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 Chapter 4

The Ohio River

Even if you can't get to exotic places, you can pop your rubber boat into any river, lake, or pond that happens to be in your neighborhood. A great river, such as the Ohio, can afford considerable pleasure. It may not be the ocean, but it has its own kind of power and beauty. There is generally current with eddies swirling along the shores, and it takes some skill to row upstream taking advantage of them. In floods, you can row down streets, make calls from sidewalk telephone booths (although the lines have usually gone dead), navigate flooded fields, and row over cars whose owners were a little too lethargic to move them in time. You can even rescue people who decided to remain in their houses to repel looters, but then realized that they had nothing worth looting.

A big river generally has mists in the morning, and there are times when you actually need a compass (I once crossed the Ohio without realizing it). All sorts of tugs and barges materialize out of the fog with surprised hoots since you don't show up on the radar to which they are addicted. Each tug will have a female cook among the men, and you can urge her to throw you a bagel as she passes. Similarly, night on a big river is inspiring in a different way. As you move between reflections and shadows, it's interesting to try to figure out which lights are on shore, and which on tugs. Of course, each tug will have a red light to port and a green one to starboard (it's not good if you see both at once). But there are lights all over the place, some on moored barges, some on riverside restaurants and bars, and some on supposed navigational aids maintained by inland Coast Guard personnel with quirky ideas.

People who aren't brought up rowing are often bothered by the fact that you can't easily see where you're going. Some go to the extreme of pushing the oars and proceeding stern-first. Mary Cassatt portrayed Frenchmen rowing in this fashion, almost always with a child somewhere in the painting. It's a good conditioning exercise, using, as it does, an entirely different set of muscles. On the other hand, it's an extremely inefficient way of rowing. It may be that Frenchmen, with their peculiar diet, have to know where they're going.

There are also Americans, even ones who eat little but soybeans and bulghar wheat, who seem to be uneasy on this point. On the ocean, it's hardly a problem. There's usually no one else anywhere near, and the probability of colliding with a super tanker is so small as to be negligible. Still, I must admit to having recently had two collisions in one day off the coast near San Diego. The first occurred when I rammed two sea lions twined together, either in passion or sleep (passion in sea lions is a lot like sleep). An hour later, I ran solidly at some speed into a large red bell- buoy. The rubber boat simply bounced off harmlessly (still another good thing about rubber boats), and, a minute later, I noticed that the sea-lions that habitually hang out on the buoy were climbing back on. They had evidently seen me coming ("Here comes that crazy old codger again!"), and had vacated the premises. But this sort of thing is more the exception than the rule.

Suppose, this time, that you're a male teen-ager and high school student. Partly by pretending to be a college student, you have managed to get an afternoon date with a beautiful young Norwegian lady who's taking care of two unpleasant children for a Cincinnati family. The real reason that you got the date is probably that she's bored, unhappy, and stuck in a suburb without much chance to meet people. Anyhow, since Birgit is older and much more sophisticated, you want to make an impression by taking her somewhere out of the ordinary. You therefore suggest an outing on the Ohio River with dinner at a downstream restaurant. Birgit accepts.

She may have had a yacht in mind, and is a little surprised at the rubber boat, but she offers no objection. The river is in flood, and you launch simply by walking part- way down a culvert. Things are very cozy with your feet in large contact with Birgit and her pretty little feet on your inner thighs.

You emerge from the culvert into the river flowly swiftly through downtown Cincinnati. The city always looks its best in a flood. Much of what is unseemly is covered up, and the flood walls give the city a fortress look. Opposite it on the Kentucky shore there are fairly realistically faked southern mansions, the river tickling their front gardens. Birgit is intrigued by this perspective on America, and, since she comes from a seafaring nation, you give her the job of keeping a lookout for tugs and barges. She seems to take this charge quite seriously. Seated in the stern facing you, she peers over your shoulder for barges in between making theatrical gestures and pointing out jolly sights.

After proceeding downstream a mile to a less glamorous industrial district, Birgit, adjusting her costume to maximum advantage in the cramped quarters of the boat, begins to speak of wonderful dinners she has had in France. It turns out that there's a five-star French restaurant in Cincinnati, and she is of the opinion that it might be very good. Indeed, its owner has been awarded a medal by the French government for upholding French culture in other (presumably barbaric) places. You are somewhat distracted by the idea that you are headed for a restaurant in a converted trolley car which is light on French culture.

All together, you are beginning to realize that, while Birgit may be the offsping of Vikings, her heart is in Paris, or perhaps even in Hollywood. She then departs from a rather thorough examination of her fingernail polish to point over your shoulder at a barge.

Ohio river tugs ordinarily push fifteen barges rafted together in a "tow" (really a "push") three barges wide and five deep. This set is unloaded, the forward barges riding so high as to block out the view from the tug's bridge for a considerable distance. Not only that, they are at most fifty yards distant, proceeding directly at you at best speed in order to overcome the current.

In this sort of situation, one knows that the tug is likely to be turning at least a little in order to follow the bends of the river. They also turn in the straight reaches in order to set up the next turn. It's consequently quite difficult to see which way the tug is turning from a position directly in front of the barges. One has to guess. You guess that it's turning to its right, and yourself head for the Ohio shore at right angles. It gradually becames apparent that the tug is turning in the same direction, but it's too late to reverse course.

During this sequence, you are rowing hard enough to make the boat bounce half out of the water. It's lucky that the oars don't break.

Birgit is amused at this motion and calls out, "Horsie, horsie." Other people have told you that the motion of a boat can be rather like that of a horse, but it's an odd sensation to look from Birgit's delighted face to the barges, rising some twelve feet out of the water as they bear down on you. You stop looking, and you just made it past the corner of the foremost barge in the left column.

Birgit, who seems to react to crises in a peculiar way, has another look at her fingernail polish. You, looking up at the barge, just catch sight of a crewman crouched almost out of sight on the deck. Since the crewmen usually loiter with cards or coffee in the galley when under way, his presence there is significant. They saw your little yellow speck of a boat from some distance, and he was sent forward to watch for you and guide the helmsman with hand signals. They then made it as close as possible to scare you.

The captain of the tug predictably gets on the loudspeaker and bellows that you were almost run over. You aren't impressed, give a quick obscene gesture, and tell Birgit that his remarks are actually adressed to another boat.

What lessons can we draw from this little fictional episode? First, it's better to keep one's own lookout, no matter the country of origin of one's companion. Second, tugboat captains, and their ilk, like to play games with people in little yellow boats. In the long run, it seems best to clamp the little rear-view mirrors that bicyclists use on one's glasses. They work quite well on a busy river, and the bizarre insect-like appearance they create only confirms most yachtspeople in their opinions of rubber boat people.

Despite this sort of incident, one shouldn't have ill feelings toward tugs. They are, by far, the most interesting vessels on the big rivers, and they have unusual wakes. There's very little bow wave from the leading barges, but a strong straight wake from the twin propellors which jets out in a narrow stream. A rubber boat gets spun around in the torque, and, while you can't do much except relax and spin, it's an edifying experience.

Such a wake can actually be surfed in a kayak. You paddle in at an acute angle at about the fifth wave, trying not to get spun, and then, if you time it just right, you can ride a wave for a considerable distance.

There is a hazard in barge-wake surfing. The tugs don't like it, particularly in winter. If they see you coming, they may speed up and do an S-turn in order to shake you off their sterns. It is, in fact, quite surprising what maneuvers a tug pushing fifteen barges can perform. The solution here is to paddle gently along, pausing to sniff imaginary roses, as the tow passes. Then, at the last moment, you paddle furiously to get to the wake.

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