them were rescued; an 11-year-old girl drowned.

In front of the camp, the river bends sharply to the right at the head of an island, then gradually sweeps back to the left. The current drives directly into the head of the island. Navigating it can be tricky, as Kevin found out.

What's left of Brinkhaven Dam

What’s left of Brinkhaven Dam

His kayak was swept into a log pile and capsized. For an anxious moment, we lost sight of Kevin. A few seconds later — which seemed like an eternity — he surfaced on the other side of the log pile and made his way to the bank on the island. His kayak popped loose from the log pile. Theresa and I corralled it along with his paddle and we were reunited with Kevin at the foot of the island.

None the worse for wear, but minus his glasses, Kevin eased back into his kayak and we headed downstream to Brinkhaven — and more turbulent waters at the old low-head dam.

Next week: Brinkhaven to Mohawk Dam.