Paddling the Ohio River Recreation Trail

A group of outdoor lovers hopes to create a 274-mile water trail so we can all see the Ohio as a place for recreation, respite, and adventure.

Photograph by Joe Wolek

 We must be a sight, huddled in a spitting rain in three 10-person canoes, one decorated with an American flag, one the seal of Cincinnati, and the other the seal of Louisville. A TV cameraman captures our entrance to the gigantic Markland Locks and Dam on the Ohio River at Warsaw, Kentucky. Lock operators surely are more accustomed to seeing coal barges and tugboats than this motley flotilla.

A horn sounds one long blast, our signal to enter the lock, as tall as a brachiosaurus and built in the 1950s. Once inside, it’s clear that the river moves big cargo—about 630 million tons valued at more than $73 billion a year, according to the Ohio Department of Transportation. Massive metal doors close behind us, securing us inside a concrete pen. A boatmate hands me a plastic blow-up monkey. She has a toucan and a palm tree as well. “We’re the party boat,” she jokes.

Safely inside the lock, we tie up to the correct moorings. The wrong ones are stationary and would leave our boats hanging once the water drains. Steel gears screech as we drop roughly 35 feet to meet the water level on the downriver side of the dam. The doors open, and we paddle on toward Louisville. Another 70 miles to go.

This trip, taken in June 2019, is a promotional excursion for the Ohio River Recreation Trail, an idea born from likeminded water babies in Cincinnati and Louisville. The Cincinnati folks organize Paddlefest, a day in early August when roughly 2,000 people take over a stretch of river near downtown. Louisville has an active paddle-sport community—sailboat clubs, even—as its stretch of the river is more lake-like. Together, they want to usher in a new era on the Ohio River, one where the waterway is seen as a place for recreation, respite, and adventure, and not merely as a thoroughfare for industry. They hope to create a 274-mile water trail stretching from Portsmouth to a little past Louisville (with Cincinnati about halfway) that’s accessible by canoe, kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and motorboat, as well as road bike, motorcycle, and car.

Photograph by John Nation

What they need now is to drum up interest—get people’s attention and support and also become more familiar themselves with the proposed trail’s opportunities and challenges. What better way than paddling the whole thing in a little over a week? The group had access to three river-worthy Voyageur canoes, and they just needed to fill them. They invited anyone with the guts to go until every seat was taken.

Locks like the Markland completely changed the Ohio River. When Lewis and Clark took the Ohio River to start their expedition west, they dragged their boats at times through shallow water. The first locks system, installed between 1885 and 1929, raised water levels for easier navigation. Dozens of smaller locks were replaced with larger ones like Markland in the 1950s—raising water levels to improve flood protection and allow materials like coal and salt to be transported on large barges.

We paddle away from the dam, which continues churning out hydroelectric power, and look toward a wooded scene. It’s midday Friday, and we’re back in a synchronized groove. Close your eyes and listen, and you can find the rhythm and keep paddling. Rest a little when your arms get tired, and then start going again. “To think,” says Tracy, the boatmate who passed out the blow-up toys, “our friends are sitting at their desks at work.”

At the end of the 32-mile day we pull up to Vevay, Indiana, where later we’ll bandage blisters on our hands and rub muscle cream on sore shoulders before sleeping on the ground in tents. A man wearing a red “Make Vevay Great Again” hat greets us with a box of homemade cookies. “Come on up,” he says. “Let’s get you out of the rain.”

Photograph by Joe Wolek

Warm welcomes seem to be a thing in river towns. As we step from the canoes in Rising Sun, Indiana, a woman zips by in a golf cart and offers some of us a little tour. Tracy and I go for it. The main street faces the river, and like many of these towns, Rising Sun has a colorful history. Our driver points out a mansion built by someone who got rich at the nearby casino.

Later, our entire group gets an official tour by a local historian, who shows us one of the oldest log structures still standing in Indiana, as well as Smith Riggs’s house. Riggs was a well-known blacksmith and woodworker whom the state commissioned to build two new “humane” electric chairs in 1928. He always felt bad about his invention, the historian tells us, but apparently the money was good.

A few days later in Vevay, we’re shown to the park’s bathhouse for a hot shower, then served homemade pulled pork sandwiches, mac and cheese, and lasagna by the community’s fire department. In another town, the mayor cracks open a rare bottle of whiskey for the group. In Westport, Kentucky, the owner of Knock on Wood Café closes shop to serve us a Mexican-themed feast, a welcome change from our usual diet of trail mix, fruit chews, and jerky.

Photograph by Joe Wolek

Photograph by John Nation

There are more than 50 river towns along the Ohio River Recreation Trail, each with its own unique history, quirks, and local characters. Madison, Indiana, has 133 continuous blocks of architecture on the National Register of Historic Places, plus a great little diner, Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop.

The Ohio River also signifies an important border between the North and the South. Pre–Civil War, it was the dividing line between slave states and free-soil states and so was crawling with patrollers and slave hunters. It’s also home to key Underground Railroad sites such as the Rankin House, which overlooks the river in Ripley, Ohio.

Ohio was a free state, but slaves could still be apprehended under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. John Rankin and his family sheltered an estimated 2,000 slaves on their way to Canada; they arrived by boat, ferried over the river by an Underground Railroad conductor in Kentucky, and took what was called “100 steps to freedom” up the banks to the Rankin estate. Today, all of it is a museum.

Places like this get noted on navigational charts as the group makes its way downstream. They are currently working to create an online digital guide to help others see all of the river trail’s historic and recreational highlights.

Back in Vevay, after the firemen’s dinner, the paddlers break up in groups and head into town. There’s a midsummer festival going on that includes a small circus where a woman eats a live cockroach. Many of the businesses are open, including a woodshop that smells of sawdust and has what seems like endless stacks of wood and tiny drawers holding hardware, knobs, and such.

A group of female paddlers talks of coming back to Vevay and some of the other town’s we’ve visited, doing a two- or three-day excursion and staying in some lovely bed and breakfast spots we’ve seen. It’s incredible how close you can get when you’re stuck in boats together for hours on end.

Photograph by Joe Wolek

Suddenly, I was getting stabbed,” Joe Wolek tells me during one of the times we sit together on the paddle. He’s a photographer and videographer documenting the journey for the group and for a Louisville gallery show.

Wolek was celebrating his 54th birthday with a trip to Argentina and was taking photographs in Buenos Aires when thieves robbed him, stabbing him 10 times in the chest and puncturing his heart and a lung. He’s sure he would have died there in the street had it not been for an off-duty police officer who called for help and the surgeon and medical staff who saved his life. He has a new lease—and outlook—on life.

There’s much to learn from one another, truth be told. Tear down camp in the rain, share equipment and food, take potty breaks in the woods together, and you can’t help but get close. It’s sort of like those fast teenage friendships made at summer camp.

I want to award a medal for bravery to a woman from Chicago who didn’t know a soul when she signed up. Relatives who live in Vevay saw a flyer the organizers put up months before the trip, announcing when they’d be coming through the area and inviting everyone to join their adventure. This woman used to paddle in her younger years, and she was encouraged to do it. And so she does. She ends up as one of the older paddlers in the bunch.

Just before our boats get to the Markland Locks and Dam, we notice a group of men yelling something at us from shore. We finally make out that they’re yelling, “Chris!” But there are no Chrises in our group. Then Kristin, the woman from Chicago, looks up from paddling and over at the men. They’re her brothers, who have flown in from all over the country to see her pull into Vevay, and she’s completely surprised. We all have tears in our eyes.

Photograph by John Nation

Our equipment trailer driver helps lead crisis response missions in disaster areas across the world. We have a Louisville city councilman aboard. Two people work at summer camps for children with disabilities. We take turns being captain, when you sit in back and keep the canoe going as straight as possible while eight or nine people try to paddle in sync. It can get frustrating. More experienced paddlers offer advice and words of encouragement to us novices.

We’re all ages and genders, including one transgender member, but one thing connects us all: admiration for the Ohio River. We end up with strong bonds to one another and to the places we visit. Tracy and I have lunch a few months later in Cincinnati before she catches a flight out of CVG. I ask her what her most memorable experience was from this summer trip, and she says the poverty she saw in some of the towns between Portsmouth and Cincinnati. She hopes a fully developed river trail will help those local economies and the residents she met there.

Photograph by Joe Wolek

On our last night, there’s a robust discussion about how to make the Ohio River Recreation Trail a reality. The group agrees that, at this point, it’s irresponsible to say to just anyone, “Hey, go try this!” Most people wouldn’t do the whole thing at once, sure, but they also wouldn’t have a safety boat or an equipment trailer carrying gear, water, and food. Most of the places we stay—with public restrooms and warm restaurants nearby—aren’t normally open to campers.

The river isn’t well marked. Disregard for barge and motorboat etiquette and rules can get you killed, as can the roads without berms that hug the riverbanks, a danger for cyclists following the water trail. And so much is dependent on the weather. We luck out, really, but previous paddlers on this trip have found harsh conditions, with wind, lightning storms, and glaring sun.

Photograph by John Nation

Still, can’t the group start talking to landowners along the way to identify places to camp safely? Can’t they strengthen relationships with folks in the barge industry to be sure everyone plays well together? Can’t they raise money for navigational signs, small docks, and welcome signs for people coming off the water to a river town? The group starts to prioritize.

We launch for the last time the next morning, and Mother Nature gives us a reminder of why the river’s majesty is worth sharing. In a light rain, a rainbow springs out of the water next to our boats and arches over our path to Louisville.

In November, the group received news it had been waiting for: It was accepted into the National Park Service Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program. The relationship will provide technical assistance to help create the trail that the group wants to be fully operational in 2021.

Organizers plan to build on their momentum with another trip this summer to continue visualizing a trail that’s safe, accessible, and fun for all. I’m sure it’ll be epic. I might do it again.

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