Mark Twain used a river to signal freedom in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hemingway made it a healer in “Big Two-Hearted River.” And in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s river slowly twisted into a symbol of man’s vile nature. As his main character Marlow puts it: “Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream.”
My canoe trip down the Little Miami in August wasn’t freighted with the same kind of gravitas. It was simply an excuse to have some late summer fun by lending my lifelong friend Greg Schrand a hand on a cool adventure: to inventory the current condition of 80 of its 111 miles. Greg deeply loves the Little Miami, that long, thin ribbon of State and National Scenic River that snakes through the farmland and outer ’burbs of southwest Ohio before meeting the backwash of its much bigger cousin, the Ohio. For more than 20 years he’s served on the board of the Little Miami Conservancy (LMC), an advocacy group dedicated to keeping the river as wild as it can be in these fractious modern times. But to accomplish this fairly monumental task, he needed a wingman.
Greg and I have a shared love of the outdoors that spans from Boy Scout camp-outs to backpack adventures in the wilds of Alaska. So I didn’t need much convincing. The hard part was finding the time. It took some negotiating with significant others, rounding up gear, and watching for a good weather window, but by late spring we had a plan: Over five days in early August, we’d paddle the river from the Jacoby Road launch in Greene County (just south of John Bryan State Park) all the way to the Beechmont Levee. “It’s very rare that people canoe or kayak the entire Little Miami River,” Eric B. Partee, executive director of the LMC, had told us before we left. It didn’t sound foreboding at the time, but as I think back now, perhaps we should have paid closer attention.
True, we’re a couple of guys who have backpacked, biked, and out-talked circles from East Fork State Park to Denali. But numbers are real. Ours broke down like this: Ages 71 (me) and 72 (Greg); 80 miles of paddling in five days (10 on the first and last, and 20 on the middle three); 55 pounds of canoe; and about 80 pounds of gear. By the finish, those integers left us more beat than Jack Kerouac at a poetry reading. We stroked our oars more times than a big sycamore has leaves; portaged our canoe about a quarter of a mile around a logjam roughly the size of Clermont County; and negotiated too many strainers (fallen trees whose trunks can span the whole river and whose branches can create deadly snags beneath the surface) to count. Thank God we had the foresight to pack light—and use a canoe made of Royalex, a composite vinyl-and-plastic material, instead of much heavier aluminum.
Perhaps it helped that the last thing we heard before we shoved off was: “You look like you’re riding in the water just fine.” This came courtesy of Jim Farfsing, an old friend and former canoe instructor who shuttled us 65 road miles to our starting point outside of Yellow Springs. It was Jim who lent us the 14-and-a-half-foot robin’s egg blue Old Town Pathfinder. He sat on the riverbank and shot a few cell phone pics as we glided off under a verdant canopy of green.
We quickly settled into comfortable old-friend banter and rhythm, me as the amateur bow oarsman and Greg, with a chunk of Tennessee’s Clinch River on his résumé, working the stern. “I got the better view up here of what’s coming,” I said. “Too bad I have no clue of what to do if it’s about to kill us.”
“Don’t worry about it. You paddle. I’ll steer,” said Schrand.
We never really worried about capsizing; the Little Miami is a Class I river with occasional brisk riffles and small waves. By comparison, the Gauley, in West Virginia, can be a teeth-jarring torrent with rapids that’ll turn you religious. But since no one north of the boat rental launches—located mostly in the Waynesville area and then from around Morrow down to Newtown—regularly gets on it to chain saw through the fallen trees, we had to get good at ducking overhanging logs. Fast. Greg got sliced on his left arm right off the bat—the river’s way of reminding you who’s boss. He cleaned it with a sanitary wipe as I paddled on.
It didn’t take long for the neoteric world to horn in on our tranquil throwback Thursday. Within a few hours we began to hear a low rumble that didn’t fit the soundtrack. It made me think of that corny show tune from the 1950s, “Something’s Always Happening on the River,” but what we were hearing now—the far-off eruptions of big bore engines—stretched even that ditty. This was supposed to be the domain of shrieking birds, the occasional huffing of a lost black bear, hooting owls, not screaming V8s with dual carbs. But each oar stroke took us closer to the man-made thunder until it was directly above us, just out of sight on the left riverbank.
“Let’s pull over,” I said, anxious to see what it was.
“Nah, let’s keep moving.”
“C’mon. We’ve got to check this out.”
Grudgingly, Greg aimed the bow onto the gravel beach. I kicked off my river shoes and was still lacing my hiking boots as I scrambled up a slope of poison ivy. At the crest, about 20 feet from the edge of the woods, a massive white cargo rope was stretched between buried iron posts 100 feet apart. Greg made it up the hill just in time to see two modified muscle cars finishing a quarter-mile drag race. They were headed straight for us. In front of the cargo rope was about 50 square yards of sand, a final “safety” barrier put there to stop a car from crashing into the river if its brakes failed.
Kil-Kare Raceway, we presumed? Yep. It’s a combo drag and oval track near Xenia that opened in 1959. To the chagrin of river folk, not to mention the wildlife along this segment of the Little Miami, those cars belch and blare and bomb away for hours each weekend.
Why were we taking this lazy journey down a rustic river? Oh yeah—to get away from this kind of thing. We trudged (carefully) back down to the canoe, put our oars in, and slipped on down a stream that flows through both the past and present.
Today the Little Miami River runs through five counties, 20 townships, and 12 communities and is the magnetic core of recreation and tourism along a corridor from the Springfield area to its confluence with the Ohio River just east of downtown Cincinnati. Cyclists, birders, runners, rollerbladers, hikers, and paddlers make more than a half million visits to the river and its recreational offspring, the Little Miami Scenic Trail (LMST). Real estate agents, restaurateurs, barkeepers, hoteliers, and shop owners are all too happy to meet their needs. Mike Fremont, a lifelong Little Miami lover and the first president of Rivers Unlimited, commissioned several economic studies during his tenure (1972–2003) in an attempt to put a monetary value on the bike trail, river recreation, and even nearby housing. “[As of 2003] the river generated about $100,000 per river mile per year,” he told me.
Boat liveries are a big part of that number. Mark Bersani, who runs Loveland Canoe & Kayak with his wife, sees it up close. “Taken together, all our liveries on the Little Miami, we probably have 80,000 to 100,000 rentals a year,” Bersani says, which would put the collective take of boat rentals alone at more than $2 million.
But the river’s economic power wasn’t always built on fun. Formed by the retreat of the Wisconsinian glacier over 19,000 years ago, the valley’s first settlers were Paleoindians who arrived from Eurasia around 10,000 BC. The Woodland and Fort Ancient Cultures came next, followed by the Miami and Shawnee tribes. High drama came in the 1700s when New World French and British explorers arrived, followed by frontier celebrities like Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton. By 1788, the Little Miami became a key boundary between the Virginia Military District and the Symmes Purchase. When conflicts between settlers and Native American tribes waned, entrepreneurs realized the river provided the perfect average water slope of six and a half feet per mile to turn the water wheels for gristmills. In short order, several hundred sprung up along its banks. But the same human progress that created the mills brought their demise. As settlers stripped off trees, ditched the land, and cleared the river’s obstructions, the water blasted too quickly down to the Ohio, leaving the depths too low at times to turn the waterwheels.
Eventually the action on the river shifted to transportation. In 1817, the Ohio legislature voted to allow locks and dams on the Little Miami to facilitate canal boats moving people and products. A few decades later, as railroads sprung up across the country, the same legislators allowed the creation of the Little Miami Railroad Company. After the trains stopped in the 1970s, the track beds were passed over to outdoor enthusiasts to create the Little Miami Scenic Trail. The push to develop the LMST boosted the advocacy of river lovers, who pitched in to keep the river and the trail as clean, protected, and wild as modern American life will allow.
Their ongoing militancy has paid off. The Little Miami Conservancy, founded in 1967, has grown to more than 500 members and owns 100 nature preserves on riverfront land. The Audubon Society has officially recognized the river as “An Important Bird Area.” In 1969 the Little Miami became Ohio’s first State Wild and Scenic River. Then, in 1973, it was added to the National Wild and Scenic River System, a status only one quarter of one percent of U.S. rivers enjoy, which means its ecology, economic benefits, and general quality-of-life features will be protected for present and future generations. But here’s the big crux: Today the Little Miami Conservancy, in concert with various quasi-public organizations, owns 53 percent of its riverfront. “If you own it, you control it,” Partee had told me. After a 40-plus year effort, 84 species of fish have returned to the river, and since 2007 the Little Miami has met Ohio Environmental Protection Agency standards for a clean waterway.
Still, no matter how clean humans keep the river—and we saw very little debris—nature often makes up its own mind about what goes where.
Partee had warned us that we’d have to portage around “a big logjam above Corwin Dam,” but the heap we encountered about a mile below the U.S. 35 bridge near Xenia was a stunner. We expected a small pile of old trees in the river. What we found was a snarl of tree trunks, leaf branches, earthen clumps, and mixed foliage—sprinkled with a few tires and plastic bottles—that was roughly the length of two football fields, and in places, stacked as high as 50 feet. A small stream on the left was fighting to establish the river’s new course.
We beached the canoe and hiked off to the right to figure out where we could portage. Nettles stung through my REI quick-dry pants as I bushwhacked through the underbrush. Greg was somewhere behind me, moving much slower in shorts and river shoes. It took about 15 minutes of wandering but I finally caught sight of a glistening new river channel emerging from the left side of the jam. We agreed the best plan was to first haul our packs forward and then return to drag, push, and carry the canoe to a point ahead where we could lower it down a 20-foot bank. We’d orienteered our way out of touchier situations in bush-pilot drop-offs in Alaska—where surprises can really be serious—but you wouldn’t have known it had you heard us bitching the whole way back. How had this pile gotten so big and why hadn’t it been punched open by someone, for God’s sake?
With the sun dropping fast behind the tree line, we pitched our tents right there on a terrace above the riverbank—my double-wall solo and Schrand’s single-wall ultra-light tarp, just to keep the dew off. Dead Tree Mountain loomed above us and we were bathed in a symphony of insect noise. We heated up our little camp stoves and dined like kings on freeze-dried mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, rice, smoked salmon, and box wine, then ended the day sipping whiskey and puffing a couple of Backwoods Smokes as the moon rose into a clear sky. We were subsumed in nature, and yet the “conveniences” of modernity were never far. For instance: cell phone service. Schrand made a call to Jim Farfsing to give him the lowdown on the massive log deadlock. How would they ever get it cleaned up? “Dynamite it,” I heard Greg say. He was only half-joking.
Over breakfast, I asked Schrand about ownership rights along the river. “Property lines are drawn on land without regard to the river’s flow,” he said. “If the present location of the river falls within those boundaries, then that person owns that part of the river—even though its path can shift based on natural occurrences maybe then taking the river off their property.” In the case of this logjam, if the owner doesn’t or can’t remove it, the river will decide its new path.
The next day we peacefully canoed past the burgs of Bellbrook and Spring Valley before gliding into River’sEdge Canoe & Kayak Outfitters, near Waynesville. Rhett Rohrer, the owner, sits on the LMC board. He and Schrand figured that the jam started years ago with one strainer backing up other floating trees. With no boat liveries north of River’s Edge to cut things open, the flotsam and jetsam just kept piling up; left alone it will eventually form an island. At the property owner’s request, Rohrer had looked at the jam a while back to see if he could chainsaw it into submission. No dice. “Only a trackhoe would probably open that logjam in maybe 40 hours at $100 an hour,” he said. “The nine miles we use for our livery we’ve cut open about eight times already this year.”
Partee had warned us that we’d also have to negotiate Corwin Dam, a few miles south of River’s Edge. The dam was originally built for a grain mill. Some see it as a remnant of history; in Schrand’s eyes, with the mill long gone, it’s merely a leftover nuisance. “I think it should be removed, since it no longer serves its original purpose,” he said. “LMC’s goal is to return, whenever possible, the river to its original wild state, and that dam stops fish from being able to migrate up or down the river.”
A couple of people had told us they’d taken their canoe right to the lip of the dam and lowered it over the four-foot drop. We ended up backpacking our gear 30 yards to the left and then yanking the boat through the woods and over rocks. We thought we were in the clear, but about an hour later, we encountered a more complicated portage that required us to tow the canoe through a narrow, snarled water trough using a 50-foot rope from a hillside high above. “When I get back I think I’ll look into organizing a volunteer day to come back here and remove the debris that’s making that mess,” Greg said.
With all the walking and dragging, mixed in with comparatively easy oaring, it started to feel like the same pump-and-coast rhythm we’d experienced on some of our bigger treks. So we turned to our usual diversion—swapping stories.
“Did I ever tell you about this guy I knew in St. Louis when I was lifeguarding at a hotel pool one summer during college?” Schrand began. “He knew all the stewardesses who regularly stayed there.”
When that unpublishable story played out, I refreshed his memory of the balding former Marine and scoutmaster who went all macho on our Boy Scout troop one time when we were kids. “ ‘Hey, skinhead!’ we kept yelling late into the night from our tents,” I recalled. “At six in the morning he marched our asses all over Camp Friedlander before we got breakfast.”
Two old guys playing hooky from life on a riffling river, sliding paddles through cool water and talking crap. When you think of it that way, a portage (or three) isn’t such a big deal.
But it was starting to get dark and we needed a good campsite. The river may taketh away but it also giveth: As we cruised around the next bend we saw a wide gravel beach, one of those inviting places in the backcountry they call “the perfect kitchen”—a friendly resting spot where you aren’t likely to trip on a log and kick over your dinner. We pulled over, found a plateau under a stand of mature maples about 100 feet from the river to pitch our tents, and ate dinner à la playa.
“This place feels really Squatchy,” Schrand said, stirring his freeze dried noodles and eyeing the woods across the river. Having tromped through the bush not far from here with a group of dedicated Sasquatch hunters for another story for this magazine, I knew exactly what he meant. I fired up my screeching bigfoot howl, trying once again to make contact, and knowing that as soon as it happens I’ll have my own reality TV show. If there was one out there, he (or she) wasn’t taking the bait.
Within an hour, we were snoring, as real coyotes howled in the distance.
The next morning we were back to being two guys and a canoe slipping down a glistening water trail hearing only the high-pitched squeals of kingfishers overhead, the flapping wings of great blue herons, and an occasional low hello from a fisherman sitting in the shadows. The riverscape was overwhelmingly green, though an orange or yellow leaf floating by our canoe hinted at the onset of fall. Every now and then a big snapping turtle plopped off a log. Trees, slime, primary life forms, rocks, the pulsing earth clock and emerald blades of all shapes seemed to take us in as if this was where we belonged more than with motors, phones, and suits. We were on one of those stretches where we both just shut the hell up and let the pungent funk of the river and the peaceful cadence of oars pushing water fill our senses.
Then a little after 9 o’clock, the spell shattered and all hell broke loose. First it was visual—the red, green, blue, and silver of canoes and kayaks. Then came a cacophony of shouts, laughs, and F-bombs. One heathen repeatedly slapped the water with the flat end of his rented oar, making cracks that sounded like gunshots. For us, the river was a cathedral. For many of them it was a floating version of Mardi Gras.
We saw a river guide help three pairs of twentysomethings into their rented canoes from a launch ramp. He pointed them downstream and said, “As soon as you head out into the current, watch our for that eddy over there.”
“Eddy? What did you tell us an eddy was?” said one.
“Wait. I don’t know how to do this,” said another, slicing his paddle through the water with no discernible effect.
Don’t worry, I thought. The Little Miami flows only one way: south—and right into the waiting arms of that guy’s canoe livery, where he’s trained to snare any uncontrolled boat he sees coming his way.
Not that we were total purists. At Oregonia, we beached our canoe and hiked up the slope to a cheery two-story tavern with a wrap-around porch called the Little River Café. It’s operated under several names and configurations for 40 years but took that moniker in 1993 when the bike trail—the most recent economic driver—was built.
We treated ourselves to a lunch of ribs and burgers as the Dixie Chicks blared from the outdoor speakers. At one point a guy parked his motorcycle in the café lot, got his dog and skateboard off the back sissy bar, set the board down, and then cued the dog to push off with his back legs and roll down the bike trail all on his own—which the dog did, over and over again. It was a sort of canine Cirque du Soleil to cap off a perfectly civilized break from what sometimes felt like Neolithic exertion.
We did our best to dodge the yahoos that afternoon. Our strategy was to play it like a buoyant slalom course, scooting in and out of each cluster of river traffic until we were free again. We smoked all boats, but then we had a daily mileage schedule to stay on top of; everybody else was there to extend the floating party for as long as possible. It would have been easy to get annoyed by the lotus boaters, but we suppressed that urge. Fun, whether it’s loud or serene, is key to the river’s survival.
As if on cue, we drifted up to a seemingly empty river cottage with a homemade wood deck stuck into the high bank. It held a long table parallel to the river with six or seven folding lawn chairs. It was empty for now, but I could easily picture a row of guys sitting with beers in front of them, elbows on the table, ogling river travelers below. A large sign hung over the table: “Hooterville USA. Show Us Your Hooters.”
“There’s some tomfoolery that goes on here,” Greg said dryly.
That evening we tied the boat to a tree root and camped at the Little Miami Canoe Rental in Morrow. With a view from our high bank and beef stew simmering on my camp stove, I walked down through a grassy field and happened upon a woman named Deborah Ramsey, a self-described river sweeper who regularly volunteers to clean up this stretch. That’s one thing about a recreational economy: it creates garbage, too.
“I’ve found paddles, life jackets, once even an empty canoe from the livery that was abandoned on the shore,” she told me. After the antics Greg and I had seen that day, I could easily picture some amateur crew, frustrated that the canoe wouldn’t go where they thought it should, simply stepping out, abandoning their oars and life jackets, and slogging up the bike trail to their cars, a sort of canoe rental default.
Sunday’s skies were overcast but the crowds still came to the river and the modern world pressed in harder around us. We started taking note of the various homemade wooden decks that cascade down steep banks from camps and cottages. Greg referred to them as “someone’s dream,” but we were pretty sure most wouldn’t pass building code. Clearly, lots of people enjoy their property along the Little Miami, whether it’s fishing from their bank, dropping from scary high ropes that swing out over the water, sipping drinks from those improvised decks, or launching their floating vessels. Increasingly we seemed to be running into bits and pieces of “someone’s dream” everywhere—like the epic piece of manmade insanity we saw sitting along a stretch of beach. It was about 16 feet long with a large upright fan at the rear and another propeller on the front deck pointing down. A hovercraft on the Little Miami? What havoc would that motorized whirlwind cause to wildlife, kayakers, and nature lovers? We decided not to linger long enough to find out.
A bit later I stepped out of the canoe for the umpteenth time to pull it through shallow water, and heard my river shoes make a new noise. Looking down I saw that both rubber soles had broken free from the synthetic uppers and were now flapping like clown shoes. These shoes had gotten me across powerful braided rivers up in Alaska but now they were forsaking me on a mild stream in Ohio? They were going in the first garbage can I saw regardless of history—but not before calling my wife for backups.
I got on my cell phone. “Bonnie. Hey. Is there any chance you could meet Greg and me at Julian’s in downtown Loveland around 3 o’clock with those black marine Crocs sitting on the floor in the bedroom?”
“I see them. Sure. You need anything else?”
“Uh, would you mind stopping for some cigars?”
“Hold on. Hey, Greg, do we need any more wine?”
“That’ll do it. Thanks. See you at 3.”
Ah, the easy logistics of a suburban river run. When Bonnie arrived we were sitting at a table outside in the sun. Cocktail hour had arrived. She was all too happy to join us. Downtown Loveland was bustling with activity, boosted by bikers and paddlers like us. “I always love coming here and seeing how alive it’s become,” she said.
We said goodbye to Bonnie and returned to the canoe as the first rain clouds of the trip began to form on the horizon. We had no idea where we’d be sleeping. We had hoped to set up camp close to more populated communities but the closer we got to them, the less workable things looked. A feeling of backcountry doom washed over me: We were screwed. But then we spied a sign at Jim Terrell Park in Milford that invited overnighting. As the rain began, I snitched water from a faucet outside a nearby car repair shop, filling my MSR Dromedary Bag to the brim.
We ate our final meal in the three-sided shelter at the edge of the park. Sadly, rain and clouds blocked our view of the “super moon” that night. Greg slept in the shelter while I crawled into my tent and drifted off to the sound of fat drops plopping on ripstop nylon and a tin roof down the way.
The final 10 miles went by quickly. Milford faded into Terrace Park—the first community we saw where it looked like all the riverside decks would survive code inspections if not earthquakes—followed by Mariemont and its lush green riverside acreage called the South 80. I asked Greg about the chunks of rock and concrete known as riprap that now lined so much of the more populated sections of the river. He explained that cutting the vegetation down on the bank to get a better view and then putting huge chunks of concrete in place to stop erosion can actually harm the river and water quality. “The river needs wide swaths of natural materials—an example would be wetlands—to do things like absorb some of the water so it doesn’t flood, or filter and clean it and even stop some of the run-off, which can help keep things like pesticides out of the river,” he said.
As we were running along Newtown Road with the Beechmont Levee and our take-out at Otto Armleder Park just ahead, I felt a little like Lewis and Clark reaching St. Louis on the return from their historic expedition. Except that we had cell phones and Gortex, as well as dirt on everything, tired bodies, and an Old Town Pathfinder with a lot of new scratches. But we now had a complete picture of the Little Miami River, a place I’d mostly only seen from bridges.
When our canoe came to a rest on the sandy bank, Eric Partee and Jim Farfsing were there to greet us. Schrand and I dangled our feet in the water while Partee filmed some interview clips for LMC’s website, and then we carried our sopping gear and the trusty Pathfinder 100 yards to Farfsing’s Subaru, where we strapped it on top for the one mile victory lap to his house and our cars.
My family better be prepared for my speech. About how this five-day 80-mile trip should become a Galvin family ritual, a multi-generational rite of passage built around paddling, camping, portaging, laughing, and sometimes even complaining. At night we’ll ponder the ideas of Twain, Conrad, and Hemingway around our camp stoves, as well as the words of Standing Bear, the great Ponca chief from Nebraska, who wisely said, “Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard.”
As for Schrand, well, he says with a few more beers and burgers from Little River Café, we should be ready to get back in the Pathfinder and head for the Mississippi.