Category Archives: Canoeing, kayaking

Old Meets New

As I continue to slowly recover from foot surgery. Here’s another tale from years ago. This article originally appeared on canoeing.com.

What greeted me as I delved into the packaging was, “Welcome. Opening this box is the first step to making sure you don’t come home in one.” Maybe there were good reasons to join the 21st century after all.

I have always thought of myself as an old-fashioned kind of guy. I paddle a wooden canoe, don’t know how facebook works; I even have a working 8-track tape player (though finding new tapes is getting tough). Unfortunately, having recently turned 50, I was feeling not so much old-fashioned, but just old. In looking for a way to reaffirm my abilities and self reliance, I began to mentally search for a personal challenge. Having visited the Boundary Waters a half dozen times over the previous twenty years, I knew the challenges and rewards of a trip to the Boreal Forest. To transform a trip there into more of a personal challenge, I considered, for the first time, a solo trip. I could spend some time being totally self-reliant including outfitting myself, using my wooden solo canoe that I had built twenty years before. By going after Labor Day, I was sure there would be plenty of solitude.

While up for a challenge, I wasn’t looking to put my life on the line unnecessarily. Since the trip would be in September, not seeing other parties for days at a time was likely. My biggest worry was to be sick or injured with no one to help or get help. Despite being proudly old-fashioned, I found myself opening a box containing a Spot Satellite Personal Tracker.

The Spot weighs half a pound and can send prewritten text messages or emails, along with a Google map of the sender’s location, from nearly anywhere to preselected phone numbers and email addresses. You can send an “OK” message or an “I need help” message. In an emergency situation, a 911 message can be sent directly to the closest search and rescue unit. The cost of the unit, along with a year’s worth of service, was approximately $250. Michelle, my wife, while supportive of the trip, was plainly worried. While I knew the chances of needing the unit were remote, I did not want my last thoughts to be, “Why didn’t you spend the money you cheap dumb ass?”

Set up was simple, even for a technologically challenged person. The OK message was simply, “I’m OK. Here’s a map of where I am.” The Help message was a bit more detailed. “Things aren’t going quite as planned. While I’m not in danger, I need help to get out. Please call xxx with my location.” The 911 message is set; you just provide contact phone numbers to be sent along to the nearest Search and Rescue. I had the OK and Help messages set to be sent to Michelle and my brother Bob, who had joined me on Boundary Waters trips in the past. Bob, the typically optimistic member of the family, ask that I keep the Spot on me as I double portaged. “The last thing you want is to get a compound leg fracture and have that Spot thing a quarter mile away with the other load.” While a compound fracture was pretty low on the list of what I want regardless of the situation, it was a point well taken. Spot would remain with me at all times.

The non-technical portion of the preparation went smoothly and I arrived at Williams & Hall Outfitters near Ely, Minnesota the afternoon before Labor Day. The route was to be pretty open, a motor tow to the Birch Lake portage, travel to Knife Lake and then several options for a few days were laid out depending on weather and my speed of travel. My boat is stable, maybe a little slow, though I’d never carried much weight in it before.

After a fairly sleepless night, dawn breaks on a beautiful morning that promises a following breeze to assist with my travels. As we travel up Moose Lake towards Birch, Blaine Hall, the outfitter’s owner, veers the motorboat to show me some roosting eagles. Surrounded by the beauty of the day, my trepidation of a solo trip vanishes. After trading farewells, I begin my journey hoping to find a challenge, solitude and a few fish in a beautiful wilderness.

Paddling east on Birch Lake I immediately notice, even with a bit of a tailwind, how slow the loaded boat is. The beautiful weather more than makes up for the pace and, double portaging, I’m through Birch to Carp and then the smaller lakes of Melon and Seed by lunch. Though my stamina is being sapped by the slow, hard paddling, I continue on through Portage Lake and into Knife by early afternoon. I pull into South Bay and pick a gorgeous campsite tucked well back in a small cove out of the way. I had seen a few other parties during the day, but they all appeared to be heading in, ending their trips on the holiday. After setting up camp, I cool off with a swim, send out an OK message with the Spot and leisurely prepare a steak dinner to cap off the day.

After a good night’s sleep, I awake to broken clouds and a steady wind from the southwest. Gathering together lunch, camera, rain gear and fishing gear, I set out for Dix Lake to cast for Pike. Even with a short stop to take a few shots of an eagle perched on a high snag, I cover the 4 miles to the high overlook near the Bonnie Lake portage in well under an hour. The view west is tremendous even though the clouds are becoming solid and hanging lower. With the wind picking up I’m glad to portage into Bonnie and get off the big water of Knife. Two more relatively short portages have me on Dix Lake where I eat lunch, send an OK message with the Spot and cast for uncooperative pike. The rain, which had threatened for a while is now coming down in waves. I have two options for getting back to camp. I can take three short portages back to Knife and fight the wind on big water, or take five portages that totaled over 500 rods and return through Vera Lake. Not a fan of long, steep portages in the rain, I convince myself the wind is easing off and head back through Bonnie.

Once back on Knife, the wind, of course, picks up in intensity. I cinch the life jacket up tight, and paddling for all I’m worth, fight from island to island. At each open water crossing, I yell encouragement to myself to keep up the adrenaline level. The boat is stable through the waves, but progress is painfully slow. The closer I get to camp, the more the wind and waves conspire to slow my progress. After three hours on Knife, soaked and tired to the bone, I finally make it back to camp. Challenge is checked off the to-do list. After dinner under the tarp and a visit to the flask to settle nerves, it’s an early night.

The rain comes down on and off all night, ending for good around dawn. I decide not to move camp, but instead spend the day drying out and exploring the area. As often happens after a strong storm, the sky clears, turning the day picture perfect. I leisurely check out Portage Lake and also Vera Lake, sending an OK message from there while lying on the bank in the warm sun. Back at the campsite by mid-afternoon I’m joined in the cove by a family of loons. They’re followed by a group of five river otters that spend over an hour oblivious to my presence, frolicking, fishing and generally putting on a show. Sitting and watching their antics, I realize I haven’t seen another person since the first day. Solitude is mentally checked off the list.

Catching a few fish remain on my to-do list and so I paddle to a nearby steep, rocky shoreline to cast a jig for smallmouth. My first cast results in a chunky, foot long fighter. As the second cast hits the now calm water, an eagle that had been perched unnoticed nearby is spooked. It glides down near the canoe before flying off to a new perch overlooking camp. The beautiful sunset is spent catching and releasing eager smallies. None are bragging size, but they fill the bill perfectly.

I awake early on day four refreshed and ready to travel. Since I’m paddling back to the outfitters without the benefit of a tow, the plan is to move closer to Moose Lake, paddling until the inevitable head winds start; making for a shorter trip out the next day. Not relishing a re-enactment of the battle against the wind with a boatload of equipment, I push off shortly after dawn with the air dead-still and Knife Lake mirror smooth. Portaging through Seed and Melon Lakes, the air stays calm and the only ripples on the water are made by each lake’s resident beaver as they pass near the canoe on their morning rounds. By midmorning I’m on Carp Lake. Since Bob and I had camped there years before with his sons, I sent an OK message as I travel through.

What I didn’t know until my return was that Bob & Michelle are trading emails with each Spot message I send, discussing my progress and dispelling Michelle’s concerns. “Jim looks like he’s in the middle of the lake. Do you think he’s in his boat?” “If he’s not, I doubt he would be sending the OK. I know exactly where he is. We were there…”

It’s not until Birch Lake that there is the first hint of a breeze, and it’s a tailwind! Can I be that lucky? It appears that every site on Birch is empty, but with a tailwind, the urge to keep moving takes over. Lunch is spent on a high bank overlooking Sucker Lake and several eagle roosts. I’m only a couple hours from the take out. The sky is partly cloudy, the temperature about 60 degrees with a light wind out of the northeast; perfect conditions for travel with a slow boat. Pushing on, I cross Sucker, Newfound and Moose Lake to arrive at Williams & Hall in mid-afternoon. After a cold refreshment and a recap of the trip, it’s time to load up and start the long drive home. While the trip isn’t exactly what was anticipated, it is exactly what I need.

The Spot Messenger, while not fitting in with my “old-fashioned” self image, was a worthwhile tool to ease both my mind and Michelle’s. There is no doubt that on a solo trip, or any trip with one canoe, the Spot could be a lifesaver. Maybe I’m not as old-fashioned as I think. Next time, perhaps a Kevlar boat? Hmm, something to think about.

Little Miami River – Beginning to End

If you read about my Thru-Hike of the Colorado Trail (and I hope you have) you might have picked up that I was having some foot pain during the trip. After not getting any relief from a couple of Podiatrists, I thought I’d see a surgeon. Surprisingly enough, his answer to my pain was surgery. Anyhow, I went through with having nerves removed and bone shortened and for the last couple of months have been unable to attempt any adventures worth sharing on these pages. At best I was able to get out for a little spelunking; in the beer cave down the street.

Rather than continuing to leave these pages blank though, I decided to share some past adventures that fit more within the parameters of this website. I hope you enjoy them.

Some 2,000 years ago, when the prehistoric Hopewell Indian of the Midwest constructed 3 ½ miles of earthworks to use for their religious ceremonies, they picked a bluff overlooking a small river in southwestern Ohio. Eighteen hundred years later, when a young Shawnee Indian by the name of Tecumseh was to start on the path to manhood, he dove to the bottom of a deep pool on the same stream and picked up a stone that was to become his Pawawka token. That rock was carried by the Shawnee’s most famous war chief for the rest of his life and was used to help communicate with both Moneto (ruler of the universe) and the Great Spirit (ruler of destinies). For centuries, this small river was both a physical and spiritual cornerstone of life in the area. Today, when you need the serenity that only a quiet paddle in beautiful surroundings can provide; the same water is still available; The Little Miami River.

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Flowing nearly 105 miles from Clifton Gorge, near Xenia, Ohio, to its confluence with the Ohio River east of downtown Cincinnati, the Little Miami is a great example of an urban stream which has been saved from the fate of most rivers flowing near populated areas. A local non-profit, Little Miami Inc., has been in existence nearly 40 years working to clean the water and protect the scenic beauty of the stream. In 1969, the Little Miami was the first river named to Ohio’s fledgling Scenic Rivers Program. In 1973 it became the first in Ohio and one of the first rivers in the country to be named a National Scenic River. Despite the proximity to a large urban center, the Little Miami is considered “Exceptional Warmwater Habitat” supporting 83 species of fish. Wildlife is abundant along the shore as well. Because nearly 60 miles of railroad bed running through the valley have been paved as a multipurpose trail and linear state park, the area receives strong support as a local treasure from not only canoeists, anglers and nature lovers, but also hikers, bikers and rollerbladers.

While my brother Bob and I had paddled portions of the river countless times, neither of us had seen the entire length. So when our schedules matched up for a few days, we decided to take the opportunity despite a forecast for some rain. Dropped off and camping at John Bryan State Park, we spent much of the night listening to a tremendous “toad choking” thunderstorm as it moved through. The downpour didn’t let up until first light as we slogged the short distance from the campsite down into a steep valley and to the swollen creek. The rain eased to a mist as gear and food were arranged into our two homemade cedar strip solo canoes. We pushed off just below the outflow of Clifton Gorge, a state scenic nature preserve. Visibility was minimal as we started downstream and both craft were soon swallowed by the fog.

The first five miles were a collection of strainers, log jams and old mill dams that had to be portaged. The going was slow and I was beginning to think that perhaps, we had begun the trip a bit too far upstream. When I rolled my boat while attempting to maneuver under a driveway, I became convinced of the error. The dry bags did their job however and the only damage was to my ego. By late morning, things were looking up. The fog had lifted and we had reached the U.S. 68 bridge, considered by many to be the beginning of navigable water.

With the sun breaking out and the currant much stronger than usual, we started making good time downriver. The class I rapids were more exciting than normal, but the morning’s misadventure was not repeated. Throughout the day, tributaries joined in, keeping the flow fast while the river grew. The normal array of waterfowl typically on the water was absent, apparently in hiding from the current. Two deer tempted fate however, successfully swimming across the stream in front of us. At 6 PM we stpped at the Fort Ancient canoe ramp and walked the short distance to Morgan’s Canoe Livery to arrange for a campsite for the evening. Total distance traveled was about 50 miles. Gary Morgan, operator of the oldest and largest canoe rental on the river asked, “Where did you start this morning, U.S. 35?”

When Bob mentioned John Bryan State Park he replied, “Oh, U.S. 68?”

When I assured him that we had indeed begun at the park, his reply was, “Wow, you guys really ran the gauntlet!”

There was no argument with that statement. After dinner at the riverside camp, the soothing, ancient sounds of the nearby current and tired muscles conspired to make it an early night.

Morning seemed to arrive about ten minutes later. There had barely been enough time to dream of traveling the river with Daniel Boone, who had spent substantial time in the Little Miami area. The river, though still flowing well, was down somewhat from the day before. The day promised to be a good one. Once again there was fog in the air, but it quickly lifted to reveal a solid blue sky and beautiful, forested shorelines. The wildlife put into hiding by the high water upstream began to reemerge. Mallard and wood ducks were spotted along the shore. On a stretch of shallow water, a great blue heron had resumed fishing. As the sun climbed higher in the sky, painted and snapping turtles began to climb onto logs and  bask away the day.

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By noon, we were inside Cincinnati’s I-275 beltway and lunch was at Lake Isabella Park. One of many parks along the stream, the facility is a great stop with restrooms, picnic tables, and of course, canoe access.

While the river flowed ever closer and eventually through the metropolitan area, it was hard to tell from the seat of a canoe as much of the shoreline is in public hands and protected. The lack of current was the best clue that we were near the finish and by mid-afternoon we paddled into the Ohio River, over 100 miles from our start.

Paddling during the week, we saw only one other pair of canoes during the entire trip. The solitude and natural surroundings made it easy to forget we were in a digital age, in a major urban area. Other than an occasional bridge, very little of the surroundings disputed my persistent daydream that we were traveling in an earlier time, in a much more remote place. It was easy to feel a kinship with those who traveled and lived along the river long ago. And it felt good.

More information about canoeing or kayaking on the river can be found on the websites of the rivers outfitters including, morganscanoe.com, littlemiamicanoe.com, scenicrivercanoe.com and lovelandcanoe.com