My first canoe trip on the Scioto was on May 11. The weather was perfect – sunny, cool, and with only a light breeze. There are three people and two canoes in our party. George Anderson, local photographer, is in the solo canoe he built himself with a case of photography equipment, and David Rutter, MORPC’s Water Quality Project Manager, and I are in the second canoe which we rented from Columbus Outdoor Pursuits.
Getting to this moment involved a great deal of planning and management of logistics. Here is how it went:
While steps 4 and 5 are going on, I occupy myself with identifying wild flowers and birds from the road. A large clump of Wood Anemone is a beautiful find. Between the flowers, the birds and the delightful quiet of rural Ohio, I have no trouble amusing myself for the 30 minutes that it takes George and David to get back. Now we are ready to canoe!
We put in in a farmer’s field and glide to the main stream of the river. Recent rains have caused the river to overflow its banks, submerging stream side trees and neighboring fields. This is the seasonal floodplain (low land adjacent to a stream that receives water and sediment deposition during high flows). You can see from the line of damp soil on the banks that the river is down from its peak just a few days ago.
The water is exactly the color of chocolate milk. This level of turbidity indicates a high level of suspended particles in the water due run off from farm fields and erosion of the banks. George tested the level of suspended solids with a sediment tube – a 36” long clear plastic tube with a black dot at the bottom. You fill it with water and then pour water out until you can see the dot at the bottom. When I do this test on the North Branch of the Kokosing River (a state scenic river), I can see the dot through 34-36 inches of water. Here on the Scioto we could not see the dot until there were only 3 ½“of water in the tube.
Recent rains are partly to blame for this level of turbidity, but there is more to the story than normal fluctuation from rainfall. There are practices that farmers can adopt that reduce the amount of soil washing into rivers. Planting strips of grass where water typically flows and leaving land undisturbed along the banks of streams allow natural processes to hold onto soil.
There are numerous bends – called meanders - in this stretch of the Scioto. Meanders form naturally as streams flow through floodplains. They help reduce downstream flooding by using the energy of flowing water to create a longer stream with areas of erosion and deposition. David points out evidence of this along our way. Undercut banks with root wads (large diameter roots of large trees at the stream side) provide hiding and feeding areas for numerous aquatic animals, as well as refuge for fish during floods. This is important habitat for many air-breathing reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, too.
Woody debris (dead tree material) and detritus (partially decomposed organic matter such as leaves, twigs and logs) also provide critical habitat for many species and help protect banks from soil erosion. The diversity of habitats supports aquatic species at every level of the food chain from insect larvae to top of the food chain predators.
We drift into the Big Island Wildlife Area, a 5,872 acre tract of land about 5 miles west of Marion. Here the riparian corridor is wider than in other places and the trees – mostly Sycamore, Box Elder, Ash, White Swamp Oak, and Silver Maple - are bigger. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources began acquiring land in this area in 1958. Farming was always difficult in this low lying area, formerly home to a wetland prairie. A marsh was constructed in 1971 that is maintained with seasonal flooding using water from the Scioto. Today the marsh provides nesting, feeding, and resting grounds for wetland dependent animals and birds. The abundance of wildlife here makes Big Island popular with hunters and wildlife watchers. Another 3800 acres have been added since 1996 and were converted to a combination of prairie grassland and shallow wetlands. This acquisition has made Big Island the largest wetland prairie area on public land in Ohio.
But why is it called Big Island? We found out soon enough as we encountered an “island” formed at a deep bend in the river. Over time, water eroded across the land around which the river flowed and created an island. This is typical progression for a river as it shapes and reshapes itself over time.
We pause for a picnic lunch with feet anchored in muddy stream banks and speculate on how forests in Ohio used to look. It is estimated that before the arrival of Europeans, 25 million of Ohio’s 26.2 million acres were forest. It must have seemed like a limitless supply of high quality timber to the first white settlers. Trees whose diameter was equal to the height of a grown man were not uncommon. But over time the land was cleared for farming and the trees were used to build houses and barns locally and to supply timber markets in the east. By the late 1800’s only about 20 percent of Ohio remained in forest. Today that number has increased to 31 percent, but it is not the same forest. The big giants are few and far between. Still, being among the large trees that comprise the streamside forest of Big Island gives me hope that we have learned some lessons from the past and are setting land aside and restoring it to its original condition.
We seem to be chasing a pair of Mallard ducks down the river, encountering them over and over again as we round each bend. Red wing blackbirds are calling loudly in places and Baltimore orioles are everywhere adding their rich whistled song to the blackbirds’ raucous call. From time to time we are rewarded with a flash of brilliant orange plumage as the orioles dart through the trees that arch over the stream. An Eastern wood peewee sings its questioning song and we even see Turkey vultures roosting in the trees at one point.
Leaving Big Island behind, the riparian corridor thins. This change is apparent immediately. More sunlight gets to the river and, beyond the strip of trees at the waters’ edge, you can see open fields. One impact of this reduction in tree cover is increased water temperature in summer which has implications for aquatic life in the river.
Just north of Green Camp the map shows a low head dam. We are on the lookout for this because low head dams can be very hazardous to canoeists and kayakers. The roiling water below a dam can capsize a boat and trap people leading to drowning. Our plan is to take the canoes out and portage around the dam. But, as the water intake station looms into site there is no sign of a dam. The water levels are so high today that the dam is completely submerged and we flow across it without incident.
We take out at Green Camp and reverse the process from this morning, fetching cars and loading canoes and gear for the trip home. I am once again given the gift of a half hour along the Scioto with nothing to do but watch birds and identify wildflowers. I catch site of a small bird flitting through the tree tops. It is a male Blackburnian warbler migrating through to breeding grounds in the spruce woods of the northeast. Called a “glowing flame of the tree tops” by Kenn Kaufman in his excellent Field Guide to Birds of North America, this little bird is a treat to spot. He has a brilliant orange throat contrasted with a black triangle on the face and black and white stripes on his wings.
Hunting for wild flowers allows my neck to bend the other way and I find a nice stand of Virginia waterleaf in shades of lavender and white. It occurs to me that birding and wildflower watching are complementary activities as far as my neck is concerned.
What a pleasant day we had reading the river, spotting birds and plants, and sharing insights with one another about the past, the present and the future. We saw not a single other person once we got on the river but were a part of a rich and diverse society that included other than human species, as well as the two legged variety.
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