We completed the last leg of our Scioto River journey in August. We drove down to Shawnee State Park the night before in order to get an early start. Our plan was to put in on Scioto Brush Creek, a tributary of the Scioto and a popular waterway for canoeing. David Rutter brought his two sons along, so I shared a canoe with George – not his usual canoe, but the very first one he made 23 years ago. This sweet boat was a joy to ride in and I picked up some valuable lessons on paddling a canoe in the bargain.
We speculated about how much water would be in the creek given the lack of rain throughout the summer. We drove to the town of McDermott to take a look at the creek. Although getting the canoes in the water was challenging due to the steep bank, the creek itself seemed to have enough water to float us. That turned out to be deceptive!
It is easy to see why Scioto Brush Creek is popular with canoeists and kayakers. In August the banks are lined with wildflowers. Red spikes of Cardinal Flower, pale purple heads of Joe Pye weed and the bright yellow of Woodland Sunflower were everywhere. Clear water and abundant fish life made for interesting paddling. The forested banks sparsely populated by humans, along with diverse bird life, give it the feel of a truly wild place. This is Ohio the way it was long ago – before European settlers arrived.
In contrast to the other tributaries we have explored and the main stem of the Scioto, Brush Creek is mainly a rock bottom stream that falls in elevation enough to make for really fun paddle – when there is enough water in it. This summer’s lack of rainfall meant we were walking across huge rock ledges in places and we had to carry the canoes across numerous “rock gardens.” The confluence with the Scioto was completely unavailable to us. We had to traverse islands of Water willow and the stream bed of slippery, sharp edged boulders in order to meet up with the Scioto. Once there the pace of our travel changed dramatically. The current, plus our paddling muscle, was more than enough to counter a wind out the south.
We saw only one fisherman on Brush Creek but the Scioto was a Saturday destination for several happy folks. They were set up on the gravelly shore with chairs, coolers and fishing poles, as curious about our two canoes as we were about them. Catfish and Smallmouth bass seemed to be the catch of the day. I suspect, though, that fishing is really just a great excuse to spend time on the river. As George pointed out, “they call it fishing, not catching.”
The river unfolded in big, wide bends before us. We encountered an extraordinary number of Great blue herons – as many as 10 in a group. Green herons were also common, although they seem more solitary. We were roundly scolded by Belted kingfishers all along the route. All of these fish eating birds were evidence of an abundant fish population. But the water here was far more turbid than on Brush Creek. Our paddles occasionally struck a soft, sandy bottom and the low water exposed gravel beaches. On a river this wide we found ourselves grateful for cloud cover to take the bite out of the mid-day sun.
The banks of the river here were sometimes forested, sometimes home to railroad tracks and sometimes form the edge of farm fields. We saw corn and soybeans planted right up to the bank of the river – banks that are eroding right into the water. It made me wonder if the farmers ever see their fields from the water.
Nearing the confluence with the Ohio we were startled to see a number of Snowy egrets. Their pure white plumage contrasted sharply with the greenery of the shore. Clouds building up to the south and the sound of distant thunder spurred us to quicken our pace in spite of stiffening arms and shoulders. We passed under the last bridge and there it was – the Ohio River. Right at the point where the waters of the Scioto join the mighty Ohio River, there was a small park. We rounded the corner and beached the canoes within sight of two bridges to Kentucky. Here there were fishermen trying their luck with rods and reels.
It was my privilege to travel this route with two great guys – George Anderson and David Rutter. Their imaginations were captured just as mine was with the idea of traveling the length of this stream. They loaned their canoes, their smarts, their sense of humor and a whole lot of time. But what did we gain? What did we learn?
To learn about a thing you have to open your eyes, your ears, and your mind. But to really know a thing you have to open your heart. That means that you take in the ugliness as well as the beauty. We were all awed by sightings of Bald eagles and Osprey. We were delighted by a thousand experiences from fish jumping right into our boat to scores of damselflies on every twig in the water. We were relieved to find the river teeming with life. We shared idyllic days paddling through Ohio’s beautiful countryside.
As we traveled we also noted lawns that extend right to the water’s edge, an assortment of trash discarded in the river, and the perfectly legal discharging of industrial waste into the water – all practices that harm the river. We went through towns that ignore the river completely or channel it in a concrete ditch. At a conference this spring I met a person who told me she grew up near Portsmouth. People referred to the river as the “Scioto Sewer.” In spite of that there are tributaries of the Scioto, like the Big Darby and the Olentangy, that are listed as State Scenic Rivers. And I learned from my friends at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency that the Scioto River is regarded as a success story.
This journey has taught me many things, including that the Scioto River, while not pristine and wild, is not a sewer either. It is home to many species of wildlife and it is a precious natural resource for which we all bear responsibility. I find myself thinking how great it would be if more people could see the varied faces of the river and fall in love with it like we did. With the exception of the stretch of the river from O’Shaughnessy Reservoir through the cities of Dublin and Columbus, public access for recreation is minimal. Imagine the recreational resource that the Scioto could be if day trips were easy to undertake from Kenton in Hardin County all the way south to Portsmouth. You could even undertake a multi-day trip from Columbus to Portsmouth, camping along the way, if there were public campgrounds on the river. Perhaps someday...
For those who have followed this journey, thanks for reading. And for my colleagues at COSI who made this possible, I can’t thank you enough. I am going to leave you with a favorite quote by environmental activist David Brower. He said, “We must begin thinking like a river if we are to leave a legacy of beauty and life for future generations.”
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