River miles measure the length of a river beginning at the mouth. So, since I am starting at the source, my journey begins at river mile 240.
The first leg of my Scioto River journey took place on April 13, a sunny, cool day that was perfect weather for exploring. My friend Joan and I headed up to Kenton, the county seat of Hardin County. I was worried about being able to find the source of the river. It is easy to trace the course of the river upstream from Columbus to Kenton using a DeLorme Altas or Google maps. But west of Kenton the stream is so narrow that it is hard to follow on a map. Topographic maps in 7.5 minute scale show more detail, however, and we found the spot. It turns out a handy sign on Roundhead Township Road 15 marks the spot, as well, so I needn’t have worried.
The banks of the stream at the source are steep enough to pose a bit of a challenge getting down to the water. The stream is perhaps three feet across. The water is very clear and 58 degrees F. A school of little fish was hanging out in a small pool. I planted a kick seine across the flow of the stream and stirred up the bottom with my boots; then carried the net to the bank to see what kind of aquatic creatures are living there. There were lots of sow bugs and a few crayfish, two species that tolerate a wide range of water quality. I also found aquatic worms, leeches and pouch snails which are generally tolerant of pollution. There were some riffle beetles and fingernail clams, too, species that are less tolerant of poor water conditions. To be fair, though, this is not a great site for the aquatic species known as macroinvertebrates (organisms lacking a spine but big enough to be seen with the naked eye)simply because all the conditions these critters need – like places to hide and a steady supply of nutrients, are not present.
Bank swallows were darting around hunting bugs and an Eastern phoebe landed on a branch and flicked its tail for a bit. Song Sparrows and Field Sparrows were singing. The general peacefulness of the place was punctuated by the raucous calls Red winged black birds and little gusts of wind that swayed the newly leafed out trees.
Leaving the source, we traveled on Township roads that zig zag around farm properties, crossing and recrossing the river. At one point the opposite side of the stream is a wooded area and there is an old retaining wall that may have been built to keep the river from eroding away the road. Other spots along the stream are secured by rip-rap (rock or concrete chunks used on stream banks of shorelines to prevent erosion).
The river heads east around the village of Roundhead. At a spot where County Road 190 crosses the river, I hear the sound of water running. Suspecting the presence of a riffle (a short stretch of faster water flowing over a rocky river bottom) I try sampling the water with my kick seine again. The obstruction in the stream channel is actually a square shaped piece of timber. Never the less, I get out my kick seine and try another sampling of macroinvertebrates. I am rewarded with tiny black riffle beetles and caddis fly larvae, as well as aquatic worms and some kind of small white eggs. The riffle beetles and caddis fly larvae are not pollution tolerant – a good sign for the river.
Here the stream is wider and the banks less steep. The banks are lined with much bigger trees and a greater variety of understory plants. An exploration of the forest south of 190 through which the river flows yields a great many wildflowers – Wild Ginger, violets, marsh marigolds, and Blue phlox. Thick moss and shelf fungi are thriving on rotting tree trunks. We hear a variety of woodpeckers, alont with Cardinals, Robins, and Chickadees. There are signs that deer and raccoon have visited recently leaving their tracks at the water’s edge. We find deep depressions in the woods that seem unnatural. Upon consulting the topographic map, we see that there is a gravel quarry here, although it seems to be inactive now. We see the first signs of the river as a place to dump things here, too. A metal tank is resting on the bank across from where Joan and I stand.
From Roundhead the river turns north and we follow it as closely as we can. Just outside of town we see a flock of wild Turkeys. They melt into the forest before we can get our cameras out. I see a large dragonfly – a swift river cruiser – and hope that bodes well for the river, too. Dragonflies spend a good part of their lives as aquatic insects. They need clean, fast moving water to complete that part of their life cycle.
Mark Lowery, District Technician with the Hardin Soil and Water Conservation District, suggested we travel on County Road 195 which parallels the river. Part of this road is no longer passable, so we detour around it and meet the river in the flat terrain of the Scioto Marsh. Here the soil is a fertile black muck formed when water from receding glaciers was trapped between moraines of rocky debris. The resulting marsh was drained over a century ago for agriculture. The farms here supplied onions, potatoes and other crops in abundance. Today there are approximately 500 farms here and 87% of the land is used for agriculture.
Here the river performs the function of carrying away the excess water from the fields. The banks are too steep to navigate and the there are few trees. The stream has been channelized and straightened in an effort to move the water along. Farm fields are underlain with a system of drainage tiles and water dribbles continuously from pipes that extend from the fields into the river.
This time of year when the few trees are just beginning to leaf out and farm crops are not yet planted, the sky is a vast blue dome and dark soil extends to the distant horizon with only the river – a narrow, deep ditch of muddy water – and the arrow straight road to break up the expanse. It is a lonely place compared with our earlier stops. There are few birds and we can’t even get to the water to see if anything is living there. By appearances, though, the water is silty. We hear few birds and see no sign of other creatures.
The marsh is the subject of a book titled Unearthing the Land by Tom Rumer. At the town of McGuffey, we encounter two old barns that resemble those described in Rumer’s book. They were used to store onions until they were shipped to markets in the east. The river turns sharply at McGuffey and heads southeast. Now the soil in the fields is a more familiar brown color. We follow the river into Kenton, the county seat of Hardin County. Here the stream flows past an athletic field and play ground on the south side of town. Once again we see trash in the river. And, although it flows within a few blocks of the historic and beautiful county courthouse, Kenton does not seem to consider the river as a special feature of the local landscape. The banks are steep and the water fairly inaccessible.
A lunch at Brunson’s Family Restaurant completes our first day on the river. Mark has promised us that the river east of Kenton is more natural – less manipulated. As we enjoy sandwiches and iced tea, I wonder why it is that we see Adopt a Highway signs along all the roads, but no Adopt a Stream signs on this sometimes comely and sometimes compromised river.
Full route path on Google Maps is here.
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