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1790 Ohio River Run: Paddling To The Completion Of A Dream
photo providedPacking the gear, some how it all fits.
photo providedSteamboat ‘The Gambler.’
photo providedA mural of times gone by, from Pt. Pleasant, WV.
photo providedPassing barges of coal.
photo providedCamping near a factory.
Tuesday June 8, 2010
By Cookie Steponaitis
When University of Kentucky college friends Robert McNamara and Stewart Brown originally discussed living out their dream of paddling 700 miles on the Ohio River, they had hopes of health and success but little beyond that. The two had originally talked of the trip back in college and now forty years later were asking themselves if dreams had time limits. They both decided that dreams were eternal and by turning them into reality there often come some added bonuses that were completely unplanned and unexpected. “To be honest our expectations were not high,” remarked Stewart Brown. “We simply hoped to be able to handle the physical demands of paddling a canoe about 700 miles. We hoped to remain healthy and safe. We also hoped that we would not grow weary of the daily grind of getting up every morning, breaking camp, loading the canoe, then traveling as long as possible, landing and setting up camp, only to do it all over again. We did know that our dedication to the Rotary Polio Plus Program would be a big incentive to keep our commitment. And I personally hope to get a sense of what the original trip may have been like for my Stewart ancestors.”
Beginning on April 10th, 2010 and finishing the 700 mile route on May 14th, 2010, Stewart and Bob found themselves the recipients of a dream with multiple layers and a lifetime worth of memories and personal connections. Traveling about fifteen miles a day at the beginning and working up to thirty miles a day toward the end of the trip, the pair was an interesting sight to the locals on the way dressed in period costuming. As their stamina and skill increased they covered more miles each day, but stayed within a window of six hours of paddling on the Ohio River. Never tiring of the routine and always delighted to, “…see what’s around the bend,” the pair adopted the theme of exploration and discovery as their mantra and never regretted a single minute of their amazing odyssey.
In addition to tracing the route Stewart’s Scottish ancestors took from Pennsylvania to Kentucky in the 1790’s, the pair was paddling to help those afflicted with polio around the world. Both Rotarians, the pair collected sponsorships and donations for the Rotary International Polio Plus Program, with a stated goal of eradicating polio from the planet. Along the river they stopped and met with Rotary Club’s sharing their message and passion for both realizing dreams and studying the past. Bob McNamara shares about the trip from the ship’s log, “…the beauty of the Ohio Valley, with the mountains and river towns, and even the industry along the way, had its own statement, that the Ohio River is a major transportation link into our country. There are sections of the river that are as pure and pristine as it was in 1790. We saw plenty of wildlife, including deer, turkey, beaver, fox, bald eagles and even a fisher cat that was out for a swim. The river was full of fish and we saw people haul out catfish in the 50 lb. range. We spoke at six Rotary Clubs along the way. The support from the Rotary was fantastic. They gave us lodging from storms, tours of their towns and of course a good meal. People have asked, "Are you still friends?" My response is, ‘why shouldn't we be?’ This has been a dream that we had 40 years ago and if anything it has cemented our friendship that will last forever. I feel that we planned the trip well, all of the gear preformed perfectly. We could function on two gallons of water per day. Half of the volume went into Green Mt. Coffee.”
Central to the trip was the ever present reminder of the history of the nation and the settlers that made the Ohio River their roadway to the west. Traveling at night and during the day, both Stewart and Bob were struck with the beauty, vastness and pivotal roll that the Ohio played in the past and continues to play in the history of the region. Whether by daylight and the passing of huge electrical power plants or a moonlight night over the West Virginia mountains, there was a tangible sense of linking past to present in the ever flowing movement of the waters of the Ohio.
The most remarkable experiences for the pair happened at Blennerhassett Island near Parkersburg, West Virginia. Blennerhassett Island is quite large, sits in the middle of the Ohio River and has a long and interesting history. Six United States Presidents have been to Blennerhassett, as well as Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton, Johnny Appleseed, Mike Fink, Lafayette, Dickens, Mark Twain and many others. Stewart shared, “When we landed there was not a soul around, but in the air we could hear a bagpiper playing Scotland the Brave. We discovered that he was across the river on the Ohio shore playing alone in a public park. On Blennerhassett there was a stately manor house with numerous outbuildings. Large wooden wagons stood by the road but not a soul was around. We found a plaque that listed the famous people who had visited Blennerhassett and when they had been there. Years and names were astounding, but no one was listed for 1790… that space was held for Mac and me. I instantly realized that I was standing on ground…the exact same ground my ancestors had set foot on. I have no doubt of that. They, like we, would have landed their boat exactly as we did and stood exactly where we were.”
At every turn and round every bend, Stewart and Bob found themselves welcomed and the objects of incredible generosity and friendship, making connections that will span their own lifetimes and connect back to Stewart’s ancestry. People visited with them, shared food, stories, laundry services, vehicles, information, and shared with them their excitement about the paddling, the trip and the fruition of a dream. “Everywhere we landed…every time we needed help, there was someone right there ready to meet our needs,” explained Stewart. Traveling in costume, word quickly spread of the journey and while friends and family followed the trip on the Internet and webcam, the locals along the Ohio showed up in record numbers to witness the event. “It really was remarkable,” commented Stewart. “When we came into a town, we were probably quite a sight. Sometimes we had to actually climb over a wall. At Ravenswood we came up from the town landing to walk to a grocery for supplies. A couple in a pickup truck gave us directions to the Kroger. We walked the half mile to the store and when we came through the door a clerk asked us how long we’d been on the river. I asked how he knew we were traveling the river. He said, “Everyone downtown is talking about ya’ll.”
At four miles an hour the pair could not escape the realities of life along the Ohio. The people have a fierce pride in the river, their towns and their heritage. Near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the town landings featured large historical murals showing the uses of the Ohio past and present. Stewart reflected on what they saw and experienced, “The river continues to be of great importance. It is a remarkable commercial highway for efficient and economical movement of coal and chemicals. It is more efficient than trucks or trains. The power plants are huge and “Oz”-like particularly at night. But we also saw closed factories and steel mills that are abandoned and now overgrown. They stand as temple ruins to our country’s Industrial Age. Yet the river thrives and continues to evolve as an important asset to the land.”
While the canoe is now parked and the paddles hung up with a sense of pride and accomplishment, the dream that began on the river continues to grow and produce ripples in communities all along their path. As donations continue to come in for the Rotary International Polio Plus Program and the friends made along the way continue to contact and plan for return visits, both Stewart and Bob vow to continue their message of making connections, living out dreams and helping others by taking and sharing their experience with others. “I would also like to thank the many people who have followed our trip,” remarked Rob McNamara. “You don't know how exciting it was to read your comments. We plan to offer T-shirts and hats that document our journey. Part of the proceeds will go to the Polio Plus Program. If any of you would like to make a contribution to the cause, go to www.1790ohioriverrun.com.” Echoing his partner on the journey, Stewart added, “If you have a dream, don’t wait any longer. Do it now. Believe us, you are never too old to realize a dream…but you have to do it. Do it now. I promise you that you want to see what’s around the bend.” The Valley Voice salutes the spirit, passion and friendship of these two men that has spanned forty years of their lives and touched on over two hundred and twenty years of American history.
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