This year was a much anticipated year. We did not get on the Ohio River in 2014 for various reasons, some of which led me to wonder if I was getting too old for this craziness. 2015 proved that wrong for, in spite of back and shoulder issues, I found that I felt the healthiest I had in a long time as we paddled a total of 132 miles in 5 full days. I believe that we have learned a lot about paddling on a river the size of the Ohio. Mostly, we have learned the ebb and flow of the water and the wind and this year, at least, we found a good balance in the time of the day that we chose to paddle. Each year is different, however, so who knows how next year may challenge our experiences.
We planned our schedule to rise as early as our bodies and minds would allow us and get on the river before we ate breakfast so that we could paddle in the relative calm of the morning. And I can tell you that pulling our bodies off our sleeping mats is sometimes the most challenging part of each day…especially as the week progresses. Most days we managed about 10-12 miles before lunch, leaving us a lot of flexibility without the stress of having to get a certain distance in the afternoon. It ended up being the best week of our paddling to date. I am hoping that the lessons learned will be helpful in the next four more years that we anticipate paddling the Ohio River before we meet with the Mississippi. While the original intent 14 years ago was to continue on down to New Orleans, we are happy to decide that we can be very proud of ourselves if we get to the point where the Ohio River merges with the Mississippi River.
Karen and I have both been busy with our jobs, mine being very new this year. As a result, we did not spend a lot of time discussing the plans ahead of time or purchasing much for the trip ahead of time. We are really pretty well outfitted for the canoe and determining food provisions could wait until we were together and on our way to our put-in site. The formula for the trips that we take is relatively simple: have a canoe, paddles, sleeping gear, life vests, some money and A LOT of faith that we will find what and who we need along the way. It has always worked out and this year did not disappoint us in any way.
I had decided that the best way to fly this year would be from Logan Airport in Boston. While it is now a 2 1/2 hour drive from our new home in Vermont, it was cheaper than Manchester and I could get a direct flight to Cleveland. That would mean that Karen would only have to drive about three hours alone, giving us catching up time in the car for the remaining hours to Cincinnati. However, it also meant both of us had to awaken early to end up in Cleveland by 10 am. I was up at 4 am and John drove me to Boston for my early flight. The flight worked out well but, in the end, it was really not cheaper because I had to pay extra for my gear and the miles and time to and from Boston added cost as well. So, in the future I think I will stick to the comfort of the Manchester, New Hampshire airport which is still 1 1/2 hour drive but is so easy to handle. Lesson learned.
It was exciting at the Cleveland airport to see Karen drive up to fetch me in a different car than in the past but with the trademark red canoe on top. I could not miss her coming around the bend! It is a sight that is familiar, exciting and challenging, all at the same time. “Are we really doing this another year?” is the question that goes through my mind when I see that sight. The answer is alwasy, YES.
From the airport, we headed to Independence, KY, where we met TJ Nikolich who was our volunteer driver for our putting in and taking out this year. Independence is right across the river from Cincinnati and down river about 40 miles from where we had to take out in 2013. The wife of a former pastor of Zion Covenant Church in Jamestown, NY, TJ is an old friend of Karen’s. Karen’s work at Mission Meadows Camp on Chautauqua Lake for many years has left her with a wonderful network of friends across the midwest. We were happy to find out that TJ, among those friends, who thrilled to help us with our adventure and become an important part of it this year. Thanks, TJ, for your help and friendship! It is so wonderful to have a “cloud of witnesses” in the form of those helping us on the river to those cheering us on through Facebook and blog posts. It’s like having our own pit crew, literally and figuratively.
After a brief opportunity for refreshment at TJ and Dan’s house, we headed back up the river to the home of Tom and Sherrie Carnahan. Two years ago, paddling against strong headwinds and three foot waves, we decided to head to a dock in Georgetown, Ohio. It turned out to be the home of Tom and Sherrie who welcomed us to their deck for a break in the weather. The break never came and that turned out to be our final stop in 2013. We were so happy to connect with them again this year. They not only welcomed us to launch from their dock but offered us Tom’s dad’s cottage for the night. So we had running water and shelter our first night on the river. We had a few other luxuries in the form of restaurants and swimming pools along the way this week that we had not experienced before. It was so nice sleeping on this screened in porch that I jokingly suggested to Karen that maybe we could just spend the whole week relaxing there and post various online photos of places we were SUPPOSED to be, making our readers think we were working hard while really just enjoying the beauty of the river passing by. We both agreed that it was altogether possible to spend the week there without a hint of boredom but our journey called us to be faithful to the river and our goals.
That evening, Tom and Karen carried the canoe down the steep steps to the dock. We arranged our gear to be ready to take off first thing in the morning and we settled in for our first night on the Ohio River while fire flies danced along the banks.
June 14 River miles:?
As quietly as possible, we moved our gear down to the dock, trying not to awaken Tom and Sherrie’s little dog. Refreshed and showered, we were more than ready for our first day on the river. There is nothing quite like a calm river with the sun rising above it. Early in the day we saw our first interesting river birds…an osprey and a single graceful swan that sailed through the air along with us for a while. By 9 am we had reached our first important stop for the day. Karen had discovered Fat Boys Floating Restaurant on the navigation charts and we had decided that it sounded like the perfect place to get our first breakfast. Since we had not eaten before leaving in order to save the time on the river, we hoped they would be open early in the morning. We were not disappointed. Thus began our most culinarily interesting experiences of our whole river experience since 2001. I took enough photos of the food we ate along the way that some people commented on how cushy our paddling seemed relative to previous years. Food-wise, it certainly was unique but we did have our challenges which I will recount later.
Fortified by our breakfast and excited to continue our first day, we headed on down the river to our first lock and dam of the week, the Meldahl Lock and Dam. On our ride from Independence to Georgetown, we had stopped at this dam to show it to TJ. It is an impressive dam with a park next to it so people can watch the activity. TJ commented on how when you live on or near the river, you don’t necessarily know about the dams. It’s always interesting that we take things for granted or not notice things in our own backyards. We have to visit other places to see some interesting things…and then introduce them to the locals! The lock and dam looks different from the shore than it does from inside the chamber in a little canoe in a space designed for a fifteen tow barge! This time we had another new experience. We were joined in the chamber by another recreational vehicle: a motor boat. We greeted our fellow travelers but the chamber is really too big to have any conversation. The waters were lowered, the gates opened and the horn sounded indicating that it was safe to paddle on our way.
We paddled past New Richmond, our unreached destination two years ago. We had seen that there was an RV park not far from there and often we have found a spot to camp in RV parks or marinas so we headed to their ramp and, with life jackets still on, approached a young woman in a golf cart. We made our request for a place to camp and we were directed to a table of people sitting by a pool. Hum. A swimming pool! We were hot and tired and the idea was too good to be true. After an awkward conversation which was too complex to explain in words, we were welcomed to pitch our tent on a small grassy spot by the camper of this family. Turns out that some of these RV parks are particular about tents. That don’t want a bunch of tents popping up all over the place so you can only tent there is you know someone. This family quickly took us in as friends. Little did we know at the time, though we suspected some issues, that the family would have a major relationship blowup right when we were there. I cannot go into detail about it both because it would feel intrusive to their family but also because it would be impossible to describe the whole evening.
By 10:30, having tried to be as helpful as we could without butting into their privacy, we excused ourselves and went to our tent…which was in the middle of everything anyway but somehow just removing ourselves from the emotions seemed to be helpful for everyone. There was some more commotion with the father coming and going with them, but as they all left, we finally fell asleep.
June 15 River Miles 451.5-476
The family had allowed us to use their bathroom in the evening when they were still there but there was no unlocked bathroom to use in the morning so we were inspired to get going even faster the following morning so that we could use Mother Nature down the river a bit. While we had been happy for the free accommodations and the swimming pool, the RV site was a good distance from the river so we loaded ourselves with all our belongings and managed to get everything to the canoe in one trip.
The previous evening had been the most unusual overnight stay to date. We are sorry for the problems that our host family seems to have and it was a good “reality check” in that we tend to want to get away from life, not embroiled in it, when we canoe. But the greatest lesson of all for me was that in spite of their traumas and dramas and hurt, they were no less hospitable to us than anyone else along the river. It really doesn’t matter who we are or what we are going through, we can always extend a little hospitality to a stranger. That’s an important lesson for me.
We managed to be on the river and paddling by 6:10. It was another calm and beautiful morning. This was the first day that we saw a bald eagle on the river. This one was flying over us. We made it to Cincinnati this day, paddling through the city and past the island where we were to be in the Great Ohio River Paddlefest race on Saturday. Cincinnati is a fascinating city from the river. We could enjoy the skyline and remarked on the architecture reminiscent of New York City. There is one tall building, an insurance company headquarters, that looks like a modern interpretation of the Chrysler Building. I looked it up and while the architect did not build it as such, it has been noted by many that it looks like the Art Deco era Chrysler Building. This is not surprising as TJ had already told us to look out for the bridge in Cincinnati that was used as the model for the Brooklyn Bridge. Several minutes later, we came in view of that smaller version of the New York’s bridge. Of course, we also passed the two stadiums on the river.
We were happy to discover another floating restaurant called the Riverside Bar and Grill where we enjoyed a pulled pork sandwich and a salad. We were feeling very lucky to find these little gems along the river to break up our usual fare of cheese and crackers or peanut butter and crackers or candy bars or freeze-dried dinners. We stopped later in the afternoon at the Ludlow Bromley Yacht Club restaurant. The wind was kicking up and we needed a break. We had some iced tea at the bar and realized the wind was not going to calm down anytime soon. We decided to walk into the small town of Ludlow to find some chocolate. We were sorely lacking in that necessary food group. I think we must have been feeling virtuous when we purchased our food earlier in the week. But there need be no virtue on the river…just energy food to keep us paddling!
As we started walking we were aware of the reality that when we are on the river we are not aware just how hot it is on the land. The proximity to the water keeps us relatively cooler even though we are paddling. It was in the mid to high 90’s that day and we wanted to walk from shade tree to shade tree but there weren’t many. We asked along the way about stores but the downtown seemed to far to walk in the heat. We noticed a little produce store on a side street in a residential neighborhood and decided to check it out. It looked kind of old world. They sold garden flowers outside and lots of produce inside but there were getting ready to close. We bought some fruit from them and chatted a bit about mom and pop shops coming back into popularity…and then realized that they did have a form of chocolate: chocolate covered raisins. We made our purchase and happily left to return to the restaurant and see if the wind had died down enough to head back out. It had been about 3 hours, at least, that we were there. One of the great things about getting started early in the morning is that we can wait out a hot or windy afternoon off the river and still feel that we have made good time and miles. And that was good because we had one more “first” to add to my list, at least: Pickleball. We decided to stop in a park behind the fire station and sit under a tree and eat our chocolate covered raisins. Turned out this park was right next to a pickleball court. I could hardly believe that there was actually a sport called pickleball. Perhaps it was even stranger to me to discover that Karen knew all about it. How did I miss pickleball all my life? Here we were sitting right next to the Ludlow Pickleball Club!
After another cup of iced tea, we decided the wind was not going to die down much and headed back onto the river before it got much later. It was already about 7 pm but because we were in the longest days of the year, we knew we had an hour or more to find a camping spot. We headed for the Villa Hills Marina on the Kentucky side but it did not look like a place we could camp so we pressed on just a bit longer. We did find a piece of land where we pitched our tent. The ground beneath us was sand, mostly, but it had been under water and then dried enough times that it resembled the bed of a long dried river, big cracks between large rock sized masses of compressed sand.
It is always a little strange to camp along the river because we do not know who owns the property (later I learned that the land up to the high water mark is public land and open for camping by anyone) and whether they would be ok with us being there or whether they may discover while we are asleep that we are there. We are always very good about cleaning up after ourselves and leaving nothing behind but someone doesn’t know that if they find us on their property unexpectedly. But we have done this many times and never had a problem.
June 16 River Miles 476-504.5
A great blue heron greeted us first thing on this morning. We have seen lots of heron along the way but they never cease to awe us with their pterodactyl-like bodies. We also saw another bald eagle on Laughery Island atop a tall tree. It was an auspicious day as we reached the half-way mark on the Ohio River. At about 11:30 we got to mile 491.5 and got out of the canoe across from a power plant and where a small stream came into the Ohio. We ate a bit and then made a small memorial to the occasion using sticks to form a pyramid for Cairo and a triangle for Pittsburgh. We decided to take some time to paddle up the little stream and we were rewarded with a playful (or scared) beaver slapping its tail twice for us. We tried to follow it but it stayed under water too long and we lost it. Karen thought it was too small for a beaver and when she said that, it slapped its tail as though to say: I AM A BEAVER!
By 7:45 PM we were at Little Farm RV park in Indiana. We had called ahead to see if we could stay there and the owner allowed it but charged us $31 for the night. We don’t like spending that much on a campsite as we hardly use the electricity but we did have a chance for toilets and warm showers and doing a bit of laundry. Our little tent looked funny set up amongst all the large RVs though. The June lightning bugs were out in full force at that RV park. We succumbed to our first freeze dried dinner that evening. We continue to be amazed at how good they actually are.
June 17 River Miles 404.5-529
We carried our gear down to the canoe via the stairs at the end of the campground and by 6:30 am we were back on the water with a few sprinkles in the air. The weather thus far had not challenged us nor held us up. That was to change soon.
The Scotch mist turned into a torrential downpour. We were not too far from the casino upriver from Rising Sun and we thought they might have a boat ramp so we paddled to that destination but we were forced off the river by the hard rain. We tried to find a place to pull up the canoe but the current in the river had created a mucky, marshy area just up from the docked steam boat that is the casino. I tried to get out by my feet sunk in too deep so we headed back into the rain and paddled as hard as we could past the casino. In the process, I think we alarmed a security guard looking out at the water. Perhaps we thought we were trying to sneak into the casino!? We shouted a question to him about docking and he shouted back in the wind and the rain that Rising Sun had a public dock so we kept paddling and arrived at that dock by about 7:30 am, soaking wet.
We pulled up the canoe and walked into the small, quaint old river town. This stop proved to be one of the most interesting of our years on the river. We found a man in a wheelchair up early and out in front of his apartment. He directed us to a little café that was open at that early hour. There we sat for a couple of hours enjoying a hearty breakfast. I opted for the Southern specialty of biscuits and gravy. Karen went with a more traditional eggs and toast. It was all wonderfully warm and home cooked and we were under a cover but outside so we could enjoy the out doors but stay dry…or, in this case, get dry. On our way to the café, we passed a harp shop of all places. I was fascinated as one of my nieces plays the Celtic harp. We peered in and took some photos through the glass. After leaving the café, we stopped again to look in the windows and someone came to the door even though they were closed. Thus began a most interesting personal tour of a harp maker’s shop and the fascinating old building that it is housed in. Rees Harp Makers is the name of the shop and the produce about 200 small harps a month. Crazy. Right there in the little town of Rising Sun, Indiana. The tour included the second floor and the basement. Apparently the KKK used to meet on the second floor while the basement was used as part of the Underground Railroad. The icing on the cake for an interesting day was that towards the end of our visit, Karen was starting to photograph the son of the harp maker tuning a harp. One of their dogs with a shelter history was startled by this and bit Karen on the shin. The owner grab him back soon enough that the bite was not bad but it was quite the dog drama for a moment. And Karen lived to tell about it.
Our next stop at river mile 518.5 was at Patriot Park…a large and lovely park with a covered picnic area with electricity to charge our cell phones. While my little solar battery charger works very well on sunny days, the rainy days are another story so we were glad for this shelter where we ate lunch, lay down and relaxed on the picnic benches…and then met a man with a huge German shepherd. We left the part at 3 pm and later took another break on an inviting dock. The owners were home and called down to us to see if they could help us. I boldly asked if they might have a lighter which they produced in no time and gave to us. Our lighter had been sacrificed to the family in turmoil a couple of days earlier for lighting their cigarettes…and it was never returned to us. We chatted with this couple for a bit…and their German Shepherds that were quite like the one we had just seen. We then paddled on to Turtle Creek Marina. The couple we had met on the dock told us that the owners of Turtle Creek were great and it turned out to be true.
In the evening, we paddled into the calm harbor and were immediately greeted by a couple on their boat who were obviously on the lookout for us as we had called the owner ahead to see if we could camp there. Turned out that couple summered at Turtle Creek and wintered in Montana. We found that to be an interesting schedule given most people might do the opposite. It helped explain their boat’s name: it was a combination of SNOW and H2O intersecting each other at the O. Our gear was quite wet so we set up the tent to dry it out along with some of the other gear. After making our second freeze dried meal we chattied with two of the local children (Ryan and Lindsay) and Ed, the brother-in-law of the owner (who is now known to us as the old guy with old guy jokes like: “I’m so slow it takes me 2 hours to watch 60 minutes.” Or “I’m so old that I knew Moby Dick when he was the size of a tadpole.” Karen also chatted a bit with Lynn who was part of the couple from Montana. Bob, the owner, had already greeted us and let us know that we could set up in the shelter because there might be more bad weather and pointed us to the showers and the laundry. We felt downright civilized even though we ate ate backpackers. We enjoyed sitting and looking at some far off lightning and hearing the rumble of thunder. We also met Garfield the Cat at Turtle Creek.
(Where did we see the beautiful Kentucky Log home across the river??) Was it at Turtle Creek?
June 18 River miles 529-558
When we headed out into the harbor we believed that the weather was going to fair all day, our final day of paddling. Our destination was Madison, Indiana. The harbor was calm and we paddled back out by the SNOW/H20 boat. We had seen the owners of the boat on their early morning walk with Garfield around the harbor. Two miles down river we were going to go through the second and last dam of our trip. As we approached from the opposite side, we saw a barge and could not tell if it was moored or just waiting its turn through the lock. Karen called ahead to the lock master and was told that we should go on across the river behind the barge which was indeed moored. It was a bit intimidating to be so close to the barge even though it was moored. It felt like it might take off at any time but, upon a closer look, it was very, very securely tied to the concrete pylons.
We paddled between the barge and the shore and up to the lock. This time we were the only recreational vehicle passing through. We ate a bit of breakfast in the lock…a good way to pass the time (about 20-30 minutes, depending) and get our breakfast without another stop. On our way again, we next stopped in Carrollton, KY, where we walked up from the river to a family restaurant (and this one DID have chocolate candy!). We ate a salad. The fresh vegetables are what we miss most on the river. Baby carrots and apples and dried fruit is about the extent of a usual day. (was it on this leg that I felt ill?)
The deputy sheriff and another man were leaving and stopped to talk to us. They had seen us whipping across the river as the wind was coming up and inquired about our journey. The sheriff gave me his card which I tucked away for safe keeping. We asked about Madison and the other man was from there and said how lovely it is. We enjoyed the idea of an early evening in a quaint 19th century river town. The wind was still appearing to remain steadier than we might have wished when we headed back out. We decided to cross the river immediately and hug the other side as they had both said that would keep us out of the wind more. About ⅔ of the way across, the thunder started and we paddled as fast as we could and landed on some private property where we stayed for a bit, hoping for the storm to pass. Karen napped a bit but I wasn’t too keen on being on the ground as I was sure I was seeing fire ants.
When the skies began to clear, we made another stab at Madison. It was proving to be a more stubborn destination that we had anticipated when we left Turtle Creek that morning. Another marina was on our map. It was Adams Marine and when we approached it looked like a graveyard of old ships, including a steamboat up on shore. It felt creepy to me and for a brief few minutes Karen and I took different sides as to whether to pull over and try to find someone. It still felt too much like a scene from a Stephen King book for me to want to try it. She conceded and we carried on as the skies became more and more ominous. As the thunder returned for another round, we took to the shore again, pulling in under an overhanging tree while staying in the canoe in the water. The skies were getting black and the waves kicking up again so we pulled the canoe up and got out. It was clear then that a real storm was on its way and we grabbed the fly of the tent and sat on half of it and covered ourselves with the other half, fighting the wind and the rain to keep it somewhat over us. Karen popped out at one point to pull in the canoe further and I held onto the rope with my toes. By now water was pouring under us and over us. The river calmed again and the skies brightened enough that we thought we might be able to hit the water again. Life jackets on once more, we saw the next wave of rain in the skies. We had already seen the bridge of Madison and knew we were only 6 miles from the end of our journey. It was hard to think that we might not make it to the destination.
While we tried to eat some tuna on crackers, Karen went into plan b mode which included scoping out a place to set up the tent for the night and/or calling the sheriff to ask if he knew anyone who could help us in Madison. I talked to the sheriff who gave me the number for the Madison police should we need them. Meanwhile, I had my heart set on making it that short way to Madison and enjoying a warm and dry hotel that evening. After a bit, and consulting the weather channel, we decided to make a run for an apparent two hour window of opportunity. We paddled as fast as we could and made it to the Madison public dock just before another storm came in.
There were three men at the ramp. turned out that one of the men who had come down to secure the public docks before the rising waters was the owner of Adam’s Marine! He had seen us paddling and had hoped we would come ashore. He said he would have welcomed us. So, Karen was right. It would have been ok. Another man was making giant soap bubbles on the dock which looked cool from the water. After chatting with them, the Bubble Man offered to take us and our canoe to his place and then us to a hotel. Once again, river hospitality won the day. Soon we had unloaded the canoe and gear in a safe place and we were getting into dry clothes and ready for a hot meal in the restaurant next door. The hotel was lovely, right on the river with large, Southern verandas and porches. The rain started in again like crazy and all we could think was that we were glad to be off the river and dry. A couple who were to be married the next day were not so happy. The wedding was to be on the hotel lawn and it was clear that the weather would remain bad all weekend. They worked with the owner to find a suitable alternative location and we assume that the wedding was just as lovely. We certainly hope so.
Dinner was wonderful. I had fried catfish and Karen had salmon. There was a great salad bar so we could load up on vegetables again. We arrived right shortly before they closed but the whole staff still extended Southern hospitality to us while we were there. We got to the restaurant via a hotel owner golf cart. The city of Madison allows golf carts to be licenses for the city roads. What an excellent idea for a little tourist town. Karen and I took turns at the wheel.
June 19th still at river mile 558
After a good night’s sleep, we went to the continental breakfast and brought food out to the porch to enjoy. We packed ourselves up and waited for TJ to come fetch us and take us back to where our canoe and gear were. Soon we were packed up and on the road back to Cincinnati, via the local Skyline diner for Cincinnati Chili. It was first and it was good. Very different with cinnamon and other spices you don’t expect in chili…and loaded with piles of cheddar cheese atop spaghetti or french fries. I went with the latter. Back to TJ’s house and then on to Columbus to see our friends Pam and Britt..from the Mission Meadow years. We had planned on staying in Cincinnati with TJ and being in the Great Ohio River Paddlefest on Saturday but it had been cancelled due to the storms and high water. We can’t say that we were sad not to make a stab at an 11 mile race after completing 132 miles on the river in 5 days. We were happy indeed for an excuse to chill out in Columbus. After touring parts of Columbus, Sunday we headed to Cleveland where Karen deposited me at the airport. The 2015 adventures were over but far from forgotten!