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)

 

 

 

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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.

Dismay on Ice

Screen Shot 2019-02-25 at 08.00.08I tried ice fishing once. It did not go well.

My late Uncle Paul made arrangements with a Lake Erie charter captain he knew to take us ice fishing on the West Basin. The captain met us on a beach near East Harbor and we piled into an early ’50s Chevy convertible.

It wasn’t an actual convertible. It was a hardtop with the roof cut off. It didn’t appear that the roof had been removed with conventional cutting tools; more like it had been gnawed off by Godzilla.

As we rolled out onto the ice en route to the ice shanty, the captain announced, “If you hear ice cracking, jump clear.”

I felt like jumping right then and there, just to be on the safe side. Had someone so much as cracked his knuckles, I would have been out of there and turning horizontal cartwheels across the ice.

We made it to our shanty unscathed, piled in and bid the captain adieu.

We sat around a hole in the ice, dangling hooks baited with minnows — for no apparent reason.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Hours passed without so much as a nibble. The minnows died from exposure.

Unlike warm weather fishing, you can’t move to another spot when the fish aren’t biting. We were stuck in the shanty until the charter captain returned.

We passed the time with idle conversation, during which each of us confessed that we hadn’t bothered to bring our fishing licenses. After all, who’s going to come out there in the bitter cold checking licenses?

We were talking about how things couldn’t possibly get worse when we heard a snowmobile pull up followed by a knock at the door.

“Game warden,” a man outside announced.

 

This was published earlier this year — one of my outdoors columns for the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times-Shopper.

Campers – Is There a Bread Truck in Your Future?

Remember sleeping on the ground on camping trips? Me neither.

The truth is it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep lying on the ground. Unless you’re like my camping buddies who got so drunk they wouldn’t notice the rocks, ruts, and tree roots. Actually, getting drunk doesn’t mask the pain; it just postpones it. At least the aching bones and joints took their minds off their hangovers.

Remember sleeping on the ground on camping trips? Me neither.

Before I discovered the joys of self-inflating ground pads, I did my share of trying to sleep on the ground. I have “fond” memories of squirming around and contorting my body around the lumps and depressions in the ground. Even a tiny stick can feel like a log when you’re trying to settle in and sleep.

I bought my first Therm-a-Rest more than 30 years ago. Best 60 bucks I ever spent. That little mattress rocked (or de-rocked) my world. For the uninitiated, self-inflating ground pads are constructed to provide maximum padding with minimum thickness. Properly inflated, you won’t feel the rocks and roots, and you should be able to lie in your side without your hip bottoming out. They roll up tight and, if they get wet, dry very quickly.

There are other brands on the market. Some might be as good as or better than my Therm-A-Rest. I can’t say one way or another, because I’m still using the one I bought more than three decades ago.

I’ve patched it once and replaced the valve. All of that can be done pretty easily — even out in the field. (Although I wouldn’t attempt a valve replacement in sub-zero temperatures.) Patch kits are available and should be packed with your mat.

By the way, mats should be stored flat or on their sides with the valves open. Keep them in a dry environment and out of direct sunlight. It helps to scrub them occasionally with mild soap (such as Dr. Bronner’s) and rinse thoroughly.

I now own four Therm-A-Rests. I bought a second standard model (like my original) from a Goodwill store for $3. I found another — the larger Camp Rest model — discarded, apparently because it had a small leak. Seven years ago, I bought a lightweight model for canoe excursions to Algonquin Provincial Park, where we do a lot of portaging. 

The only downside to my Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Trekker is that it isn’t self-inflating. However, it is easily inflated by mouth, it’s much lighter than the standard model and better insulates against the cold. It also packs smaller.

The company boasted that it can be rolled up to the size of a loaf of bread. Actually, a lot of modern camping gear manufacturers are making the same claims about sleeping bags, tents and folding chairs. So I’ve decided that, in lieu of buying a camper, I’m going to see if I can’t find an old bread truck for sale.

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.)

Do-it-yourself oriole feeder

If you build it, they might come

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 07.39.41For years, I tried to lure Baltimore orioles to the feeders. One year I got a pair to stay the summer but, for the most part, a few orioles would stop by, wet their beaks at the nectar feeder and press on. They either moved on to “oranger” and “purpler” pastures down the road where people offered oranges and grape jelly, or continued on their northward migration.

After I retired and had way too much time on my hands, I resolved to go all out to keep the orioles at the feeders. At the first sighting, I ran out to Kroger and stocked up on oranges and grape jelly.

I crammed orange halves into suet cages and hung them out. I dabbed the grape jelly into recesses around the rim of a nectar feeder that we’d put out for them earlier in the spring.

It didn’t take long to see that simply putting nectar out for the orioles had been woefully inadequate — like trying to keep a free agent ballplayer from bolting to another team by offering him minimum wage. Within two days, the feeders were ablaze with flashes of bright orange plumage. About a half-dozen male orioles and two or three females converged on the feeders, jockeying for position on the improvised orange and grape jelly feeders.

It was obvious that, if I was going to make the jump to the big leagues of oriole-feeding, better accommodations were in order. A quick Internet search turned up a simple two-station feeder with an orange half and small cup of jelly at each perch. It was a basic design, requiring three small hunks of wood, deck screws and a couple pieces of dowel rod. It was simple enough that even an “unhandyman” like me could do it. (I have been called the Anti-Villa because I sorely lacked whatever talents do-it-yourself guru Bob Villa possessed.)

I went out to the barn, pried a white oak plank off the side that nobody ever sees and went to work. Within two hours, I had a serviceable Baltimore oriole feeder. It didn’t matter that it ended up looking an awful lot like the woodshop project I brought home from middle school. My parents proudly displayed my handiwork on the living room mantel, where they would entertain house guests by having them guess what it was supposed to be.

It was meant to be a shoeshine box — with a compartment below to stow polish and brushes and a sole-shaped appendage on top, where you were supposed to prop your shoe to polish it. My project looked more like a dresser drawer that had fallen off the back of a moving pickup truck, careened down the pavement for 50 or 60 yards and ended up in a contorted heap along the berm.

The orioles proved less judgmental than my parents and our house guests. They gave the feeder rave reviews, squabbling over spots on the perches, where they devoured the orange halves and emptied the jelly cups in a matter of hours.

After the orioles migrate south, I’ll take down the feeder. Maybe, during the winter, I can use it as a shoeshine box.

Canoe Tripping in a Greasy Spoon

Emerging from the fog, I inexplicably found myself drifting up to the lunch counter.

It had been a long, difficult paddle. Hours earlier, before the fog began to lift, I ran aground on the salad bar. I knew I was in trouble when I heard the crunch of croutons beneath my hull. Couldn’t rock the canoe free, so I stepped out and my boot got stuck in the thousand islands. Thank God, it wasn’t bleu cheese!

Prior to that, I got the canoe hung up on a table, but was able to rock free. Restaurant tables are designed for that purpose. That’s why one leg is always shorter than the rest.

I should have known better than to paddle in there. The place was a real dive. But, looking back fondly, that’s where I found Pearl. Never known the likes of her before. She was cultured — really well-rounded. I’ll never forget Pearl; she was the camphor cake in the urinal of my life.

But alas, she slipped through my fingers. Disappeared into the depths of a booth cushion, condemned to sleep forever among the cellophane cracker wrappers, lost coins and frilled toothpicks.

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