Gauging Rocky Fork

Online Help for Planning River Trips

(From my outdoors column published in the Ashland Times-Gazette and Loudonville Times.)

The Mohican’s latest river gauge on Rocky Fork at Lucas

When I paddled Rocky Fork of the Mohican River four years ago, there was no river gauge. Now there’s one in Lucas. It sure would have come in handy.

As I mentioned in my 2014 series of articles on the forks of the Mohican River, the window for paddling the lower section of Rocky Fork is very narrow. It lives up to its name, so if you paddle it at normal levels, when it’s shallow, the rocks will shred your hull. It’s a narrow stream with steep banks and plenty of obstacles. Running it at high water levels would be suicide.

By finding the optimum depth and flow levels, then taking note of the readings on the Lucas gauge, paddlers can determine when it’s suitable to run. Gauge readings can be accessed online.

It was during heavy rains in late October that I learned about the Lucas gauge. I went online to check river levels and noticed it. However, I wasn’t quite sure whether this referred to the Melco gauge, where Rocky Fork empties into Black Fork of the Mohican River between Charles Mill Dam and Perrysville.

I called Scott Collins, the dam keeper at Charles Mill. He told me that there was, indeed, a new gauge. He had asked the folks at U.S. Geological Survey to install one in Lucas, where Rocky Fork flows under Ohio 39. He plans to use data from that gauge and Melco to keep track of how the flow is progressing between Lucas and the confluence.

“I’m hoping it will help me be more proactive at Charles Mill,” Collins said.

If all goes well, he’ll be able to let a little more water out of Charles Mill before water levels get too high at the confluence of Rocky and Black forks. When that happens, he has to start lowering the gates gradually at the dam.

USGS installed the gauge within the past year. A few years ago, one was installed on Clear Fork of the Mohican River in Bellville.

When it comes to gauges, the more the merrier. Not just for emergency management officials, but for paddlers. By accessing the gauges on the Mohican Watershed — or any watershed — canoeists and kayakers can determine whether it’s safe to paddle. Or whether the streams are too shallow. It’s just a matter of learning your watershed and what that data means.

When in doubt, check with someone who is knowledgeable. Paddling groups on social media and livery operators can be a good resource.

To find information on Ohio rivers and streams go to the USGS Current Water Data page at https://waterdata.usgs.gov/oh/nwis/rt.

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The Other Mohican, Part 7 – Clear Fork

Ghost towns, gold panning, a giant cement funnel …

What more could you ask?

Entering Clear Fork Gorge

Entering Clear Fork Gorge

For recreational opportunities, Clear Fork clearly rivals the rest of the Mohican River.

The lower Black Fork and mainstream of the Mohican — officially recognized as the canoeing capital of Ohio — draw more visitors during tourist season. But, mile for mile, Clear Fork offers a wider variety of activities and attractions.

Meandering more than 36 miles from Ontario to Loudonville, Clear Fork boasts a reservoir, a lake, a gold prospecting camp, hunting, trout fishing, two dams, two ghost towns, a morning glory spillway, a state park and lodge, paved bike path, campgrounds, a state forest and assorted landmarks. The latter includes the Mohican State Park covered bridge and the Clear Fork Gorge Overlook, known for its spectacular view of the forest and river valley.

A shallow stream for the most part, Clear Fork also offers limited — but very rewarding — paddling opportunities. This will be covered in a subsequent article.

Add to the list of the Clear Fork’s attractions a city park. Although that might be a bit of a stretch. Most people using Marshall Park in Ontario probably don’t realize that the rock-lined ditch running along Cal Miller Lane is Clear Fork of the Mohican River.

Clear Fork at Lexington Ontario Road

Clear Fork at Lexington Ontario Road

Clear Fork originates at the outlet of a small pond north of the park. However, the pond provides only a trickle of water, which doesn’t go anywhere until heavy rains fill a network of stream beds feeding the intermittent creek that is the beginning of Clear Fork. By the time Clear Fork reaches Lexington Ontario Road, it’s no longer intermittent. It gradually grows wider and deeper, though not much, as it winds through a wide valley to where it is impounded by Clear Fork Dam.

The dam was built in 1949 to create a reservoir for the City of Mansfield. The 997-acre reservoir reaches depths of 40 feet and has 14 miles of shoreline. It offers a variety of recreational opportunities including fishing, hunting, boating, hiking, bird-watching and camping. Like Charles Mill Lake, an impoundment of Black Fork, the reservoir serves as a stopping-off point for migratory birds, including species not commonly seen in this area. The same is true of Pleasant Hill Lake further downstream.

Mohican State Park covered bridge

Mohican State Park covered bridge

Clear Fork starts to look more like a river where it crosses Lexington Ontario Road for a second time north of Lexington. Just downstream from here is the old Lexington Ontario Road bridge — now a private driveway off Cockley Road. A cast-iron plaque mounted on the structure above its wooden deck lists the year it was built — 1915 — and the names of the county commissioners and county engineer at the time. This is one of several iron truss bridges spanning Clear Fork. These older-style bridges add to the river’s rustic charm.

The Richland B&O Trail crosses paths with Clear Fork at Lexingon Park and they continue on parallel paths for nearly 12 miles. The 14.8-mile recreational path is shared by bicyclists, pedestrians, inline skaters and others — pretty much anything without a motor — and runs from North Lake Park in Mansfield to Butler.

Gatton Rocks, a well-known landmark locally, can be found just upstream of Butler. Sandstone outcroppings jut out from a forested hillside on one side of the river, creating a picturesque backdrop. Along this stretch is one of several swimming holes popular with the locals in the summer months.

Stoffer Road bridge

Stoffer Road bridge

In the Gatton Rocks section — specifically between Stoffer and Cutnaw roads — is one of two places on Clear Fork stocked with brown trout. The other stretch is below Pleasant Hill Dam. Both are popular fly-fishing spots, particularly in October when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources releases about 10,000 fingerling trout.

Clear Fork’s rock, gravel and sand bottom — along with a natural meander and succession of riffles and pools — makes it one of the highest-quality fishing streams in the state.

Anglers working the Gatton Rocks stretch might find themselves sharing the river with prospectors panning for gold. Downstream of the Cutnaw Road bridge is a one-mile section of river known as the Swank Claim. The Gold Prospectors Association of America has established a primitive campground there on leased land where members can stay and pan for gold.

The small pieces of gold were among the rocks and boulders pushed down from Canada by glaciers. According to information posted on a GPAA Website, one gold nugget panned in the Swank Claim was valued at $50,000.

Between Clear Fork Reservoir and Pleasant Hill Lake, the river flows through five towns — two of which have vanished from the face of the earth. Lexington, Bellville and Butler are still alive and kicking, but Newville and Helltown Indian village are ghost towns.

Seems that Newville was ill-fated from the start. The village was established in 1823 in the vicinity of what is now Pleasant Hill Road east of State Route 95. The founding fathers had hoped it would thrive and become the Richland County seat, but that was not to be. Railroads were the key to prosperity and the B&O and Pennsylvania railroads bypassed Newville, opting to run their tracks through Butler and Perrysville respectively.

Clear Fork Dam

Clear Fork Dam

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Pleasant Hill Dam in the mid 1930s, the project designers wrongly believed that the lake it created would back up to the village. The buildings were razed or moved to higher ground and the villagers relocated.

Helltown also was destined for oblivion. Located further downstream, it was named after the river. The name was derived from “hell,” a German word for “clear.” The inhabitants abandoned the village in 1782 and scattered after learning about the massacre of Moravian Indians at Gnadenhutton. Some of the residents, primarily Delaware, went on to establish Greentown Indian village along Black Fork north of Perrysville, which was mentioned in a previous article on that branch of the Mohican River.

Pleasant Hill Lake is popular with anglers and power boaters. With 850 surface acres and 13 miles of shoreline, there are plenty of places to fish for bass and other species of game fish, including an occasional muskellunge. However, even on a still day anglers can count on the water being choppy because there is no horsepower limit on the lake. During the summer months, it’s abuzz with jet skis and powerboats.

Humble beginnings – Clear Fork in Marshall Park

Humble beginnings – Clear Fork in Marshall Park

The high-octane boating activity is concentrated on the eastern part of the lake toward the dam, where the water is up to 40 feet deep. Things tend to be quieter on the western end of the lake, which is designated a no-wake zone.

The Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District owns and operates Pleasant Hill Lake Park, which offers camping and other recreational activities.

The lake was formed by the construction of Pleasant Hill Dam. It’s one of 14 built in the mid 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in response to chronic flooding along the Muskingum Watershed. The dam’s claim to fame is its morning glory spillway, another popular landmark.

Morning glory spillways are also known as bell-mouth spillways, shaft spillways and by other names and can be found around the world. They often function as an uncontrolled method of draining off lake overflow. That’s not the case with Pleasant Hill Dam. The lake level is controlled by a set of gates housed inside a structure next to the spillway and accessed from the dam by a narrow bridge. The Pleasant Hill spillway would act as an overflow device in case the lake were to reach 1,065 feet above sea level. It never has. In fact, the water level has never breached any of the spillways on the Muskingum Watershed’s 14 flood control dams. The pool of record for Pleasant Hill Dam is 1,044.01 feet set on Jan. 23, 1959. Note — It was later brought to my attention that Wills Creek Dam, on a tributary of the Muskingum River, overflowed its spillway by 0.36 inch in January 2005.

Clear Fork entering the reservoir at Orweiler Road

Clear Fork entering the reservoir at Orweiler Road

Clear Fork saves its best for last. The scenery is nothing short of spectacular in the 4.8-mile stretch between the dam and the confluence of Black Fork. This is where the river flows through Clear Fork Gorge, which is known for its diverse flora and fauna. It’s easy to see why this section was included when the mainstream of the Mohican was designated a state scenic river in 2006.

In this stretch, Clear Fork flows through a steep, 300-foot-deep gorge lined with mature pine and hardwood forests and sandstone outcroppings. Most of this section is within the Mohican Memorial State Forest and flows past the primitive and main campgrounds of Mohican State Park.

Clear Fork’s most popular landmark, the Mohican State Park covered bridge, spans the river a little less than a mile downstream of the dam near the primitive campground. The bridge was designed by Loudonville resident Stan Pace and completed in 1970. Work began two years earlier. The1969 flood damaged one of the trusses during construction, but not beyond repair.

According to Loudonville historian Lee Cavin, it replaced an iron truss bridge that originally spanned the river upstream of where the dam was built. That bridge, which was not covered, was dismantled by Civilian Conservation Corps workers and reassembled at what would become the site of the covered bridge.

Pace’s design incorporated walkways on both sides of the covered bridge where pedestrians could be segregated from traffic and enjoy a clear view of the river. The bridge links trails on both sides of Clear Fork, including one that leads to Lyon’s Falls, another area landmark.

Toward the end, Clear Fork emerges from its idyllic setting and is quickly absorbed into Loudonville’s tourist Mecca. For the last mile and a half, it flows through the Mohican State Park main campground, under Ohio 3 and arrives at the confluence of Black Fork — and the canoeing capital of Ohio.

Next: Paddling Clear Fork

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