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.

Tangential Travel

Experiencing Algonquin through modified base camping

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Steve and Ken encounter a red squirrel on a hike around our Big Porcupine Lake island. Reminiscent of the killer rabbit scene from “The Holy Grail.”

While we were camped on Big Porcupine Lake late last month, Steve McKee explained how he arrived at the concept of modified base camping on Algonquin canoe trips.

Typically, with wilderness tripping, you go from lake to lake, camping one night then moving on. The same with river trips. There’s a lot of work involved in setting up and breaking camp, but the scenery is constantly changing. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed the sense of movement — the sense of progression — that you get from doing it that way.

Many years ago, a group of stubborn Boy Scouts inspired Steve to opt for the modified base camping approach. He told us the boys crapped out on their leaders in the middle of a trip, refusing to move on from their camp and enduring several more days of portaging and setting up and breaking camp.

Steve wasn’t happy about it and pressed on, leaving the Boy Scouts and other leaders to their squatters’ camp. However, he later turned the experience into a positive — adapting it to his own preferences. The result was a modified base camp approach, which allowed him to move at a slower pace, spend more time at each lake and take day trips to other lakes or hikes into the back country. This involves spending a few nights on each lake and taking the empty canoe out for excursions during the day, sometimes portaging to other lakes.

Steve’s an accomplished naturalist and this left him plenty of opportunities for botanizing. In fact, on every trip, he’s found at least one plant species he had not seen in the wild before.

I have to admit, I was skeptical about this approach at first. But, after six years of Algonquin trips with Steve and our friend Ken Arthur, I’ve come to see the value in it. There is much to be said for taking day trips from base camps and canoeing to some of the more isolated lakes.

This year was no exception. The highlights included Steve finding a few “life plants” on Ragged Lake and coming across a yellow birch three feet in diameter on an island where we camped on Big Porcupine Lake.

Now that I’m retired, I occasionally use the modified base camp approach on river trips. Especially when the weather is bad. There’s something to be said for hunkering down,  listening to the raindrops on the tent or tarp and watching the birds and other critters going about their business.

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Cotton grass, a “life plant” for me, but not for Steve. We came across it on one of our day excursions along Big Porcupine Lake.

 

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Ken keeps an eye out for killer squirrels while Steve and I check out the cotton grass and other flora.

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Ken and Steve check out a huge yellow birch. Estimated to be 250 years old, it somehow was spared when Algonquin was heavily logged.

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Botanizing on Ragged Lake. This is where Steve found a few “life plants.”  The species we spotted included glove clubmoss, lance-leaved violet and lady tresses orchid. And we snacked on a few cranberries.

 

Paradise Lost

Another Chapter in This Year’s Magical History Tour

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My Six Mile Dam campsite.

Six years ago I discovered an island paradise on the Walhonding River. In a few years, it will no longer be an island. Nor will it be a paradise.

River islands come and go. They grow, shrink and move — depending on the current, river debris and shifting sand and silt. But this island paradise is different. It’s man-made. When Six Mile Dam is removed, it will become “man-unmade.”

I first camped on the island six years ago. I’d canoed past it for decades, never stopping to camp there. It didn’t make sense to camp on an island near a portage trail. I didn’t like the idea of loading the canoe in the morning, paddling across the river to the portage takeout, unloading the canoe, then carrying the boat and gear past the dam and reloading. It’s a relatively easy portage. However, because of a steep drop-off along the bank, landing and unloading a canoe can be an adventure — if not a disaster.

After I camped there and discovered how scenic and peaceful the island was, I decided it was worth the extra work. It quickly became one of my favorite river campsites.

I also discovered that that the island is an historic place. I found a canal lock in the middle of the island. Later I’d learn that it had been Lock 5 of the Walhonding Canal.

I’d suspected all along that the island was man-made. The channel between it and the mainland seemed unnaturally straight and deep.

In April 2018, I spent a weekend in Coshocton with some folks from the Ohio Canal Society. They had invited me to share my knowledge of the dam and island as part of their Spring Canal Tour. Actually, they knew more about it than I did.

Based on what I knew and what they were able to tell me — along with Mike Greenlee of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources — I now know how the island got there.

In the early 1900s, the dam was repurposed. Originally it was built to supply water for the canal, which had become obsolete. So the dam and six miles of canal were converted to feed water to a hydroelectric plant downstream at Roscoe Village. The original wood cribbing dam was covered in concrete and a water intake structure built on the south bank.

In the process of converting the dam, two levees were added on the north bank of the river. They did this to direct more flow toward the north section of the dam when flooding occurred. The levees were positioned like a funnel, gradually coming closer together on the downstream end.

In order to move even more of the flow toward the north end of the dam (which is on the inside of a bend in the river), a channel was dug between the levees. This created the island.

According to Greenlee, when the dam is removed, the channel between the island and the north bank will be dewatered. The man-made island will be reunited with the mainland.

The island might still be suitable for camping, but privacy will no longer be assured.

Greenlee also said the lock could be added to the National Register of Historic Places. If so, camping probably won’t be allowed.

I hate to see my island paradise lost. However, free-flowing streams are better for wildlife and the environment. If history is preserved in the process, all the better. Besides, there will be one less portage to deal with.

 

 

 

Independence Day

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At Niagara Falls with my younger siblings. Little sis looked delighted to be there.

I didn’t drive until I was 19. Didn’t need to. If I needed to go somewhere, I walked, took a bus or hitchhiked. Seldom bothered my parents for a ride. I preferred the independence and adventure of getting around on my own.

Mom wasn’t keen on me hitchhiking. One day, Dad pulled me aside and gave me a bit of sage advice: “Don’t tell her.”

That served me well in life.

For the Independence Day holiday in 1969, dad took us to Niagara Falls — mom, two of my siblings and me. I was 17 at the time. While in Canada, we camped with a distant relative of my father and his family. They had a son my age. I didn’t have much in common with him; he wasn’t particularly bright.

Dad took us to see the falls. While we were walking around, marveling at the sights, I lagged behind. When it came time to head back to the campground, my father left me there, telling my mother I’d probably beat them back.

I nearly did. Caught a ride with a schoolteacher. I recall that we argued politics. Politely. She was Canadian, after all.

While sitting around the campfire that night, dad’s relative said, “I’d never leave my son behind like that.”

Dad looked across the campfire at the boy and responded, “Neither would I.”

 

 

 

 

 

Bland Theft Auto

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 21.21.24I’ve stolen two cars in my life. One was a pink Rambler.

So much for street creds.

The Rambler belonged to a co-worker. A former co-worker.

We worked together at a sheet-metal stamping plant on the West Side of Cleveland. One Friday, after we cashed our paychecks, he invited me to come along on a road trip to Tennessee. He often drove there on weekends to visit family.

His only relative in Cleveland was his father, a seedy old bisexual. I knew that because he hit on me in the men’s room at the plant. I doubted that his son knew.

By the time we reached dead man’s curve on I-71 — the one out by the airport — the check oil light came on. We pulled over and raised the hood. The engine was so hot it glowed.

“It uses a lot of oil,” he said.

We got off at the next exit and bought four one-gallon cans of bulk oil.

It took forever to get to Tennessee, stopping every fifty miles to refill the crankcase.

We had an OK time with the relatives. They treated me like family and fed us well. And we drank prodigious amounts of whiskey.

Come Sunday night, he announced that he wasn’t going back to Cleveland.

“Fuck that,” I said, and grabbed the car keys.

As far as I know, he never returned to Cleveland. I kept the car and ran it into the ground, which took all of a month.

The other car? Another story for another time.

 

This is another installment in my Autobiography series. In case you hadn’t guessed.

 

 

 

We Got Our Kicks on Route 6

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At right, the ’62 Ranch Wagon at our East Harbor campsite. That’s my godmother, Aunt Doris, laboring away.

U.S. 6 is the longest highway in the country, stretching from Massachusetts to California. For me, the part of it between Cleveland and Sandusky was the highway to heaven.

That was the route we took every summer for our two-week vacations at East Harbor State Park on Lake Erie’s West Basin. For many of those years we made the trip in Ford Ranch Wagons. Dad had three — all company cars — a ’59, ’62 and ’65.

Those vacations offered a respite from city life. They were relatively inexpensive vacations. Campsite fees and boat rental were cheap. Even the day we spent at Cedar Point was affordable, thanks to promotion sponsored by one of the local bread companies. As I recall, admission was $5 a person on bread days. (It might have been Laub’s bread.)

Everything about our vacations was magical to me — nonstop fishing, pickup baseball games, moments of solitude when I’d slip out in the mornings and explore the woods and waterfront.

Because of those experiences, I resolved to one day live where other people vacation.

Mission accomplished.

 

This is part of my series Autobiography – My Life in Vehicles.