Time on the River
My wife and I spent a couple of weeks in my home town, Youngstown, Ohio in early October to show off little Maia, the newest (then two months) member of the Anderson family. The trip would not have been complete, though, without dusting off my trusty skin-on-frame canoe for a trip on the Mahoning River with my old friends Peter and Rodman.
Steamed red oak ribs on white pine longitudinals.
The skin is a two ply canvas with a neoprene core
So one Sunday we gathered at the mouth of Mill Creek for a three hour paddle through the center of town. Youngstown was a steel town, until the mills all closed around 1980, and for more than a hundred years the banks of the Mahoning were lined with mills and factories that pretty much dumped what they wanted to into the river. When I was a kid the Mahoning was basically a bilious yellow cesspool, more or less devoid of life. A local urban legend told of a boy foolish enough to go swimming in it who emerged from the water minus his skin, which had been stripped off like old paint by the river.
My last summer in college, I finished my first boat (I had started it in high school, but that is another, long, story), a little 13 ft. s-o-f canoe inspired by an Inuit skin boat I had seen in an encylopedia. Coincidentally Rodman had just bought a two-person kayak. One night we were sitting at the Cedars Lounge over a glass of Wild Turkey or three, discussing our next paddle. We had made a couple of trips on the Mahoning, but upstream, out of the urban, industrial area. That night we decided to have a paddle through the center of town, and see what there was to see. That stretch of the Mahoning was then real terra incognita. The river flows there mostly through abandoned industrial land, and with the exception of a few bridges, it was very difficult to scout. Friends and family thought we were nuts.
Peter surfs a bit in the riffle formed by the remains
of a dam built
about 1800 to power a flour mill
But we put the boats in the water, and to our delight, found a river full of wildlife with long stretches of natural flow, little islands, and nice wooded banks, that was if anything more interesting for the industrial ruins that dotted its banks, than the wilder and more pristine stretches we knew already. All of this downtown in a city of 100,000 people (used to be more like 200,000 until the mills closed).
So when I got back in town and Rodman met me and my family down at the Cedars Lounge for dinner, the talk turned to paddling, and the stretch through Youngstown was really the only choice.
In the event, the day was gray, and threatened rain, but it was good to be on the Mahoning again after a couple of years. We pulled out of Mill Creek into the current, and paddled past an island, just behind the Bakery Building in which I had built a loft apartment to live in when I worked at the local newspaper. I would go there to fish some afternoons, canoe tied to a root, often half asleep with the line wrapped once around my index finger so that a carp that took the bait would wake me up.
We saw at least a dozen herons, wood ducks, two or three species of
hawk, innumerable kingfishers and a bunch of cormorants. In the winter, when the Mahoning often
lies on the southern edge of the frost line, it is packed with birds.
I remembered being woken one hazy August afternoon by four baby racoons. They apparently had swum across the river, and I cracked an eye, laying back in my canoe, to see two masked eyes peering at me over the crest of the island. His fur was rimmed in pink light from the setting sun. I didn’t move, and after a few moments, he hopped over the top and followed by three siblings, walked over to a mulberry tree a couple of feet away. I kept absolutely still. The first one headed up the tree and the others followed until I must have made some slight motion or other, and the second one stopped a few feet off the ground to look at me. The third and the fourth ones hadn’t spotted me though, and didn’t pause, so there was a double rear-end collision in the tree. The second coon hissed at and cuffed the third and the third hissed and cuffed the fourth, and then they all looked at me for a long moment. When I didn’t move, they continued up the tree and were soon easing their way through the highest, thinnest branches, stuffing berries into their mouths as fast as they could. As I watched, I forgot about fishing, and I must have at some point wrapped the line around my finger more than once, because a carp took the bait and before I knew it I was playing a nice-sized fish with a couple of turns of 8 lb. test monofilament wrapped around my index finger. Just as things were getting really painful and I was thrashing and flailing around trying to get the string off and the finger tip was turning a really violent purple, the carp wrapped the line around a snag downstream and broke off. I looked up and saw the last of the racoons disappearing over the edge of the high river bank.
Not a very impressive display of much of anything on my part that afternoon. No fish, no racoons, even a couple of wood ducks that had been nosing around below the island had taken off. But at least I hadn’t done any involuntary swimming.
At that time I was a crime reporter at the local newspaper, day after day of talking to criminals and cops (it was sometimes hard to tell the difference), and writing about the daily mayhem in the homes and on the streets of my poor and violent city. It was enormously depressing, and I have often thought that things would have gotten really bad for me, had I not been able to escape, once a week or so, into my boat with my fishing pole and a pair of binoculars.
So anyway we were enjoying the day. It had started to clear up a bit, I had cracked a beer, and sipped it as we passed through a long slow part of the river. Next up was a riffle formed by a long-ruined dam that had been put in something like 200 years ago to provide power for a flour mill. Peter and I surfed the eddies below and Rodman took some photos and heckled us, especially Peter when he dipped a gunnel under the current flowing over the old dam. The old, abandoned Water Street bridge spans the river just over the old dam, and I remembered another evening on the Mahoning.
Very often I would fish for carp through the afternoon at the island just below my building, and then at dusk, drift slowly down the river to the pool just above the old mill dam. Breadballs dipped in vanilla tossed into the pool just after dark were almost a sure thing for a channel cat or two, and that night, I was tied up to a small wooded sand bar just below a railroad bridge abutment, waiting for the first bite. It was dark, and a 3/4 moon was just peeking above the tree line, when I saw something surface in the water next to the front of the canoe. It looked like a head, and while one can tell oneself that there is nothing in the river that could possibly be dangerous, it still gave me a start.
One of the beautiful old railroad bridges
As quietly as possible I got out the flash light. It turned out to be a very large beaver, and not, as I had run across a couple of times in the course of my work, the decomposing corpse of someone with a couple of extra holes in them. So the beaver watched me and I watched the beaver, and neither of us moved. And then a car, playing rap music loud enough to wake the dead, pulled up to the end of the Water Street Bridge where it was blocked off by a guardrail. The beaver disappeared with a swop of its tail, and I doused the light, not knowing what was going on. I looked up at the bridge, rusted girders, crumbling blacktop at the edges where the sidewalk had fallen though into the river many years ago. And like a vision, a woman half-danced half-walked out onto the bridge from the other side. She was dressed in white. White running shoes, white lycra biking shorts, a white jacket, and what seemed like a hundred tiny white beads strung on a hundred braids, and all of it in motion in the moonlight 30 yards away. She yelled something as she disappeared off the end of the bridge, and the music went low, and after a minute or two she walked back over the bridge, still with a spring in her step, and I heard a car door close.
I fished for a while and caught a nice channel cat. I was never sure, but it seemed like most nights I caught the same fish. The channel cat was always the same, maybe two pounds, with corded muscle under tight, speckled green skin in the net as I eased the hook out with a pair of pliers under the flashlight. That night it had jumped, the moonlight glittering off its flanks and the water its fins flung in the air.
I had just re-baited and cast when another car pulled up, beeped twice, and the woman reappeared. She was at the car for just a minute or two again. I remembered thinking that if she was a prostitute, she must have been extremely good at her work, but she was almost certainly selling cocaine. It was a good set up -- the customers pulled up at one end, she took a bag across, but could not be followed in a car if there was a problem with the customer or the police. There was dense brush on either side of the bridge with several paths leading up and down the river, and there was the river itself. With a pebble in the bag, any evidence could be gone in an instant. I gathered the police had also found it a good set up, because when I happened by a year or so later, someone had blocked off the other side of the bridge with a construction in concrete, steel and barbed wire that would have stopped a tank or an army.
We finished surfing around under the old bridge, and then passed the floating dock behind the train station where most afternoons I went by a couple of retired guys, Gene and Robert, would be fishing, but not today. Next up was another weir. I always made a short portage in my skin boat, but Peter and Rodman had plastic boats and decided to run a chute over by the left bank. Peter came through fine, but Rodman hung up on something about halfway down, and a minute after he was through the chute, he was bailing like crazy.
We headed for an island about 100 yards downstream, and once we had his boat out and turned over we could see that the plastic was cracked a couple of ways and overlapped wrong. Worse it was under the moulded plastic seat, and we couldn’t get at both sides without a socket set because of the way the nuts were a corroded and recessed in the plastic. Normally, I carry a roll of duct tape for situations like this in my skin boat, but that day I didn’t have any.
About this point a homeless guy popped his head out of his little tarp-cabin on the bank a few feet away. He was maybe 40, with long blond hair going gray, wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket -- kind of an Axel Rose type with a high, penetrating voice. So we asked him if he had any duct tape. He turned his camp inside out, but apparently one of his friends had used the last of his roll putting up another shelter downstream a bit. He did have some beer though, and lots of questions and advice.
Rodman and Peter feed scraps of styrofoam and
into a fire on the bottom of Rodman’s
boat in an attempt to patch
I wouldn’t try this at home
but it worked on the river
In the meantime, Rodman had another idea. He gathered up a couple of plastic bags and some styrofoam Chinese takeout boxes. With a leatherman that Pete found in his kit, Rodman pried the edges of plastic more or less back into place, and then started a fire with the foam on the bottom of his boat. This was too much for Axel, who was sure that you should hold the burning plastic in your hand and drip it onto the crack. He jumped up and down, and put his hands to his head when he saw what was happening. But Rodman had a plan and pretty soon he had a nice little fire going and was sort of spooning the gooey plastic around over the cracks. It was touch and go there for a minute, because the plastic hull kept a lot of heat and was softening and threatening to collapse into a really big hole until we doused it in water to cool it off and let it harden. In the end it worked just fine though. Not a leak for the rest of the trip.
When they built the bypass for Ohio Route 7/62, they
apparently decided this
abutment would be too
much trouble to take out.
It was time for lunch and another beer and we drifted down through the town, the roofs of buildings showing here and there through the trees. All along the river we had been scaring up great blue herons, and now there were about five of them hopscotching down the river, along with a bunch of kingfishers, down the river. Beautiful birds, and a sign that the Mahoning is well on its way back.
Whenever I read in the newspaper about a polluted site, and see someone arguing that it is past saving, too polluted to ever come back, I always think of the Mahoning, and how far it has come in just 25 years. I have seen snapping turtles, mink, deer, fox, beaver, caught walleyes, channel cats and even once a rainbow trout (certainly stocked in some stream or pond upstream, but still alive anyway). A guy from the state fish and game did an electroshock survey near where I fish and found musky, pike, walleye, perch, blue gill, bass, and a half-dozen other fish. In other words, while it would not be a good idea to eat what you catch, the river is pretty much back to normal, in terms of the range of species of animals, fish and birds that you find along it. But just a few years back, the joke was that you could use the river water for antifreeze in a pinch. No river anywhere is ever too far gone. All it takes is to stop poisoning it, and let it be for a while.
We took a detour up Crab Creek for a couple of hundred yards. When I was a child, I lived across the road from the creek, about 10 miles upstream from where it joins the Mahoning. At that end it is a beautiful little stream, full of crayfish, minnows, and fish, winding through a wooded ravine where I learned to love the forest, to fish, and to spend long summer days just exploring, wondering what I would see around the next bend. At the mouth here though, after running through much of the city, it is not so nice. Long ago it was channelized where it ran through Republic Steel’s land. Walls 12 feet high were cut from stone in 1879 (from a date carved into one of the blocks) and the land filled in behind. It makes an interesting trip though, if one can stomach paddling through the water, which smells bad (A guy from the state EPA told me once that there were essentially no functioning septic systems attached to houses more than 20 years old in the county, and Crab Creek smells like it).
Crab creek was channelized to prevent flooding and
water for the old Republic Steel Works
But still, paddling up among the old stone walls and under the arched stone bridges is a treat, and I wanted to check out a graffiti painting I had seen a ways upstream. It was a nude woman, perhaps 8 by 12 feet painted on the cement wall of the channel which slants back about 45 degrees at that point. It is essentially a line sketch, done in red house paint by some budding street artist, and nicely done at that. But what made it really interesting is that looked at standing next to the painting, the proportions were all wrong, the feet were too small and the head too big. But if you looked at it from the other side of the creek, sitting on a log near a camp fire that had been used over and over again through the years, she was just right. A kind of naive Reubens, with wide hips and heavy breasts and wearing a big smile. The kid must have sketched her in chalk, walking back and forth across the creek to have a look, before he laid the red paint on the raw concrete. In any case he got it right the first time.
I always intended to come down with some friends at night, drink some beers and see how she looked in the firelight, but never made it. And on this trip the water was too low and it would have meant a long walk to see if she was even still there after the years of spring floods washing over her.
So we turned around and paddled back out. Back at the creek mouth, we turned back into the current, and passed a giant reinforced-concrete bridge abutment that marks the beginning of the end of the trip. The river here passes through an area of waste land, the warehouses and railroad switching yards that covered it are long gone, taken to pieces and sold for scrap. There are some nice little riffles, and an island or two, and this is the place where you can see deer and fox, ground hogs, minks and whatnot in the evenings. For a few years there was also a nesting pair of barred owls in a big old oak on the bank. They were beautiful to see as they started up at my approach and flew heavily off among the trees. A pair of red-tailed hawks were playing in the sky as we passed today, and as a bonus surprise, there was a new, awkward and dangerous strainer in a chute where the whole river narrowed down to about 20 feet and ran strong and deep.
We dodged the strainer, and passed the island where for several years there was a big plywood cabin cruiser, something like 30 feet long, beached up against a big pile of tree trunks. There aren’t too many places on the Mahoning where one could cruise for more than a couple of hundred yards in a boat that big, so it was always a mystery where it had come from. The first year I saw it, it was resting on a ledge under a highway bridge about 10 miles upstream. Every spring it would get washed a little farther down the river. One year someone had painted a sign that labelled it the “Youngstown Navy” and the next year some fan of Gilligan and the Skipper had dubbed it “USS Minnow.” But the floods and the giant tree trunks piling up gradually broke it up, and this time there was nothing left when we passed.
In their plastic boats, Rodman and Peter ran this broken-down
weir, but I
had to make a small portage in my s-o-f
A couple of hundred yards before our pullout, there was one last low weir with an island built up behind it. The river is runs between walls here, dug in and built up over the years to protect the railroad yards and tracks. In the spring, when the river is high, the island and weir are covered with a maelstrom, whirlpools 15 feet across, big standing waves, the works. I have run the river a couple of times when it is up, but mostly I pull out upstream. One time though, I left work early after writing up a particularly horrible murder-suicide, and just had to get in my canoe and paddle it off. The river that day was running something like 8 feet above normal. The various dams and weirs were so far under water that they were little more than bumps in the water and the trip went twice as fast as usual. When I got to the place where I usually pulled out at high water I got out, and then decided to walk down and scout the rapids. I didn’t want the trip to end that day, and after a minute, I saw what looked like a workable line through. When I pulled out at the other end of the rapids, I was walking on a cloud, and the feeling lasted through the ride home and a party. Then I checked my messages.
My girlfriend at the time was also a reporter and was working that night, and a couple of hours after I left she heard a report on the police radio of a guy who had gone over a dam in the next town upstream. His boat came out of the hydraulic at the bottom of the dam, but he didn’t. The only description of the guy was about 30 with brown hair and a red canoe. There were about 6 messages from her, each one increasingly frantic. I called her to tell her I was ok, and then spent the next day watching the fire department fishing below the dam with grappling hooks for the guy. It turned out he was two days younger than me, but with a wife and a kid, and a new cruising kayak he had saved up for several years to buy. The fire chief, when asked by one of the TV reporters what they would do after two days of grappling had turned up nothing, said “We will just have to wait until the river gives him back.” They found him 28 days later, floating in an eddy about 50 yards from the dam.
One of the other cool things about the run through the city was that I could do it alone, without needing a car relay. The end of the run was below a railroad bridge on the edge of the CSX yard. I would leave the boat in some bushes, and walk out to Center Street. There at the corner with Wilson Avenue, sat the Guess Who Lounge. I would buy a shot of Jim Beam and a beer, and use the change to call a taxi. A guy named Frank Lentine owned the place now, and there were a couple of things about the Guess Who. One was that the walls were covered in photos of Marilyn Monroe, hundreds of them, and there was a brass pole running from floor to ceiling in a back corner.
Another thing was a woman named Stella worked there. She wasn’t the most talkative woman around, but for a while there I was stopping by once a week or so, and even at the Guess Who, anyone who walked in wearing knee-length rubber boots and carrying a dry bag was remembered. Stella told me she had danced for years for Lentine, and his boss, Ernie Biondillo, and Biondillo’s boss, Joey Naples. These were well-known men in town.
Lentine had more or less inherited the place in 1995 when Biondillo was driving to work one morning and a car stalled out in front of him. Two guys with shotguns got out of the car, and when Biondillo went to back up, he found that another car had stalled just behind him too, and two guys with shotguns were already out of that car and walking his way. Biondillo had more or less inherited the Guess Who in 1991 when Joey Naples was checking out how the work was going on his new mansion south of town one evening. He came back to his car, one he had borrowed from a guy who had a small part in the movie “Goodfellas,” and didn’t notice a guy standing in the cornfield across the street with a shotgun. Both men had been connected to the Cleveland mafia. It turned out later that a guy named Lennie Strollo, who was connected to the Pittsburgh organization was behind it all. Youngstown had traditionally been a more or less open town, but lately it had become poorer and poorer and there just wasn’t enough business to go around, apparently.
Stella wouldn’t say much about her dancing days. When Lentine, who was about 5’6” tall and 5’6” thick with a nose mashed flat on his face, walked in the room, she wouldn’t say anything to anybody at all. Interesting place for a beer, though.
Rodman and Peter ran the chute over the last weir, and I made a short portage around. Rodman had been working hard (he is a freelance computer programmer) all summer, and Peter had a new baby that had kept him close to home, and it was a happy bunch that loaded the boats on the car. I wanted to stop for a shot and a beer at the Guess Who, but we were running late. Next time.
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