It’s been about a week since I’ve been off the river and it has given me time to think about what I did. There were some great parts to the trip and there were some not so great parts to it. Mix them both together in the right amounts and something bigger than the individual components happens. I had a great trip so I guess the proportions were just about right! This will be my last post and I hope to pass on some of my observations that I gathered along the way.
I’ve been asked many times if this was a bucket list thing. I’m not big on this bucket list thing but if I had a bucket list, this wouldn’t have made it. My bucket list might include spending a July afternoon on Alpe d’Huez during the Tour de France or perhaps a chilly spring day standing roadside watching a Paris-Roubaix. Both of these are merely spectator events which don’t require much effort other than buying tickets and getting on an airplane. The trip I just completed required much more than that. I worked quite hard to make this trip happen whether it was building the craft or planning the logistics or just working to pay for this. I bought into this concept-hook, line, and sinker! No, this wasn’t a bucket lister, it was a wild hair!
As a young man, I lived for wild hairs. I was invincible then-sound familiar? Well, I’m not so young (49 yo) and I don’t chase too many wild hairs. Age and life have taught me to be choosy about what I do in life. Some ‘cool’ things just don’t have either the appeal or payoff that they promise these days. This idea was something that didn’t promise to be anything other than what it was-a trip down the river. What a trip!
I went to Dick’s Sporting Good’s to get a canoe that my wife and I could take out on the river or tool around the lake in. Merely a quiet afternoon conveyance to spend some time with my wife on a sunny weekend day. But as I saw it leaning up against the wall, I started thinking about other things I could do with it. One thing led to another and I was halfway through planning my trip before I even bought it! That was the easy part. Not many times in a persons life do they get an opportunity to have time, money, and family situation conducive to do something big. I had to wait 25 years! My kids are out of the house, we have a low maintenance lifestyle, and I had a break in work schedule. So when I saw an opening, I jumped! Luckily my wife totally supported me. When I first told her about it, she said great and then said she was going to raise my life insurance! She’s alot smarter than me so I think she saw the writing on the wall. She already had a vacation home in Costa Rica planned. Well, I’m back and Costa Rica is down the tubes! Bummer!
I thought that doing the entire Ohio River and continuing down the Mississippi River to New Orleans would be cool. I have never done something on this scale and it seemed somewhat doable. I planned this trip with the mindset of it being like a long camping trip. To that end, I worked on the craft setting it up to accomodate what I would need. I tinkered with several ideas to make it work. Everything that I added to the canoe usually had a two or three forerunners. I knew I wanted the craft to be super stable and I wanted a good sun blocker. To that end, I made the stabilizers after searching the internet and seeing the only canoe stabilizers were way too small and not very durable looking. So I made big, solid stabilizers. Solid as a rock! I built a deck on top of the canoe that I could sleep on and store a few things on. This enabled me to have lots of storage underneath. I covered all of this with an awning frame that also doubled as a tent enclosure. I spent alot of time cutting tarps up and regrommetting them to make a somewhat respectable looking tent enclosure. I started with an old (41 yo) two stroke boat motor. I made paddles that I added four feet of length to so I could paddle standing up. Everything on that craft was either modified or made from scratch. That was one of my goals. Anybody can do this trip on a regular boat. But to make your own craft and put it to the test is a little more gratifying to me. I must say that the whole system worked more or less like a charm!
The Ohio River is 963 miles long, starting in Pittsburgh and ending in Cairo, IL where it joins the Mississippi River. Within that span, it has twenty two locks. I’ve never navigated through a lock before and I was terrified going into the first one. By the last one, I was just cruising through them! The first lock outside of Pittsburgh also housed the surliest of any of the lock workers. I appreciate the job these people do but this guy sure did turn me off. He was cursing coworkers, me, anybody and anything in his path. I feel sorry for people that are like that-find something that makes you happy! I was glad the rest of the locks were much better! The water quality from a clarity standpoint was great starting in Pittsburgh. I grew up with the idea that Pittsburgh was this old steel town with dirty air, dirty water, dirty everything! But as I started out, I could see the bottom 15 feet down. I don’t know the chemical makeup but I do know that there were plenty fisherman trying their luck along the way. I was very pleased with that. I saw a definite change in clarity where the Kanahwa River emptied into the OR near Point Pleasant, WV. From there to the MR, the clarity was about the same.
I learned a few early lessons that served me well for the rest of the trip. I stopped the first night near a railroad trestle. I didn’t make that mistake again after hearing thetrains all night long! From that point on, I made it a priority to find a quiet overnight spot. I also learned a bit about boat balance. Not too far out of Pittsburgh, I was scooting right along when I wanted to get something from the front of the boat. I was going along at about 5 mph when I let go of the tiller and moved to the front of the boat. Well, I scurried right back when I saw the front of the canoe go under the water surface. I’m glad I put the deck covering most of the canoe. I only had to bail out about a quarter of the canoe that time! That was the first time my craft went under water-there were many more times! I brought an anchor with me but I never trusted it to keep me planted at night. I always tied the craft up with one or both lines. I was always afraid I would wake up in the middle of the night adrift with a barge bearing down on me. So I kept tying the boat up!
I didn’t have any problems with sharing the Ohio with the barges. The Mississippi was much different. I knew I was the smallest craft on the river and I acted accordingly. One of the lockmasters told me that it takes over a mile to stop a barge. I didn’t want to test that! I do have a newfound respect for the tow boat pilots. They have a strict channel that they have to stay in or it’s a catastrophe. It was even sketchier on the MR. The low water levels there complicated their lives immensely. They do their job steering these crafts from behind. Before you poo poo that thought, try pushing a store shopping cart backwards through a busy aisle-good luck! Clean up on aisle four! There is so much commerce taking place on these rivers. Lots of coal, oil, sand, rock, you name it. I am convinced that the powers that be have sacrificed the MR to commerce. The shipping channel was clearly defined and that left very little useable river for recreational boats. The Ohio provided enough room for both barges and recreational boats. The barges were also smaller on the Ohio. There were many marinas along the Ohio in stark contrast to the MR. I think the riverbed profile is quite different also. The Ohio flows through very hilly country while the MR is surrounded mostly by flatlands. Due to the hilly country, the water depth seemed much deeper. Once I got away from the banks, I never had to worry about hitting anything on the bottom. The MR was much different. I could be 150 yards away from the shore and still scrape the bottom. I’m afraid my motor propeller can attest to this fact many times over!