(State #25/50) Ohio is in the North. The hills, the trucks and even the accents of Southeastern Ohio, however, all seem transported from below the Mason Dixon Line. The air was hot, thick and sticky as I drove into Wayne National Forest late one night. Fireflies glowed here and there from the dark tree-lines and a fog hung over the blacktop. Towering thunderheads grumbled the next morning as I headed into town. I passed trailers and a few people, confused with historical geography, flying confederate flags. Then the clouds broke, pouring down onto the hot highway, filling the air with that familiar aroma of sweet summer rain. Yes sir, I thought, this here’s The South.
Humidity reigned as clouds blocked the sun, threatening more rain as I put in behind an abandoned elementary school in Lawrence Township that afternoon. Immediately, I had to get out and push Rider over a shallow riffle. From there I canoed along one long stagnant pool of murky water. Tires, a towns-worth, lay every 100 feet, half submerged in muck. A variety of human filth — tarps, plastic bags, bottles, a lawn mower, etc. — lined the banks at the high-water mark. I even saw one half of a car, stuck in a bank, electric wires still hanging out of the steering column. The stale pools transitioned into shallow riffles. A dog, tied up near a trailer, barked at me as I, again, got out to drag the canoe downstream. There’s no way to soften it; the Little Muskingum River was off to a crappy start.
For the next several miles the sounds of passing cars was a constant, drowning out all other sounds of nature. Then, as I neared the point where the road separated from the river I saw the head of a mammal, swimming downstream. The critter dove and I waited, drifting in a slow pool beneath wide-based, multiple trunk silver maples and mottled sycamores. For minutes nothing happened. Then I saw another head, upstream, carrying branches and leaves in its mouth on the water’s surface — it was a muskrat! I spent fifteen minutes watching several of them conduct all manner of muskrat business, which apparently entails diving, swimming under my canoe, slapping the water with their tiny tails and ferrying more branches across the creek’s surface.
Further on, the road split off from the river. Within ten minutes the sounds of a country highway gave way to the song of birds and the trickling of the water. The banks were less eroded and trash-laden and more vegetated. Grasses and flowering forbs spouted beneath overhanging trees and forest covered hillsides. Down river, 1000 feet, the long canyon of trees led to the side of green bluff. Once again, I had found nature.
I came across a gravel bar, which looked like an ideal place. There were fresh tread tracks, but the map indicated it was forestland, so I pulled Rider ashore and began making camp. Just as I started my fire of driftwood, I heard an engine coming my way on my side of the creek. A guy drove a John Deer Mule down the bank towards my camp with a girl sitting shotgun — both returned my wave with a smile, so I felt relief. I shook their hands and the man, tattooed and wearing a cutoff Ford t-shirt, introduced himself as Shorty. “I saw your tent and boat from up there, he said, surprised by my presence.” I told him why I was on the river. Shorty looked around and nodded. “This hollow is way back here… pretty spot… think I’m the only one using this trail,” he said.
“I feel like I’m back in The South!” I exclaimed with my southern accent surfacing and thickening up. They told me I was and then spoke about the river. “This crik used to be 3 times deeper and more narrow when I was growing up. We used to put wire and tires on the banks to hold them in and now the government won’t let us.” Shorty said. Well, that explains the tires, I thought. “We used to catch more fish here too, even when the pump jacks on the bank made oil slicks,” he said. An important lesson: It was always better back in the day, even when that day was coated in oil.
While on the subject, Shorty gave me the low down on some of the local government conspiracies, which ranged from likely untrue to deliciously ludicrous. One involved the government agencies releasing timber rattlers into the area by dropping them from helicopters — a wonderful scene to imagine. “People don’t always believe it, but I have a friend that’s seen it,” he assured me, lighting a cigarette. My favorite, however, was about coyotes. “When we kill them around here we check their upper gums for tattoos.” I gave a curious look and Shorty continued. “Yeah, a guy in Texas breeds them, sells them to the government with that marking and they release them here… but they won’t admit it.”
The girlfriend nodded along, smiling and chiming in on occasion. She was pretty with kind eyes. But those eyes were surrounded by dark rings and she picked at her forearms while we spoke. Meth… I feared, which is terrible if true. Its use is often a punchline in rural areas until you witness it. “How far are you going?” Shorty asked, interrupting my speculation. “Oh, on down towards Lane Farms.” I replied. He said I’d pass a dairy barn where some of his family lived. “They’re always slinging 22’s, leads flying all around this place… You’ll be fine if you holler.” I told him I would be sure to do just that. “Are you packing?” Shorty asked. “No,” I said, “just a big knife.”
After 30 minutes my fire was just smoking burnt, black logs. Fireflies began dotting the tree-lines above the river. “Lighting bugs?” I was corrected. “Well we better get back, I’m gonna crawl right up there,“ Shorty said as he threw his cigarette butt towards the waterline. They both wished me luck. “Have a good trip!” the girl said as they rolled up the bank and vanished into the woods.
I relit the fire, cooked, wrote and wandered up to my tent on a high, uneven gravel bar. The lightning bugs, which before floated in the air like embers, were now in full strobe mode. I turned off the flashlight and stared across the hollow, watching 100 insects flicker and flash and overwhelm the darkness.
In the morning, I lit a new fire. Sipping coffee and enjoying the sun, I watched an oriole fly down to the gravel bar, catch a flying insect and return to a maple branch. He dropped the bug, caught it in the air and returned to the perch to finish his breakfast. Many smaller song birds sang and flitted about. Most I couldn’t ID — possibly little flycatchers, vireos, kingbirds, finches, sparrows, etc. But, be sure, I admired them just as much as the ones I know. A rose of any other name kind of thing.
Noon heat beat down when I hit the river. I sucked my water supply dry as the “crik” grew shallower; I had to hop out over thirty times to drag Rider. In one spot a large maple fell over the entire stream, so I had to unload and portage the canoe over my head around the downed tree. When I was about to lose humor with it all, I stumbled upon a family of river otters frolicking in a small riffle. The mother put her head high and watched as the pups squirmed all over each other. I drifted in the canoe, watching the rolling, splashing, tumbling youngins’ disappear beneath a rootball of an overturned sycamore. One peaked out from the root mass, then they all turned and escaped by clambering up the bank into the woods above.
A few miles later, I pulled out at the Lane Farms campground, hearing a blues guitar blaring from car speakers. I met a man named Russ and his wife. “Y’all aren’t heading north are ya?” They were and gave me a lift the 10 miles back to my car, which beats the hell out of trying to thumb my way up a shoulder-less highway on a summer afternoon. As Russ popped in an Eric Clapton CD, I took off my hat and let the wind dry my sweaty matted hair and decided Appalachian Ohio may not be short on rednecks, humidity and conspiracy theories, but it isn’t short on Southern kindness either.
River Stats and Fun Facts
- Little Muskingum River, Ohio
- Miles Canoed: 10
- Date Canoed: 6-13/14-2017
- Weather: Cloudy, humid to Sunny and hot
- Elevation: Approximately 600 feet above sea level
- Launch Point: Laurence Township (Dart), behind old school (39.484007, -081.271534)
- Campsite: Painter Hollow (39.463244, -081.294279)
- Takeout Point: Lane Farms Campground (39.435663, -081.358609)
- Songs Sung on River: Muskrat Love, America (It’s as bad and dumb as it sounds), Turn the Page by Bob Seger and Colors of the Wind from Pocahontas (how hight does that sycamore grow?)
- Thanks to the Marietta Adventure Company (740-538-0801) for advice on where to put in, views of their maps and info on how much water I’d find in the creek (they did warn me that I’d have to get out to drag the boat and possibly portage), so they had me well prepared! Thanks to the many Wayne National Forest Rangers, which gave me more advice on the ecosystems and wildlife in the area. A big Thanks to Russ and his wife that gave me a ride back to my car. It would have been a might long and hot walk along that Ohio country highway without them.
- Wildlife Spotted:
- Birds: Great Blue Heron, oriole, starlings, swallows, belted kingfisher, cardinal, ducks and plenty of other songbird species
- Mammal: 3 Muskrat, 4-5 river otters, 1 gray squirrel, 2 doe white tail deer, creeping along bank, watching me.
- Reptile/amphibians: Eastern Rat snake (black snake), many turtles and large frogs near camp
- Fish: Large fish (carp?), several 1.5 foot Longnose Gars, smaller ‘panfish’ and catfish.
- Noted Species: Hellbender (Mud Puppy as Shorty called it), Black bear
- Dominant Vegetation: Silver Maple and Sycamore
- Current Threats: Human waste with development, erosion, trash and other dumped pollutants and the damage caused by feral hogs
- Ecoregion: Western Allegheny Plateau, (70a) Permian Hills
- Trash collected: plastic bottles, beer cans, cigarette packages, bits of hard plastic, styrofoam and fast food waste
- Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2041 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign