Who knew that, on my very first canoe trip on Memorial Day weekend 1980, I’d see Dolly Parton standing in the window of an A-frame house overlooking the Mohican River?
Who knew that, 40 years later, I’d pull my canoe up on a muddy landing beneath that house to visit my friend and mentor, Bill Conrad?
Who knew that this 40-year journey would bring me full-circle? Which was not to find myself in the company of a life-size cardboard Dolly Parton, but to come to terms with my destiny.
Prior to my three-day canoe trip in late May/early June, Bill sent word that he wanted to get together for a front-porch meeting. This had been the forum two years ago when we revived the annual Mohican River cleanup. That meeting also spawned a loose-knit group we call Friends of the Mohican River Watershed.
I broke camp at Camp Toodik on Lake Fork and strapped my gear into the canoe. Before hitting the river, I sent a text message downstream that I would stop by Bill’s house later that day. No specific time. The river offers plenty of diversions; setting a time of arrival is pointless. Instead, I go by E.T.A. — Eventual Time of Arrival.
As I drifted past Mohican Reservation campground, I texted Bill’s daughter, Gretchen, to let her know I was getting close. Then I got sidetracked photographing a bald eagle in a tree overhanging the river. A little further downstream I spotted its nest. Had to pause there too. Then there was a flurry of butterfly activity on a gravel bar that I had to check out.
Eventually, I made it to Bill’s where there was a knockwurst and cold beer waiting for me.
On his front porch, we discussed the river’s destiny and mine. I’ve always admired Bill and his neighbor, the late Ken Wobbecke, two men who have devoted their lives to preserving the heritage of the Mohican River. They’ve been instrumental in obtaining scenic river status — along with scenic byway status for Wally Road. The road follows the river. Much of it lies on what had been the Walhonding Valley Railroad.
Bill’s message? It’s time to formalize the Friends of the Mohican River Watershed. The wheels have been put in motion.
As for this year’s river cleanup? It grew from 30 participants in 2018 to 150 last year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no formal cleanup this September. Instead, we will do informal cleanups and events I call "trash mobs." That involves going down the river while the tourists are out there, picking up trash and encouraging them to do so.
Bill’s message all along? It’s time for me to take the torch, to carry on the work he, Ken Wobbecke, and others started. As he pointed out two years ago, scenic river status means nothing unless you take ownership, follow through and create tangible evidence of a concerted and ongoing effort to preserve the heritage of the river corridor.
Who knew that, when I paddled past that A-frame and Dolly Parton 40 years ago, that this would be my destiny?
As for Dolly, I had a reunion with her five years ago at Bill’s place. During a summer canoe trip, I stopped by to visit and posed for a photo with her. Dolly later ended up in the basement where, I’ve been told, she succumbed to water damage.
A historical aside: The A-frame that’s part of the Conrad residence originally served as a canoe livery. It was moved to its current location from Greer.
Another historical note: Next year marks the 60th anniversary of Dick Frey founding Ohio’s first canoe livery on the Mohican River. Who knew then that it would spawn the area’s tourism industry and make Loudonville the Canoeing Capital of Ohio?