Ohio River, barred owls, canoes, Kentucky, Gunpowder Creek, fog, abandoned camps, Clark’s Army, coarse tobacco, clay pipes, shad, the Great Miami & Colonel Laughery.
Ohio River, barred owls, canoes, Kentucky, Gunpowder Creek, fog, abandoned camps, Clark’s Army, coarse tobacco, clay pipes, shad, the Great Miami & Colonel Laughery.
W hen I was a boy in Steubenville, my grandfather often took me fishing at a secret place he’d marked with a few drips of tar on a rock. To get to it required a slippery descent down a steep bank from the railroad tracks below the foot of Logan Street, followed by a stumbling progress through a waist-high blackberry thicket, then a last, panting lunge through tangled willows to a sandy beach no more than a few yards long. It was a formidable journey for a boy. But it offered, in small, a sense of the river’s large past, a sense of wilderness plunged into, of silence and a forgotten solitude—a kind of paradise regained.
There, insulated from the noise and acrid smokes of the city, we fished long afternoons, seated on drift logs and rocks. The smells—my grandfather’s pipe, the river, the ripening bait—were fundamental, pure. Facing the water, surrounded by foliage, the drone and tick of insects, the hot-weather chatter of grackles, I imagined us on an island unknown to anyone but ourselves. It was an ancient place, a place of ghosts and tales and adventuresome solitude.
It was a formidable journey for a boy. But it offered, in small, a sense of the river’s large past, a sense of wilderness plunged into, of silence and a forgotten solitude—a kind of paradise regained.
Growing older, I became all the more haunted by that imagined island. The place where my grandfather and I had fished was long gone, drowned beneath the deep pool raised behind the Pike Island Dam, but images of that scene, and its earnest joy and magnificent privacy, grew more brilliant in my recollection. At last, one summer free of teaching presented itself, and my friend Jim Quinlivan and I decided to spend a week on the river to recapture, if possible, something of another similarly suggestive place.
The night before we arrived, we camped up Gunpowder Creek on the Kentucky side. We had to paddle the canoe, an eighteen-and-a-half-footer, a good ways upstream from the mouth before the trailer-crowded, manicured banks gave way to willowed bends and deep reaches where orioles sang from the treetops and bass flashed in the coves. After taking out on a grassy flat shaded by maples and locusts, we made supper and sat on the bank till the fog wandered down the hollow and a barred owl, high in a cross-creek sycamore, warped its strange call through the darkness.
Forget the florid haggler who, at suppertime, roared down the gravel road above us in his red Camaro. Attended by his stern, unspeaking wife and two kids dressed in identical orange shorts and T-shirts, he claimed ownership of the land we’d made camp on. Forget his peevish reluctance to allow us our adventure despite our guarantee to leave the place cleaner by far than we’d found it. And forget the good old boys who came later, at two or three in the morning, flashing the lights of their pickup, whooping and cursing till we grabbed knives from our packs in the tent and lay sweating an hour after. Forget the intrusions, the noises, the upsets ashore. Remember the call of the barred owl, and the trill of crickets in the reeds, and the gauzy light of the morning. Remember Big Bone Island, where we got to.
Two days before, when Jim and I put in at Shawnee Lookout, up from the mouth of the Great Miami, we’d had in mind a leisurely tour of the towns and islands between Cincinnati and Madison, Indiana. Of the former there were many: Aurora and Rising Sun, Rabbit Hash and Patriot, Vevay, Ghent and Milton. But as for islands, there were only two: Laughery and Big Bone. Though the river towns attracted us, and though we envisioned lazy afternoons spent exploring muddy waterfronts and drinking beer with the locals on the banks and levees, deep inside us there dwelled a steady hunger for the islands.
We’d scouted Laughery ahead of time. Several weeks earlier, standing in the late-afternoon shade of sycamores and cottonwoods in a trailer camp at the mouth of Island Branch Creek, a few miles downstream of Aurora, Indiana, we’d gazed out across the channel at Laughery, silvery gray in the haze, and dreamed of the silence and peace to be found among its distant groves. There, we imagined, history stood still, and the island’s untrammeled beaches, strewn with shell bits and drift, might be as they were in the old days, when only passing parties of Shawnee stopped to fish or dig mussels in the bars. For we were out to gather some past, to steep ourselves in the slow pace of another time, a time made of natural days and natural nights on the river. We felt that the islands were where we could find it.
Remember the call of the barred owl, and the trill of crickets in the reeds, and the gauzy light of the morning. Remember Big Bone Island, where we got to.
We made Laughery in the late afternoon of August 15. Paddling nearly half its length before we found a landing place, we took out on a shady beach stretching a dozen yards between clumps of overhanging willows. The channel lay on the far side of the island, so our afternoon and early evening were disturbed only by a handful of water-skiers flashing by behind the deep-hulled whalers whose sudden, high bow waves, we had learned, were more dangerous to canoeists than the wakes of the most powerful tows.
Within the trees that lined its shore, Laughery enclosed, in part, a narrow meadow where high ironweeds, Queen Anne’s lace, patches of burdock and blackberries grew thick. Hundreds of white cabbage butterflies fluttered and lit on damp spots beneath the vegetation. When Jim and I walked through it, clouds of flies, wasps and glittering beetles buzzed and hummed around us.
Later, we found abandoned camps up and down the island’s length—muddy wooden picnic tables, their legs set in concrete so they wouldn’t wash away, peeled locust poles set up for hanging tarps from, even an old metal porch glider, its cushions split, its iron scalded with rust. But all these reminders of the present faded when evening came and twilight softened on the meadow and the shore. We sat among the willows on the bank, imagining the place a hundred, two hundred years ago.
As the last light dimmed, we fished from a small clearing just upstream from our camp. The river gradually darkened from its sunset green to a night-dark indigo. In the willows, the katydids grew more insistent; a few late crows cawed above the farmlands on the Indiana shore; a mockingbird warbled and trilled high in a snag behind us. But as the unlit, lonely night of the past began to descend in earnest, the ghosts of fog to rise up from the river and their pleasant haunting to overcome us, the troubled murmuring of a distant engine came against us, grew and took unnatural shape.
An awkward, snub-nosed houseboat—little more than a trailer on a barge—drifted past, just yards from our rod tips. A fellow in a bright T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Shad Busters” leaped ashore from its stern. After hasty greetings, during which Jim and I struggled unwillingly up from the still depths of our solitude, we learned that our visitor was a college biologist, come down the Wabash River from DePauw University. He and his mates were in the temporary employ of a regional power company. Their project involved conducting population surveys of fish in the Ohio below the Great Miami.
“They use our findings in legal actions taken against them,” he said, lighting his pipe. “Don’t ask me exactly how.”
Jim inquired about their methods, how they counted the fish, how big their nets were. “Oh, no,” the visitor answered. “We don’t use nets. We’ve got a generator aboard. We send an electrical charge through the water. All the fish in the area are stunned, and they float to the surface. We count them by species, then move on. We keep very precise records.”
“Are the fish killed?” Jim asked.
“Hardly at all. Some of the smaller ones, sometimes.”
“I see. So what you do is kill more fish to find out how many fish have been killed.”
“Not exactly,” the visitor said. “I’m afraid you don’t understand.”
“Me too,” Jim said.
Our chat took a different, less contentious direction after this, and at last faded out, like the ash of our visitor’s pipe. The Shad Buster made his way down the island to where the houseboat had put in, and Jim and I fished a while longer, without much hope. But there were other pleasures to enjoy. All up and down the darkened shores of Laughery, tree frogs were singing. Close above us, one would strike his note, then another, farther away, would answer, then two or three would pipe at a time. Then there would come a silence, in which the wash of waves ashore would seem momentarily to cease, then the frogs would sing again, weaving solos into duets and duets into great crazy choruses in the dark.
Later, out of beer, we broke our unbreakable rule: never go out on the river under the influence of drink. Feeling our way into the canoe, we drifted out into an absolute and moonless dark until we heard voices to our left and saw the faint light of the houseboat’s window. Making a line fast to the Shad Buster’s stern, we clambered aboard. Inside, we crammed ourselves into the bunks—equipment covered every other available seat—and made small talk into the morning.
The short paddle back to our camp was an adventure in error and luck. Weary and awash with the Shad Busters’ Beaujolais, we fell into the canoe, fumbled up the paddles and launched ourselves into a darkness as impenetrable as stone. After what seemed a motionless hour, despite our uncoordinated and frantic efforts, I murmured from the stern: “We’re going to drift forever. They’ll never find the bodies.”
Somehow Jim saw the scoured log that marked our beach. Neither of us felt the need to note aloud that although the houseboat had been downstream, we undeniably had come from upstream to our landing. But when we crawled into the tent, zipping the mosquito netting behind us, our bleakest visions, haunted by the sudden ghost-gray presence of the bow of a swift tow bearing down upon us, gradually faded away.
But when we crawled into the tent, zipping the mosquito netting behind us, our bleakest visions, haunted by the sudden ghost-gray presence of the bow of a swift tow bearing down upon us, gradually faded away.
The next morning came clear and quick. Moving as best we could in the shattering morning light that glinted all around us like a broken bottle on the beach, we broke camp. Regaining the current quickly, we shot past the Shad Busters and headed for Gunpowder Creek.
Thus we had camped on our first Ohio River island. We had shreds of a sense of the past to show for it: the solitude, imperfect and brief as it was; the wilderness meadow full of butterflies; the tree frogs’ chorus; the night journey back from the houseboat. But something was missing still. Laughery had become too busy with the arrival of the houseboat, too populated and too modern, packed with equipment and cold, scientific voices. What we wanted more than ever was an uninterrupted quiet, a perfect solitude, a complete and primitive simplicity in which we might understand the lonely largeness of the river’s past.
Nor did we fully experience those things up Gunpowder, either. True, the night raid of the good old boys had brought us close to something of the terror that early explorers must have felt when Indians descended upon them in the darkness. And later that day, we discovered another clue.
Stopping for lunch at Kirby Rocks, a mile or so below the mouth of Laughery Creek, we explored the shore. Later, sitting on the sand, we found a musket ball lying among the shell bits and gravel. Checking the notes that I had made on our river charts before the trip, we found we were directly across the river from the scene of an Indian battle. On August 24, 1781, Colonel Laughery, or Lochry, for whom the island and the creek were named, landed his party for a rest. They were on their way to meet George Rogers Clark, who was gathering forces at the Falls to attack Detroit. What happened that afternoon was recorded matter-of-factly in the journal of Lt. Isaac Anderson: “Colonel Lochry ordered the boats to land on the Indian shore…we were fired on by a party of Indians from the bank…they killed the colonel.”
Once again, then, we felt something of the river’s history. Later, standing atop Kirby Rocks, handing the ball back and forth, we imagined the scene, heard the snap of musket fire, saw the puffs of smoke from their powder pans, saw the white man fall and the Indians dissolve again into the woods. Piece by piece, shred by shred, we were getting hints of the past, yet the whole picture still eluded us.
Our hope grew stronger as Big Bone Island came within reach. The whole region surrounding it—the famous salt licks whose mammoth fossils had so fascinated Thomas Jefferson and drawn early naturalists to it from the East, that had been written about by the Englishman Thomas De Quincey, that had been explored by Daniel Boone himself—was rich with legend and possibility. And we had heard that river pirates had used the island for raids on tradesmen and travelers. Big Bone was our last great hope for a sense of the past we had come for. Laughery and Gunpowder Creek, we saw clearly now, had been mere rehearsals; we meant to go to Big Bone, to linger in its rare and antique airs, and to draw from it, however indirectly, however imperfectly, the secrets it conserved. We had come to learn, and to remember, on Big Bone.
August 17. Two o’clock, a brilliant Friday afternoon. We paddle the length of Big Bone Island, taking out on the wide and treeless bar at its foot. Sitting on the sand, we can see far downriver to the town of Patriot, Indiana: a church steeple, a few gray and red-brick buildings shimmering in haze. Behind us, the thick trees of the island offer shade, but this place in the sun is pleasant.
Jim and I look at one another, grin and nod. The river makes small waves on the shore; bits of shell tinkle in their wash; a heron glides low and clear across, far downstream.
I get the paddles from the boat, and a tarp, and rig a sunshade where I can sit and work in my journal. Lounging on the sand with my shoes off, I recopy a passage from a favorite old book, Clark B. Firestone’s Sycamore Shores, an account of an earlier river trip: “A river flows into the past and carries you with it into some forgetfulness of present things.” Yes.
In the humid warmth, lulled by the soft lap of the water and the drone of cicadas, tiger beetles and flies, I drowse. Suddenly I am awakened by Jim’s return from his scouting of the island. He has bad news. At the head of Big Bone, two houseboats have tied off to some trees, and a party of kids, dogs and parents is headed our way.
Before I can shake off my nap, the shore is crowded with shouting people. A lanky Irish setter barks once and hightails it into the river, chasing a stick. A huge, painfully sunburnt woman in a pink bathing suit stands over our canoe. “Look, George. How cute!” George, a pot-bellied, bandy legged man with a black goatee, takes a slug from his bottle of Calvert’s, frowns and turns toward us. “If they had a motor, it’d go better. They’ll wind up getting killed. Can’t go on this river without no motor.”
Two kids with inner tubes run past us into the water. The bar we’re on extends twenty or thirty yards downstream off the end of the island; it’s an ideal swimming place. Before long, Jim and I are surrounded by a dozen people busily setting up lawn chairs and tables with bright plastic umbrellas over them. Somewhere up the island, fireworks crackle in the trees. Dogs bark, children yell and from a fancy radio with a ten-foot antenna, propped up in the sand a yard from our canoe, Frank Sinatra, backed by horns and strings, croons sweetly out over the river.
Jim and I wander back and forth along the beach. Three more houseboats arrive, tying off with heavy, knotted cables on bending trees. Another group comes down the beach toward us. Angrily, I rip the tarp off the paddles, and a small Pekingese, yapping, appears out of nowhere and squats in the center of it and urinates.
Jim opens a beer, raises it high to the crowd, and says, “Welcome to the past.”
Later we pack our gear and paddle around to the Kentucky side of the island. There, the trees and brush at the waterline discourage the bigger boats’ landing, and we regain a little peace, though we have to pitch our tent on a sloping, drift-ridden patch of sand stained with oil from the channel.
Salvaging what we can from the wreckage of the day, we turn again to the journal. From the Gage Correspondence, a collection of letters written during the 1766 expedition to chart the Courses of the Ohio, there’s this: “There were about one hundred Iroquois and a considerable number of Delawares and Shawnees…the entire party with its baggage filling seventeen canoes.” But it offers little consolation. Though sheltered from the sight of the houseboaters by the trees, we are not delivered from their noise. Radios blare, and the whine of high-powered runabouts shatters the quiet.
Around six o’clock, the noise lessens as the houseboaters convene in their galleys for supper. Jim and I cook a pot of stew. As we eat, balancing mess pans on our knees, we watch the tows labor up the channel. First to pass is the Nancy Sturgis, shoving gasoline barges, and later, the Lelia C. Schaefer, shoving coal. The boats are prodigious, spouting blue-gray plumes of exhaust, but their graceful names redeem them. As they disappear upstream, beyond the head of Big Bone, their wash batters the shore at our feet, and the green-gray smell of the river fills the air.
At seven o’clock, sitting on the bar at the foot of the island again, Jim and I philosophize on the perils of searching for the past. We agree that we have been naive, that our quest is probably futile, and that our imaginations, rather than the actual environs, may have to provide us with whatever feeling for the old days we hope to gain. Digging our feet deep into Big Bone’s sand, as if to take root and suck history from its heart, we keep a keen downriver watch, entertaining shimmering delusions that some antique scene might yet be spread before us on the gilded water. And in a day full of surprises, another gradually appears.
But as we trade guesses, it becomes clearer and clearer to us that it is indeed what we have hoped for: a kindred spirit, an adventurer, a fool like us.
Jim is the first to notice. Far downriver, in the channel off Patriot, faint as the distant glint off a belt buckle or shell, a regular flashing commences. He squints and points.
“It’s a wet log, flashing in the current.”
“No. A man in a johnboat rowing across.”
“Very like a whale.”
But as we trade guesses, it becomes clearer and clearer to us that it is indeed what we have hoped for: a kindred spirit, an adventurer, a fool like us. For as we watch, the flashing resolves itself into a paddle blade, rising and falling in the rhythm we have learned, and soon we make out the canoe itself, black against the background of sunset, flashing water, and at last a figure, seated high, too high, in the stern.
The canoe is a hundred yards downstream, now fifty, and we see that there are two aboard: the stern man perched high, and in the bow, without a paddle, a slighter figure, hunched and attentive, trailing a hand in the water.
Jim and I stand and help pull the canoe ashore. It’s a seasoned craft of dull, battered aluminum, loaded heavily with pine boxes bound with half-inch hemp. Its stern is covered with a sloping makeshift deck, from which the paddler, a boy of seventeen or eighteen, nimbly leaps. In the bow is a slight, sandy-haired boy of thirteen. As he steps out, he thanks us for our help. The other splashes out of the river and shakes our hands. He has a powerful grip.
“Name’s John,” he says. “This here’s my brother Frankie.”
Here at last is a character from another time, from the past we have been seeking.
Sunburnt, his reddish-blond eyebrows nearly invisible, he has a pair of dark blue, almost purple eyes, full of orneriness. He wears a sleeveless buckskin shirt over a pair of shorts cut from vintage trousers that hang as loosely as potato sacks on his thighs. A piece of rope holds them up. He wears no shoes. The tops of his feet are sunburnt and peeling. He motions to his brother, and they unload.
“This here’s the kitchen,” Frankie says with a grin as they pile three boxes on the sand. “And this here’s our other stuff.”
Their gear ashore, John unties one of the boxes and pulls a leather pouch out.
Carefully unfolding it, he reveals a long red clay pipe and a flat can of coarse tobacco. Intently, with the steadiness and concentration of a person for whom life is a series of simple right-nows, he packs the bowl full, takes a match from his shirt pocket, strikes it on the zipper of his shorts and squats on the sand with his back to us, facing downriver. Shortly, he is sending out thick and fragrant clouds of bittersweet smoke.
During his brother’s ritual, Frankie is smiling up at us, curious and excited. Later he will show us one of his schoolbooks that contains an engraving of Clark’s Army gathered at the Falls. Now he scratches his feet in the sand. Jim and I smile at him. Then John stands and taps the bowl of his pipe against the canoe. He turns to us and says, “If you fellas haven’t eaten yet, we got plenty for everybody.”
Within moments, it seems, darkness falls. Upstream, the yellow lights of the houseboats patch the water, then one by one go out. Behind us, in the woods of Big Bone, over the pleasant drone of John’s stories about the paddlefish he and his brother saw on the shore below the Markland Dam, and the time he fell out of the canoe at night in the middle of a fog bank, June bugs buzz in the brush, frogs trill in the willows and now and then a big carp splashes out in the channel.
Later, supper and stories done, and Frankie’s fire keeping the mosquitoes at bay, there is little need for talking. John, propped up on one elbow, is reading Conrad, and Jim and I are lying in the sand. The past is as close as the great circle of night that surrounds us. We lie awake a long time, listening as the river, like an old man already turned in, mumbles darkly past, talking in its sleep.
I wake early, before dawn, in the tent. Lying still, feeling Big Bone Island firm and whole beneath me, I can see stars through the nylon of the roof and can hear the muted swash of waves against the shore. Society is far away, an undiscovered country of fevered business, tantalizing confusion. In the drowse of half-waking, it is easy to imagine whatever I desire. The damp air, heavy with the river, fills the tent, and I separate its smells, one by one, and linger over all the images that stream across my mind. Now I smell the rankness of shell middens, six feet deep, downwind from some Mingo Town where thin hounds haunt the camp in darkness, gnashing split bones for a smear of marrow. I catch the scent of shad and catfish, lying in the bottom of a dugout. And now, the sweet smoke of a hickory fire, up some willowed cove, where men who speak a language I’ve never heard wrap their blankets tight around them and do not wake. Smoke. Fish. The smell of men:
I will arise and go now, go to Innisfree.
My God, I think, this place. This place.
Somewhere, years and years behind me, wrapped in fog, a small bird in a thicket on some perfect, unfound island warbles in the darkness, dreaming in my dream.
That was Big Bone Island. Jim and I woke the next morning to the sound of the houseboaters’ circus, and said farewell to John and Frankie. We snapped a picture of them as we pulled out into the river—Frankie with his arm raised over his head, John with his hands in his pockets, clay pipe in his mouth. In the background, the tiny piece of island we’d camped on, thick with willows and locusts, glowed in morning sunlight. In the course of our search for the past, we’d found many such fragments, vivid and suggestive as potsherds at some ancient ruin, but never the picture entire. We discovered more, downstream, on the levee at Madison, Indiana, where our trip ended with an afternoon of tales among a group of old rivermen, whittling cedar sticks in the shade of cottonwoods and sycamores. But as we drove back to Cincinnati in the late Indiana night, we talked most of Big Bone, and promised ourselves to return, earnestly reassembling the past as best we could, accomplishing our occupation, however fragmentary, of a piece of the Ohio’s history.
We waited too long. The next March, paging through the Cincinnati Post, I came across a brief story with the headline “Picknickers Need New Bone to Chew On.” Astonished, I read it through. Winter floods, ice jams and, most of all, the raising of the pool behind the Markland Dam had contributed: Big Bone Island, described as long ago as 1766, a place where the ghosts of history still lingered in the late-night silence despite houseboats and Sinatra, was gone.
Time, too, is a part of Creation. And it was time we had journeyed in, trying to understand, earnestly exploring the fragment of time past we had found.
In his journal, Thoreau reminisces about his ancestor Ulysses, a fellow wanderer. His mind leaps to the pitch pine before his door, and he calls it “symbolical” and “significant”—one of Nature’s later designs. “There it is,” he cries, “a done tree. Who can mend it?”
So it was with Big Bone Island. Now it is gone. Who can bring it back?
In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry writes, “By understanding accurately his proper place in Creation, a man may be made whole.” Time, too, is a part of Creation. And it was time we had journeyed in, trying to understand, earnestly exploring the fragment of time past we had found. Now the place it adhered to, the place that grew its trees and leaves and butterflies and bird nests as parts of time’s incarnation, is gone, and with it is gone the chance to study and to learn something of our “proper place.” As with the secret shore I fished from with my grandfather years ago, all that’s left of Big Bone is a haunting, a swirl and eddy in the river. All the maps and charts, all the tales and journals, are at last faded, placeless memorials.
Richard Hague is the winner of the 2016 Nowhere Spring Travel Writing Contest. He is a native of Steubenville, Ohio, in the Appalachian Ohio River Valley and taught at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati for 45 years. He is author of 16 collections, most recently Where Drunk Men Go: A Long Poem (Dos Madres Press, 2015) and During The Recent Extinctions: New & Selected Poems l984-2012, (Dos Madres Press), which won The Weatherford Award. He is Writer-in-residence at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. “A Day And A Night On The Late Big Bone” was originally published in Licking River Review and is part of a book-length ms., Earnest Occupations, currently in circulation.
Lead Photo by Ravi Pinisetti