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Ohio River backwaters great for kayaking

Rick Steelhammer
Kayakers prepare to enter the main channel of the Ohio River, passing Middle Island, at right, and approaching the St. Marys Bridge.
ST. MARYS, W.Va. -- When it comes to exploring backwater attractions, there's no shortage of sites to visit along both sides of the Ohio River downstream from St. Marys.Not just the sleepy, picturesque and historic river towns lining the shores of the mighty river, but literal backwaters -- lake-sized pools of still water connected to rivers and often teeming with wildlife and exotic-looking wetland plants.The Marietta Adventure Co. in downtown Marietta, Ohio, just across the river from Williamstown in Wood County, includes a full-day backwater kayak tour in its lineup of guided and outfitted kayak trips offered every weekend. Last Saturday, guide Hallie Taylor led a group on a nine-mile journey that included a little bit of everything the region has to offer paddlers. First, there were whitecaps to surf on a wind-chopped Ohio River, adding a little spray and excitement to what is ordinarily a placid flat-water paddle. Time spent on the big river gave those in the group a chance to get close-up views of the leeward sides of Middle and Broadback Islands, units of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.Then there were the backwaters -- Dana's Run and Newell Run on the Ohio side of the river, and the largest on the tour, French Creek, a bay-like stretch of calm water extending inland from the West Virginia shore near the town of Belmont.The creeks feeding into the backwaters were explored until they were too shallow for navigation, giving paddlers views of densely wooded hills, some of which were part of the Wayne National Forest, and expanses of farmland.The tour also included a fuel-up stop at the Jug, a dock-equipped burger and hotdog mecca in Newport, Ohio, during the middle of Jugfest, the burger stand's annual customer appreciation celebration and car show.The trip began at the St. Marys City Park boat launch ramp, in the wind-protected channel separating Middle Island from the West Virginia shore. The calm water gave those in the tour the chance to get used to the feel of their rented kayaks (you can bring your own if you choose, for a discounted rate) and make adjustments to footrest pads and seatbacks.After passing under the iron bridge connecting Middle Island to St. Marys (Middle Island is the only unit in the Ohio Islands National Wildlife Refuge accessible by car), the tour group crossed to the north shore of the Ohio, paddled past Newport, and paddled under the Ohio Route 7 bridge to reach the Dana's Run Backwater.Here, the group encountered the first of what would be dozens of great blue heron sightings during the day, and watched swallows and kingfishers dart above the calm water's surface looking for food. A few anglers aboard bass boats and johnboats had taken haven from the choppy waves of the Ohio to cast toward the backwater's reedy shoreline. While they weren't spotted on this trip, sightings of bald eagles and ospreys dive-bombing the water for fish aren't uncommon in the backwaters and along the upriver end of Broadback Island, according to Taylor.After picking a route through the shallows at the back end of the backwater, the group paddled single-file up Dana's Run, as the stream narrowed, began a series of S curves, and finally became too shallow to pass through. The group about-faced and paddled back toward the river at a leisurely pace."This is a relaxing way to spend the day," said Jeff Myers of Marietta, one of five paddlers in Taylor's group. "I haven't been kayaking in years, and this is an enjoyable way to get back into it."Once back in the Ohio, the kayakers made for the West Virginia shore, quartering into waves of chop formed by brisk winds pushing against the current."I take it back -- it's not so relaxing," a grinning Myers shouted into the wind.
Once along the West Virginia shore, the group paddled under the W.Va. 2 bridge and into the French Creek Backwater, where tranquility reigned. Small groves of dead, submerged trees protruded from the calm water, some of them supporting cylindrical wire mesh mallard nests, occupied only by downy feathers at this time of year.
After paddling through a wide stretch of open backwater, the paddlers entered the channel of French Creek, and proceeded upstream. Near the point where the creek met the backwater, lush stands of arrowleaf lined the banks, and killdeer trotted along sandy stretches of shoreline.More heron sightings occurred further up the creek. When the tall wading birds were sighted, the group drifted silently toward them to see how close they could approach before the birds took flight.After a final crossing of the Ohio near Broadback Island, the paddlers entered the final backwater of the tour, Newell Run, and glided to a take-out point."Back on the river, it was a little like kayaking in the ocean," said Jeff Carrigan, who was touring in a tandem kayak with Jackie Scheimann. The Belpre, Ohio, residents had paddled a tandem seagoing kayak while vacationing in Cozumel, Mexico, but had not kayaked closer to home until taking the Marietta Adventure Co. tour."It was a fun trip," said Scheimann. "We saw tons of herons and got to ride some waves."
Other guided weekend kayak tours offered by the Marietta Adventure Co. include a 14-mile trip down the scenic Little Muskingum River, featuring a put-in near a covered bridge and a few fast riffles to navigate, and descents of nearby Duck Creek.On Sunday, a more leisurely four-hour float will be offered on the main Muskingum River, featuring a locking through the nation's only hand-cranked lock and dam system, a lunch stop and swimming breaks as needed.  The guided trips cost $40 per person, including kayak rental, shuttle, paddle and personal floatation device. Those owning their own kayaks can take the trips for a $25 shuttle fee.Self-guided trips using rented kayaks and shuttle service are also available."We went out and explored all the kayak routes we could find in the area, and timed how long it took to run them," said store owner Ryan Smith. "We also saw which routes did best under certain weather conditions, so we know what works best if it's been rainy or dry. All the routes are suitable for beginners -- no whitewater above Class I."The backwater tour will be offered at various times throughout the remainder of the year."When the flowers along the backwaters are at their peak, we'll go back there, and it's a great tour for taking in the fall colors," said Smith, who plans to keep the weekend tour schedule going through the end of October.In addition to hosting paddling trips selling kayaks and accessories, Marietta Adventure Co., is a Specialized mountain bike dealer. The city of Marietta maintains a 15-mile bike trail system, and nearly 80 miles of trail are available in the nearby Wayne National Forest.To learn more about Marietta Adventure Co. trip offerings, call 740-538-0801, or visit the company's Facebook page, where upcoming tours and tour photos are posted.   Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169. 
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