The Ohio River holds distinction as the most polluted major waterway in America. Each day I slowly learn why as the steel, titanium and chemical factories discharge a frothy putrid foam beside me. One gyre of plastic and woody debris was composed of beer cans, a Gatorade bottle, bits of Styrofoam cup, one torn yellow softball and a floating purple tampon tube. Occasionally I’ll pick up a bottle floating down beside me but it seems useless when the shoreline is ringed with cans and plastic bottles. The remains of floating docks, old moorings and a remarkable number of mangled white plastic lawn chairs frequent the shallows,a reminder of the destructive power of Ice when the spring thaw returns.
Regardless of my environmental concern for the river, there is still quite an abundant biodiversity in plant species and fauna thriving along the riparian buffer. Each day I hear the cry of eagles in the trees or am treated to a hovering inspection by an osprey or red tailed hawk. The hatching mayfly lead to many carp breaching the surface with a splash. In the trees, a plethora of birds dart and dash snatching up the flying temporary treats. I quietly paddle upo flocks of yearling Canada Geese, now barely able to discern which is the adult. The cry of a belted kingfisher kicks back across the choppy water while a dusky great blue heron inspects the scene cautiously.
One saving grace for my body has been the umbrella sail. Earlier today saw 21 of my 25 miles for the day completed under sail. It is tricky to balance out sidewinds and how best to handle gusts by squishing the umbrella low to the deck to remove some surface area. Speeds far greater than my ability to paddle leave a gurgling of water and a V current off the bow and behind, a 2 ft wide swath of flat water. I’d estimate a few gusts today to 25mph and my resultant cruising speed combined with current to be around 10-15 mph. That’s darn fast for a loaded plastic boat and one skinny fool.
Finding camping has been pretty easy but in areas where the river runs straight, it scours deeper and the banks are steep and rocky. The best suitable islands have been a wildlife refuge or privately owned unlike the Mississippi which had a number of Sandy islands perfect for a quick camp. The rail roads and highways run along both sides of the river so there’s rarely a quiet night of rest without screeching train brakes or the din of road noise. A few previously flooded areas were more promising with less low brush and poison ivy. Without the frequent floods, the banks are often filled with more poison ivy than other rivers I’ve seen. The Vining ivy makes it challenging to find suitable trees to hang the hammock but I’ve only been forced to sleep on the ground a handful of times.
The most memorable camping spot was just 4 Mi from Pittsburgh as night fell and a marina came into view. As it grew near, I could see half the dock had been cast ashore by the spring floods and a half submerged powerboat point to the sliver of moon above. Exiting my kayak for the first time on to a floating dock, I pulled the kayak aboard and flopped down on my sleeping mat after a long day. The glittering factory and distant skyline of the city a reminder of how far I’d come and much farther I have to go.