By Birney Imes
I’d been paddling for several hours when I stopped to check in with Neal. He was in Rising Sun, Indiana, at a hamburger stand called the Patty Wagon eating an ice cream cone.
Readers may remember Neal Moore, who appeared on the front page of this newspaper back in April. Slim Smith interviewed Neal during a stopover in Columbus on his 7,500-mile coast-to-coast canoe trip across America.
From Columbus Neal would continue up the Tenn-Tom to the Tennessee and then on to the Ohio River.
Before leaving Neal invited me to join him at any point in his journey.
Maybe on the Ohio, I said. There is a lovely stretch of river between Cincinnati and Madison, Indiana, I’ve wanted to paddle.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785: ”The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids, a single instance only excepted.“
Jefferson was writing before the age of power plants, casinos and barge terminals, which now clutter the banks of a stream that gets its name from the Seneca meaning “good river.” While stretches of the Ohio are heavily industrialized, the river retains much of its pastoral beauty. Grassy pastures, thick forests and quaint river towns, storybook reminders of another time, slope to the water’s edge.
And so it was on Tuesday under an unrelenting sun and in 90-degree temperatures, I was paddling downstream on the Ohio to meet Neal who, when he was not eating ice cream, was slowly and steadily working his way upstream.
Neal is over 6,000 miles into the journey he started in February, 2020. Our plan was to meet on a small island where we would camp for the night.
A friend had dropped me about six miles downstream from Cincinnati on the Kentucky side of the river at Anderson Ferry, a car and pedestrian ferry that has been in operation since 1817.
Our rendezvous point was 24 miles downstream.
Finally, around 5 p.m., the rain showers I’d been hoping for all day materialized. Only, these were accompanied by wind and lightning. I took refuge at a landing at Petersburg on the Kentucky side of the river.
I was exhausted, the weather had turned bad and I still had six miles more to paddle. Maybe with a few energy bars, some rest and clearing skies, I could make it. Prudence suggested otherwise.
I walked up the steep, unpaved landing and found at the top several blocks of houses and a historical marker commemorating a long defunct distillery from the early 1800s.
I knocked on the front door of the first house I came to and stepped back. A wide-eyed young woman accompanied by a young girl, opened the door. I asked if there was an inn, campground or a B&B nearby. She said her fiancé would know; he was in the backyard.
There I met Shawn Munday, who was washing and waxing a large maroon pickup and a Jeep. We talked for awhile and though he was friendly, he had no ideas about lodging. I thanked him and made a loop around the small settlement before heading back to the landing and my boat.
Shawn in his giant pickup met me at the landing. “Can I give you a ride somewhere?” he said.
I asked if he could take me to nearby Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, a couple miles downstream from our island meeting place.
On the way to Rabbit Hash, Shawn said he was spurred to action when his fiancé’s daughter asked him, “Are you going to help that man?”
Camping opportunities at Rabbit Hash (a movie set of a town arrayed around a 19th century general store; the town has a dog for its mayor) turned out to be non-existent.
I phoned Neal. He said there was a small hotel on the riverfront at Rising Sun across the river. He would call. I apologized to Shawn, who, by now, was committed to seeing us settled for the night.
In anticipation of my having to paddle across the river to Rising Sun, Shawn took me to the landing for the ferry that serves that town’s riverboat casino.
Turns out the hotel was full, but the woman who owned the Patty Wagon said we could camp on a slab of concrete next to her sister’s dock below the hamburger stand. Neal’s ice cream stop turned out to be more fortuitous than either of us could have imagined.
Shawn helped me get my kayak to the river’s edge. By now the wind and rain had subsided. Across the way the lights from the riverboat casino twinkled in the dark. The village of Rising Sun lay several hundred yards downstream.
“Let me know when you get settled,” Shawn called as I paddled out onto the dark river.
I crossed the river, paddled past the riverboat casino and at the public landing and pulled the kayak on the shore.
As I waited for Neal to emerge from the darkness, a family with young children brandishing fishing gear chattered happily as they clambered over the riprap at the water’s edge. Out in the channel a towboat festooned with colored lights pushed its tow soundlessly upstream. The rain-scrubbed air felt cool and clean.
A long, hot day with its measure of uncertainty seemed headed toward an agreeable conclusion.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.