Explore Ohio’s “Last Frontier” by Water

By Jim Freeman - In The Open

This past November I wrote about Raccoon Creek, commonly billed as Ohio’s longest creek and now billed by one local outfitter as Ohio’s “Last Frontier.”

In that column I described the creek, how it drains 683 square miles of parts of six Ohio counties along its 112-mile length, and some of the history associated with the stream. Let’s just say that as streams go, it is a big one with a rich history, and – like southeastern Ohio in general – is largely neglected by people from other parts of Ohio.

This time I want to talk about how you can explore the creek for yourself, and share what others have been doing to help make the creek a valuable asset to our region.

Back when I was in high school, and for a few years thereafter, Bob Evans Farms operated a canoe livery on the creek near Rio Grande, and as I recall, the creek had sort of a bluish tinge and very few (if any) fish.

The way the livery worked was that people would rent their canoes, paddles and life jackets from the livery, and then be taken upstream in an old school bus to enjoy a leisurely downstream float back to the livery. For shorter trips you could just paddle up the creek and drift back down.

Of course there were occasional logjams and gravel bars, just like life, and hot summer days never seemed quite so hot when you were on the creek.

A lot has been going on with the creek since those days and, thanks to local residents and groups like the Raccoon Creek Partnership, new life has returned where it was snuffed out years ago by toxic acid-mine drainage.

Last fall I spent an afternoon with Raccoon Creek volunteers shoveling out the mixing channel at the Carbondale Doser (One of 20 completed reclamation and treatment projects in the watershed!), which adds alkalinity to the stream to counteract the sulfuric acid discharging from abandoned coal mines. These (mostly) young people are essentially the front line of the effort to improve Raccoon Creek.

Remember how I said there were few if any fish in the creek back in the 1980s? Today sampling by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and Ohio University shows the lower 40 miles of Raccoon Creek from Vinton Park to the Ohio River as meeting biological criteria for exceptional warm water habitat, and from the low-head dam in Vinton County (around stream mile 50) up to Mitchell Hollow (mile 104) as meeting biological criteria for warm water habitat.

This is huge.

Raccoon Creek Watershed Coordinator Amy Mackey, who works out of the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University in Athens, said one of the things she enjoys most is talking with people who have lived near the creek their entire lives, and how excited they are to find fish in the stream. Just know that this transformation didn’t happen overnight, that it took countless volunteers and agencies years to make it happen.

For more information about how you can help Raccoon Creek, visit www.raccooncreek.org

Raccoon Creek itself is ripe for exploration these days, and kayaking is incredibly popular (canoeing not so much), and with 110 miles of paddle-worthy stream, there are plenty of opportunities for do-it-yourselfers to get in on the action.

The downside is there aren’t many services available to paddlers on Raccoon Creek – the only actual restroom is at Raccoon Creek County Park (at least according to the publication “Boating on Ohio Streams – South Central Region” available from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources). Neighboring Hocking River offers a longer trip but it passes through more populated areas including Lancaster, Logan, Nelsonville, and Athens. Raccoon Creek is definitely more scenic, passing through state forest and farmland; in fact the only communities it passes through are Zaleski and Vinton. For wildlife lovers it is a great time to see some of Ohio’s aquatic animals like mink, muskrats, perhaps even a river otter and the creek’s namesake, the raccoon.

A map (conveniently printed on water-resistant paper) by the Raccoon Water Trail Association is available for $4. The map includes 22 access points from river mile 110 all the way downstream to river mile 0.4, hazard and portage areas, and points of interest along or near the creek. To get this map, contact Mackey at mackey@ohio.edu and she will mail you one.

Raccoon Creek Outfitters (raccooncreekoutfitters.com) is located in Vinton County along U.S. 50 between Albany and McArthur and is observing “opening weekend” on April 21. The outfitters, have labeled Raccoon Creek as “Ohio’s Last Frontier,” offer canoeing and kayaking with five- and seven-mile routes where you can rent a vessel or bring your own and pay a modest shuttle fee. There is also primitive camping. For more information call 740-698-0000.

Things are also looking up for the reopening of the canoe livery at Rio Grande. Local resident Patricia Filie is hoping to reopen the livery this May as Raccoon Creek Paddles and Oars, with roughly the same sort of services offered by Raccoon Creek Outfitters. That’s great news for people who have fond memories of paddling Raccoon Creek back in the day. She can be contacted at 740-645-9762.

Remember that although you are allowed to freely navigate the creek in your canoe or kayak, in most locations the land alongside the creek (and the bottom of the creek as well) is privately owned – so make sure to respect the landowners by keeping off of their property. As always, respect wildlife, don’t litter and try to leave the outdoors cleaner than you found it. The only impact you should leave on the stream are the holes in the water made by your watercraft and paddle.

On the other hand if you can’t wait until late April or May, the Ohio River and area lakes offer paddling and kayaking options. Never boat alone – it’s more fun with friends – and dress for the temperature and bring along a change of clothes; if the water looks too dangerous to swim, then it’s too dangerous to boat, and always wear a life jacket. Follow the laws appropriate for your state.

My wife and I got each other kayaks for Christmas, so we are looking forward to trying those out when the weather gets warmer, and Raccoon Creek is one of our destinations. I’ve never actually used a kayak before, so I am sure that can be a topic for another day.


By Jim Freeman

In The Open

Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at jim.freeman@oh.nacdnet.net

Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at jim.freeman@oh.nacdnet.net