TIFFIN - Paddling a canoe down an Ohio scenic stream, such as the Sandusky River here, has to be one of the finest natural therapies afloat.
Something about the rhythm of the paddle dipping in the current, the feel of muscle pulling through a stroke, and the natural quiet is hypnotic.
You sit down low on the stream, your entire visible world reaching no farther than the steep wooded banks and the sky overhead. The noise and confusion and road rage and mindless commotion of urban life as we know it do not reach occupants of these graceful, stylish craft.
Here only come the sounds of nature's music. The chuckling of water over gravel bars, the occasional plops of mudfalls from recently rain-soaked banks, the "who-eek-who-eek-who-eek" calling of a brace of wood ducks launched nervously from bankside hides, the piercing authority of a bald eagle's cry as it dives and loops and soars overhead as a small flotilla of canoes glide underneath its nest.
An Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves canoe rests on a gravel bar in the upper Sandusky River during a recent scenic rivers get-acquainted trip.
Smallmouth bass, the leapers among cool-water gamefish, occasionally spring out of the water ahead of the canoes, much like porpoises that play alongside ocean ships.
In such a natural world, it takes no time to get into a zone, a good zone. Too soon a morning's "float" - from Collier State Nature Preserve in extreme southern Seneca County to Heck's Bridge, just above Tiffin - comes to an end as the bows of canoes drag gravel.
It was good to get back on the river, renew an old friendship with a much beloved stream, Ohio's second official state scenic river. Sixty-six miles of the Sandusky were so designated in 1970, from Ballville Dam at Fremont upstream to Harrison Smith Park in upper Sandusky.
Canoe trips such as the foregoing recently were scheduled simultaneously on the Sandusky and the upper Cuyahoga, Olentangy and Little Miami rivers by the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. The aim was to draw attention to all 21 state scenic river segments, more than 700 miles in all, in 27 counties.
In 1974, 93 miles of the Maumee were designated as a state scenic and recreational river - scenic from the Indiana line to the State Rt. 24 bridge at Defiance, and recreational from the bridge to Maumee-Perryburg.
ODNAP, which oversees stewardship of both scenic rivers and the state's 130 designated nature preserves, also wanted to showcase two new motor-vehicle license plates that feature either a great blue heron or a brook trout, the latter a state endangered species found only in a few remnant, pristine runs.
The new license plates cost an additional $25 beyond the standard plate, with $15 of the sale proceeds going to bolster the state scenic rivers protection fund. Such a fund is critical to the mission of such a relatively small, typically cash-strapped division as natural areas and preserves, inasmuch as it does not have a user-fee funding base such as wildlife (hunting and fishing licenses) or watercraft (boat registration).
Bob Vargo, who manages the state scenic rivers program for the Sandusky and Maumee rivers in northwest Ohio, said that the initial scenic rivers license plate was introduced in 1995 and since then has raised $1.5 million for scenic rivers work. The new samples can be viewed on-line at www.oplates.com.
Funded projects include research, such as the impact of removal of the St. John's Dam on the Sandusky above Tiffin, bank-protecting reforestation along scenic rivers, land acquisition and conservation easements along the river corridors, and stream water-quality monitoring.
On the Sandusky and Maumee, more than 79,000 feet of riverbank have been protected through scenic easements or land acquired by the state. Private landowners seeking technical advice on scenic easements can call Vargo, 419-981-6319.
The scenic rivers manager is proud of the streams he oversees. You can tell in the details he slides into the conversation, such as the Sandusky being home to more bald eagles than any other river system in Ohio. Or the fact that Ohio is home to six species of redhorse suckers and the Sandusky is the only stream to have all six.
"Overall, the Sandusky's healthy," Vargo said during a stop to sample water clarity with a "sediment stick," a long clear measuring tube with a black button at the bottom of the tube. Fill the tube with a stream sample and try to peer down through the water-column, pouring off more and more water until the button is just visible. A chart then compares how much water is left in the tube with the sediment load at the sampling site. The Sandusky River averages 12 inches of visibility in tests on the sediment stick, which ranks it as normal.
And just what makes the scenic rivers so valuable? Hannah Basting, a recent Notre Dame Academy graduate for whom the recent canoe trip was a new experience, left the river with these thoughts:
"I had always found nature to be boring and uninspiring, but there was something about the placidity of the water and the trees, and the calming sound of wind rustling the branches full of bright green leaves, that made me realize that nature can act as a sanctuary of sorts to a wandering mind.
"I realized I had gone not expecting much at all but experiencing something I won't soon forget."