Routine Acts of Kindness

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View from my canoe — Bridge of Dreams at Brinkhaven.

June 4, 2019 — Today I learned the fate of two men who mattered in my life, two men who mattered in a lot of people’s lives: Jonas Nisely and Jim Proper.

I stopped by Jonas’ farm in southern Richland County to see how he was doing. His sons were outside working on the main house when I pulled in and I spoke with Eli. He went into a house across the lane to tell his father I was there.

Jonas is 92. He and my late father became friends in the 1970s, when my family stayed at the KOA campground up the road. Jonas taught in an Amish schoolhouse and my father was a bookbinder. Dad bound books for him in exchange for milk and eggs. I arranged for a reunion between them a few years before my father died. I have fond memories of driving dad’s Crown Vic on a dirt road through the woods to find Jonas working in his tree nursery. He and my father never stopped smiling as they talked, catching up on decades gone by.

I joined Jonas on a porch swing overlooking the farm. He appeared frail, but still had a gleam in his soulful blue eyes. I was relieved to see dirt on the knees of his homemade trousers — a sign that he was still getting out and working the land that he loved.

The bucolic scene unfolding before us served as testimony to his dedication to farm and family. Two young women in long blue dresses tended plants around the foundation of the main house, their bare feet rooted in the dirt and grass. A younger woman in a long brown dress mounted a pony and rode it down the lane, the same pony a young boy had been riding when I pulled up.

“Eli’s keeping the place in good shape for me,” Jonas said.

That clearly meant a lot to him.

Then we talked about my family.

“Your father always treated me well,” he said.

That meant a lot to both of us.

Earlier that day, I learned that Jim Proper had passed away in 2011. It had been years since I’d stopped by Jim’s place along the Mohican River at Brinkhaven. I felt guilty for not having kept in touch.

Jim was only 62 when he died. Like Jonas, he was a family man.

I camped in Jim’s yard on Memorial Day weekend 1980. It was the first place I ever camped along the river. Canoeing would become the focus of my life and — thanks to Jim — Brinkhaven would always hold a special place in my heart.

Back in the day Jim charged canoeists two bucks a night to camp in his big back yard near Brinkhaven Dam. Over the years I spent many a night there, lulled to sleep by the sound of water rushing over what was left of the low head dam.

Legend has it Jim’s place originally served as a roadhouse, known for its fine steaks and — according to some accounts — served with a side dish of rowdiness. Over the years, the Propers made additions and other improvements to the house. It looks quite stately, perched on a hill overlooking the river.

Eventually Jim stopped charging me and gave me his blessings to camp in his yard anytime. He seemed to sense my desire for solitude. Jim would wait till morning — when I was making breakfast or breaking camp — to come down from the house and talk with me.

Jim figures prominently in Mohican River lore — Brinkhaven in particular. In fact, some paddlers owe their lives to him. He was instrumental in chipping out a section of the right side of the dam, providing safe passage.

Even though it clearly pained him, Jim talked about pulling bodies of drowned paddlers from the river, victims of the dangerous hydraulic of the low head dam.

There’s another story about Jim I’d like to share. I’ll save that for another time.

I never troubled him for help with a shuttle, but Jim was known to do that for canoeists. I was content to enjoy his hospitality and conversation — and to watch his family grow over the years.

I was told his son, Matthew, has the place now. Next time I’m on that part of the river I should make it a point to stop by.

[This column was published in the Ashland Times-Gazette.]

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Motel Camping on the Muskingum River

Not What You’d Call Glamping

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Illustration by Joe Hughes

Cue “Jaws” theme music. Assorted old folks are draped over lounge chairs scattered around a motel swimming pool. They read books or talk among themselves. The surface of the water in the pool glistens in the summer sun.

The gate to the pool area swings open. Enter a middle-aged man wearing a Panama hat, sunglasses, cutoff jeans and a bright orange life vest. He is sunburned and sweaty.

The motel patrons continue reading and talking among themselves. They don’t seem to notice this stranger in a hat and life vest. He walks across the hot concrete deck and, without breaking stride, drops into the deep end of the pool. A few of the old folks put down their books or abruptly stop talking.

Cut to a close shot of the man in the pool, suspended from his life vest, bobbing in the water. An oily sheen forms around him on the surface of the water, a mixture of dust, sweat, and sunscreen.

One by one, the elderly folks close their books, gather their beach towels and beat a hasty retreat, trying their best not to stumble over their canes and walkers.

Not a scene you’d expect to see on a canoe trip, but there I was — camped at a motel in Beverly, Ohio. It was one of three I stayed at on my canoe trip from Brinkhaven on the Mohican River to Marietta at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers.

In this case, it was a combination motel and rest home. Half of the compound had been converted to senior citizen housing. Truckers, down-and-outers, and — on this night — a canoe bum occupied rooms in the other half.

On this trip, I took a break from primitive camping on two other occasions. I spent a night at a bed and breakfast in McConnellsville and another at a motel in Marietta.

In McConnellsville I stayed at what is now the Three Sisters Sunset Inn. It might have been called something else back then.

Like the motel/rest home in Beverly, I had to lug my camping gear across Ohio 60. Both places had docks on the river, as do many bars and restaurants along the Muskingum. It wasn’t safe to leave stuff in your boat and locking your canoe to the dock with a cable was advised.

The McConnellsville bed and breakfast was operated by a couple. I had made a reservation well before setting out on the trip. When I checked in, they told me they were headed off to a concert in Columbus. I was the only guest and they more or less asked me to keep an eye on the place in their absence.

I was only too glad to oblige. It had rained heavily the night before. I unpacked my tent and rainfly and draped them over the furniture in my room. It reminded me of when I was a kid and draped blankets over the furniture for make-believe camping.

For the final night of the trip, I had made arrangements to stay at the Lafayette Hotel, which is located at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio rivers. The plan was to have a friend drive to Marietta the next day to pick me up. I had called the hotel manager weeks earlier and explained what I was doing. He seemed intrigued and told me I could stay there.

When I arrived, a clerk told me all the rooms had been booked for the night. I explained the situation and asked to see the manager. I told him I was exhausted after two weeks on the river and offered to sleep in a broom closet or a dark corner of the basement. He apologized and told me I couldn’t because of fire regulations. I don’t suppose it would have made any difference if I told him I didn’t plan to make a campfire.

My 157-mile canoe trip became a 160-mile canoe trip. I had no choice but to paddle three miles back upstream to a motel I had passed along the way. It had a dock on the river. I don’t recall the name of the motel; I think it was a former Motel 6 operating under a different name and renting rooms by the hour. Had I looked at the register, I’m sure all the guests had the same surname — Smith. What are the odds?

I ventured out to a convenience store, bought a couple of tallboys — domestic beer because that’s all they had — and retreated to my room. I ordered a pizza. After it arrived, I bolted the door, stacked all the furniture I could lift against it and settled in for the night.

For once in my life I was not a happy camper.

(One of my outdoors columns published in the Ashland Times-Gazette)

 

 

 

Back when our laptops were made by Royal and Smith-Corona

For the benefit of those who don’t have access to the Ashland Times-Gazette

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My old column header — Negative framed in Rubylith. Ancient technology, like typewriters and fax machines. (Original photo by Kittie Palm-Houser)

We didn’t have smartphones when I took my first canoe trip to Marietta via the Mohican, Walhonding and Muskingum rivers. We didn’t even have dumb phones.

It was the early ’90s and I was writing columns for a weekly paper in Columbus. I made arrangements with the publisher to transmit columns from the river during my two-week trip. In those days, the only technology available was fax. For you younger readers, that was a primitive method for transmitting documents over telephone lines.

I made a portable office for the trip, using a Rubbermaid Action Packer. The lid doubled as a desk, for which I had rigged legs out of PVC pipe. Inside the tote, I packed a 1950s model Royal portable typewriter, typing paper, a paperback dictionary and correction fluid. (I’m a terrible typist.)

I lugged this thing on numerous portages — including Mohawk Dam, which is about four stories tall.

I calculated where I would be when my columns were due and arranged to fax them from the towns of Dresden and Beverly.

That proved to be an adventure in itself. I had to locate businesses in both towns where the managers would be willing to let me use their fax machines. Imagine explaining that over the phone to a total stranger:

“You want to do what?”

“You’re canoeing from where to where?”

“When will you be here?”

“Will you have mud on your feet?”

In Dresden, I faxed my column from a small grocery store. When I first contacted the manager, he was intrigued. He tried to be helpful, telling me I could practically paddle right up to the store. I think he was talking about paddling up Wakatomika Creek, which flows north of town. Very much north of town.

There might be places where Wakatomika Creek meanders and actually brings you closer to the grocery store than the Muskingum River. But that would have involved using a GPS, technology that wasn’t commonly available back then. It also would have required some serious bushwhacking and a hike across private property. I didn’t relish the thought of explaining to a shotgun-toting farmer that I was en route to fax a newspaper column to Columbus.

I probably would have spared us both the bother and told him to just shoot me.

I hiked to the grocery store from my campsite on the Muskingum River and faxed my column. The manager had no idea what to charge me. I offered him what it would cost for a long-distance call to Columbus and a couple of bucks for his trouble. He was happy with that.

Beverly was a different story. I faxed my column from a golf course on the edge of town.

Like the grocery store manager in Dresden, the folks at the golf course were intrigued and eager to hear about my adventures. However, I had to walk them through the process of sending a fax. Up to that point, they had used their fax machine for incoming faxes only — from golfers reserving tee times.

The columns were published, along with a third one I wrote after returning to Columbus. The manuscripts survived the river trip, but not the test of time. Frankly, I don’t remember what I wrote. I was probably too buzzed on fumes from the correction fluid.

More cooking advice from the Breakfast Bitch

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Pouring eggs from the chili can. Note the pan of chili set close to the coals to keep it warm. (Photo courtesy of Kevin & Theresa Clark.)

Previously published in a series of outdoors columns in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times-Shopper.

We eat better on canoe trips than we do at home. Being a morning person, breakfast has always been my specialty — chili omelets in particular.

Making elaborate omelets over a campfire can be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.

Here’s how I do it.

For the chili, I start from scratch — Scratch together a few bucks and buy a can of Amy’s organic black bean chili. Not to be confused with Amy’s organic spicy chili, which has the consistency of sawdust and play sand. In a pinch, I buy Tony Packo’s world famous chili with beans! (The exclamation point is Tony Packo’s idea. Personally, I never get that excited about beans.)

As I was saying, I generally start with Amy’s, then I make it my own. I add onions, peppers, sausage, and — if I’m really feeling ambitious — sliced portabella mushrooms.

It’s easier to pre-cook the sausage at home. I brown patties, cut them up into small chunks, then cook thoroughly. Wrap them in foil and, while you’re cutting up your peppers, onions and mushrooms, warm the sausage by putting it well above the fire on your tripod grill.

Lightly sauté the onions, peppers and mushrooms in olive oil. If you’re one of those people who prefers overcooked, flaccid onions and peppers, stop reading this immediately. You are not worthy of my culinary masterpieces. Vegetables should be sautéed to the point that they retain some crispness. By the same token, never overcook portabellas. Sauté them just enough so they’re slightly darkened and moist inside. If you’re one of those people who likes leathery mushrooms — reread the second sentence of this paragraph.

Once the prep work is done, open the can of chili, scoop it into a small pot and mix in the sausage, onions, peppers and mushrooms. Warm the pan over medium heat by adjusting your tripod grill.

Clean out the chili can; you’ll use that to scramble your eggs.

Next, wait for your campmates to wake up. I discourage them from sleeping in by threatening to urinate on their tents.

Once your campmates are stirring, crack a couple of eggs into the can, You could use a wisp to stir the eggs, but that would be just one more thing to wash. Or forget to pack. I just break off a green twig, preferably with a forked end, and use that to stir the eggs.

Remove the chili from the tripod grill and set it close to the coals to keep it warm. Rotate occasionally to distribute the heat evenly.

Lower the grill because you want a hot fire to cook your eggs. Once the skillet is hot enough, coat it lightly with butter. Pour in the eggs and cook till firm. Take the skillet off the grill, flip the egg and spoon chili on half of it.

Now you’re ready to cheese it. Cheddar, of course.

It’s easier to grate the cheese at home or buy pre-grated cheese.

Sprinkle the cheese over the chili, then fold the other half of the egg over it. Cover the skillet with a paper plate, raise the grill and warm it up just enough to melt the cheese.

There you have it. Next time, I’ll divulge my secrets for serving up tomato and basil omelets on canoe trips with fresh basil! (The exclamation point is mine, because fresh basil on camping trips is worth getting excited over.)

Pierogies Saved My Life

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Dark clouds await us.

If you’re going to be miserable, you might as well be someplace you can enjoy it.

That’s been my motto ever since I took up canoe camping 38 years ago. On my very first canoe trip I was sick as a dog and it rained the entire weekend. I had the time of my life.

To truly enjoy the outdoors, you need to develop certain skill sets. More importantly, you need to develop the proper mindset. Case in point — a recent camping trip with my son, Irvin Oslin III, and my longtime canoeing buddy, Joe Hughes.

It didn’t rain the entire weekend. The rain stopped occasionally to catch its breath, long enough for us to sit around the fire and wait for the next shower. We caught a break Saturday when the sun came out almost long enough to get in a five-hour paddle.

Joe and I took a canoe trip while my son stayed behind at basecamp. We paddled from Grand River Canoe Livery to Tote Road Park in Ashtabula County. The autumn leaves aren’t very colorful this year, but they really stood out against the backdrop of slate gray sky on the horizon.

Less than half a mile from our takeout, Joe and I caught up to the dark clouds. We struggled to keep the canoe moving against the strong wind, driving rain and hail.

Meanwhile, back at camp, my son had gathered a small mountain of firewood. That’s where your skill sets come in; seasoned campers know that a big fire can withstand a pretty heavy downpour.

While Joe and I warmed up by the fire, my son whipped up a feast of comfort food — pirogies followed by kielbasa and sauerkraut. Joe and I were teetering on the brink of hyperthermia when my son served us a skillet full of steaming hot pirogies.

I’m thoroughly convinced that, if it hadn’t been for the pirogies, we would have died.

The wind and rain continued through the night with a bit of sleet and snow thrown in to make it more enjoyable. I got up at the crack of dawn, put the coffeepot on and prepared my version of comfort food — good old-fashioned breakfast glop.

Throughout the entire weekend I didn’t hear one complaint about the weather (or my cooking). If you’re going to maintain a proper mindset under adverse conditions, you should seek out kindred spirits — people who enjoy being miserable as much as you do.

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My son, Irvin Oslin III, lugs Joe’s tent to higher ground — and shelter under the dining fly. $15 tents aren’t very reliable in heavy rain.

Finding the ‘can’ in ‘Canada’

Algonquin 2018 – Part 3

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Pre-ringtab era cans — older than most of you.

On Big Porcupine Lake we found tin cans — for better or worse.

Cans are prohibited at Algonquin Provincial Park. As are bottles. Campers have a habit of not packing them out.

That includes a cluster of very old cans we found at one of the first campsites we scouted. We elected not to stay there because of its proximity to a portage trail head. That turned out better for us and a large group of Canadian Cadets (a sort-of ROTC). The site was better suited for a large camping party. There were only three in our group and two canoes.

We hooked up with them the next day while we were exploring and they were making the portage to Bonnechere Lake.

Among the cans was a peanut butter jar with a picture of an elephant wearing a silly cap molded into the glass. Ken collects bottles, so he scavenged it.

Ken would later make use of two tin cans we found at our campsite, which was on an island across from the first site we scouted.

A canoe trip isn’t a canoe trip unless you forget something. I forgot to bring a reliable vehicle; Ken forgot the “feet” for his camp chair. The feet were something I came up with to keep the legs of the chair from sinking into the mud or sand.

He improvised by putting the cans on the front legs of his chair.

Necessity proved to be the mother of invention. The afternoon of our second day on Porcupine Lake it started to rain and didn’t stop till the next morning.

To be continued.

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Steve’s chair on the right with the feet I designed. Ken’s cans on the left.

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Ken putting charred cans he found in the fire ring to good use.

 

 

Algonquin 2018 — Part 2

Isthmus Be the Place

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Morning view from the east side of the isthmus.

On the second day of our trip, I awakened to see a foggy sunrise through a curtain of silhouetted pine trees. All was well with the world — and I hadn’t even had my morning coffee.

 

It turned out that sunsets and moon rises would be equally as wonderful. The campsite was on an isthmus with small sand beaches facing the east and west. The latter also had a resident eagle that spent much of the day perched in a dead tree across from the beach.

Not bad for a campsite we found in the dark. As reported in the previous post, the ol’ Canoebaru broke down en route to Canada and we had arrived at Algonquin Provincial Park four hours behind schedule. We considered ourselves lucky to have made it there at all, much less on the same day we left from north central Ohio.

Especially considering the confusion caused by my hearing impairment when we passed through customs. The border patrol agent asked where we were from. I thought he asked where we were going and told him “Algonquin.” From the look of confusion on his face, I might as well have said I was from Mars.

From then on, Ken and Steve acted as my interpreters in all confrontations with figures of authority.

As had been the case five years ago, we planned to camp on Ragged and Big Porcupine lakes. This time, we’d spend two nights on Ragged Lake, two nights on Big Porcupine and the final two on Ragged again.

And, as I mentioned five years ago, the portage from Ragged to Big Porcupine is challenging. To put it charitably. In the post from 2013, I described the portage as “a vertical climb of 400 feet covering a distance of 1.4 gonzometers (roughly one-third of a light year).”

I wasn’t far off. Actually, it’s only a 150-foot climb over a distance of 590 meters (about a third of a mile).

To be continued.

 

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A bald eagle keeps watch over our isthmus campsite.

 

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There was a great collection of driftwood on our west beach.

 

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Ken Arthur with his journal and Steve McKee enjoying the sunset.

 

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Another sunrise from our isthmus campsite.