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Published: Friday, 7/1/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

Hot day turns into slog

Flat, stagnant river tests mental strength of canoeists

BY STEVE POLLICK
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
A look back through the lock into the canal at Providence-Grand Rapids Dam on the Maumee River. The canal and lock lead to downtown Grand Rapids. A look back through the lock into the canal at Providence-Grand Rapids Dam on the Maumee River. The canal and lock lead to downtown Grand Rapids.
THE BLADE/STEVE POLLICK Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Blade outdoors editor Steve Pollick and a small team are canoeing 130 miles of the Maumee River this week from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Toledo and will be reporting daily on the journey.

GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio -- The third leg of the Fort-to-Port canoe trip Thursday was kind of like traversing a Sahara Desert of water -- hot, flat, and endless.

It took canoe-mate Matt Horvat and me 9 hours and 23 minutes to negotiate what was the shortest leg yet, 27.4 miles out of 96.5 miles total so far, from Defiance to here. That was because the Maumee wasn't giving up its miles easily.

Shoving off at 6:15 a.m. in a postcard-perfect, pastel dawn below Independence Dam, we quickly encountered five miles worth of back and forth maneuvering in shallow waters.

Six inches less water in the river would have turned the top of the day into a series of long drags instead of just nimble navigation. The river falls just 26 feet in more than 27 miles in this stretch, so the current is slow to begin with.

The water deepens for easy paddling below Florida Bridge, where we collected a few supplies, mostly mineral-supplemented water, from John Jaeger of our support team. He lowered a bag on a rope from atop the bridge, and we took it on the fly to conserve time and energy for paddling. But as we headed down toward Napoleon the river widens into what amounts to a 22-mile-long lake that is wide, flat, and dead-slow going.

The broad flat vistas here are mentally tough to take, because you can easily see down-lake two or three miles, a distance that may take a half hour to 45 minutes of steady paddling to make. Repeat that for hours on end with scant relief from heat and no opportunity to stand and stretch -- save for quick bank breaks -- and you may understand the mental game in play alongside the physical one.

The wind was little help, except for about 20 minutes of southwest breeze at 10 to 15 mph that briefly raised our spirits. Then it went all but dead flat, and so did our spirits. That is because when the paddles stopped moving, so did the canoe. You get tired of the repetitive strain. We are relying solely on the power of muscles that have been challenged for three days for hours on end and which now are getting periodically cranky.

A look back through the lock to the canal at Providence-Grand Rapids Dam on the Maumee River. The canal and lock lead to downtown Grand Rapids. A look back through the lock to the canal at Providence-Grand Rapids Dam on the Maumee River. The canal and lock lead to downtown Grand Rapids.
THE BLADE/STEVE POLLICK Enlarge | Buy This Photo

So it was a long slog in hot sun under mostly clear skies. A few degrees of cooling shade, while passing under a bridge or cutting close to the bank, became glorious relief. At times the incessant paddling and impression that we were getting nowhere fast was a mite unnerving. "I felt like a stick in the mud," said Matt.

The compensation for such labors, however, is more than adequate: seeing a herd of five deer splashing belly deep in the river ahead at dawn, watching a great blue heron fishing in a shallows amid rising mists, backlit by a softly hued sunrise; encounters with great-winged bald eagles several times during the day, just when we needed a natural lift.

Or how about more acts of random kindness: a care package of summer sausage, cheese, crackers, and ice water delivered by Steve Mossing of Napoleon, who idled in his pontoon boat, patiently waiting for us to pass, just to cheer us up and cheer us on. Or how about grilled hotdogs served up by Brenda and Mark Piasecki of Napoleon on a sand bar just below Damascus Bridge.

The Piaseckis and their grandson, Logan, 5, and Australian sheepdog Sammie, motored slowly up to us in their V-8 ski-boat, offered the treat and spotted us a half hour to reach the bar, where Mark stood in waist-deep water and tossed a ball to Sammie while Brenda grilled on-board. Neat. "We moved to the river [from Holland, Ohio], and we enjoy every minute of it," said Brenda. Great dogs too.

Lastly, there was Chris Martin at River Lures in Grand Rapids and a white-haired senior lady from Napoleon who showed up at Martin's canoe, kayak, and tackle shop on the canal that parallels the dam and river. Martin, who is a passionate kayaker, had been expecting us at day's end and greeted us with a plate of fresh-made "third-generation kielbasa." Mmmmmm.

And the lady, who did not identify herself, shyly came up and said she had been looking for us all day. First she drove to Defiance. Gone. Then back to Napoleon. Gone. Finally she came down to Grand Rapids and sweetly requested that we pose round the canoe for a couple of photographs.

Moments like these make such a journey memorable. Like mothers have told me, you forget the pain of childbirth but you don't forget the child.

Contact Steve Pollick at: spollick@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.



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