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In the Wake of Johnny Appleseed

Canoeing the route of an American legend

Portaging near Brinkhaven Dam

This morning we put in our canoes under a cloudless sky and started taking in the riot that is spring in Ohio: tadpoles, ducklings, flowering trees and swift water. But we aren’t noticing any of that right now. Instead, we’re discussing the dearth of bumper stickers on canoes. The one we want to stick on our boats reads WWJD? No, we’re not talking about the love-spreading, sandal-wearing son of God. We’re talking about the seed-spreading, barefoot patron saint of the apple: What Would Johnny Do? Johnny Appleseed, that is.

We’re paddling the Black Fork of the Mohican River, myself along with Bill Jones, founder of the Johnny Appleseed Heritage Center and Outdoor Drama, and photographer Attila Horvath. We’re working our way downstream on a 3-day, 45-mile tour of our nation’s former frontier where, 200 years ago, John “Appleseed” Chapman played a role that would take on mythic proportions. According to legend, what Johnny would do is this: float down the river barefoot on a block of ice with a sack of apple seeds and a pot on his head spreading “news right fresh from heaven.” What we’re doing is somewhat different: floating down the river in molded plastic canoes with lots of store-bought food, shoes, dry bags and wide-brimmed sun hats. Living up to WWJD is harder that you might think.

The Mohican River cuts a north-south swath through this northeast Ohio landscape shaped in mounds (kames) and serpentine ridges (eskers) made of moraine left by retreating glaciers and the sediment-carrying waterways within the glaciers. It’s lovely countryside that provides a welcome relief (no pun intended) from the flat topography that dominates the region. The hillsides are painted with the fresh spring green hues of deciduous trees contrasting with the dark green of the white pines and hemlocks. At some points in the river, where there is no sign of civilization, it’s easy to imagine that things have gone unchanged for centuries.

We put in upstream of the former Delaware Indian village called Greentown. Today, all that remains is a farm field with a kame that has a depression in the top, making it resemble a small volcano. The scene belies the fact that this is where, in September 1812, the Delawares were removed under guard from the settlement before it was burned to the ground. Just days after that incident was when Johnny Appleseed made one of his famous runs for reinforcements and to warn settlers of trouble brewing with Native Americans and British troops. A year later, his run from Mansfield to Mount Vernon was a suspiciously coincidental marathon-length 26 miles, and barefoot to boot. But tall tales were the stuff of the American frontier.

I begin to wonder what history lies around each bend in the river, thinking of the fact that literally thousands have paddled here before me, each experiencing the river in their own way. We talk about the differences between the landscape then and now. For one thing, Bill points out, before the land was cleared for agriculture, the river ran higher. You could have put in here and paddled all the way down to New Orleans. Some were said to have done just that. Soon we are floating alongside Appleseed’s former property which was, of course, home to an apple nursery. When Johnny inhabited the property on a 99-year lease, it was a quarter section of land – 160 acres. The property has long since been divided into a number of farms and, most recently, a plastic toy factory. As we approach it, the smell of brand new, cheap plastic toys (think Barbie Dream Canoe) hangs in the air. We pick up the pace to get away from it. Our reverie for the past is broken just in time to prepare us for our approach the tourist town of Loudonville. Here the past seems decidedly preferable to the present as old sandstone-trimmed farmhouses give way to ghetto trailer and RV parks lining the water’s edge where we float into a concentration of canoe liveries. But we do make a stop in town for one of the benefits of modern life: popsicles.

It’s a spring weekday, before the height of tourist season, so we’ve got the river to ourselves. We cover 20 miles in less than seven hours, never seeing another soul on the water, save for a muskrat and sunning snapping turtles. We take out at Mohican Wilderness, a 600-acre compound that serves as a combined livery, campground and pioneer village. In a field here is a 20-foot tall wooden statue of Johnny Appleseed himself, standing sentry over a stash of canoes. The larger-than-life replica seems fitting for the legend who spread seeds – if you will – of kindness wherever he went. A follower of Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, Johnny Appleseed was a religious figure of sorts himself. In his own day he was the famous “primitive Christian” vegetarian who eschewed violence against any sentient being. He carried with him copies of the New Testament along with tracts of Swedenborg’s writings on the “knowledge of correspondences,” which states that every natural thing here on earth has a spiritual equivalent. When Johnny didn’t have enough copies of the books to go around, he simply tore them into sections and gave them out as such.

Johnny is said to have declined invitations to sleep inside the homes of other settlers; instead he slept outside. Ken Wobbecke, proprietor of Mohican Wilderness, offers us a cabin to sleep in tonight. We decline, hoping to not impose. But with a 65 percent chance of rain, we decide to throw down our sleeping bags under the cabin’s porch. As the temperature drops, however, we quietly make our way inside for the night. Not what Johnny would do.

We awake for a second full day on the river to dark skies but no rain yet. Our goal is to float to Nursery Island, where, according to old records, Johnny had an apple nursery. We try to paddle steadily, hoping to get in as many miles as possible before the rain or – more importantly – before a thunderstorm. We float beyond the reach of the liveries and the scenery is better than ever. Birdwatching is especially rewarding as we play cat and mouse with a belted kingfisher and we see bright Baltimore orioles, great blue herons and even a bald eagle on the wing. We pass by rock outcroppings and near Amish farms. The river varies from deep pools to class I riffles to shallow and wide water where we can see the upturned shells of freshwater mussels. We make it to a lowhead dam at Brinkhaven where we portage through a patch of buttercups and stop for lunch under a covered bridge just before the rain sets in.

We put on our raingear and start asking ourselves again, What Would Johnny Do? Bill already joked that the itinerant orchardist and gospel-spreader was always mooching off of other people. We consider this and begin searching for an agreeable-looking farmstead where maybe we could ask to camp in the barn, but we never find one. As the rain continues, we only half-jokingly discuss taking refuge in a hollowed-out sycamore tree, as Johnny and many other pioneers did. Hell, if only we could. In Johnny’s day, it’s said that a squirrel could climb a tree at the Atlantic Ocean and not come down again until it hit the Mississippi River. Almost all of the ancient forests in the East have been cut down since then, leaving us with few options for shelter other than our tents.

We finally make it to Nursery Island and the rain hasn’t let up. Our original plan was to camp on the tiny island, but now thunder is rumbling in the distance, harkening rising waters, and, as it turns out, the island is covered in poison ivy. So instead we camp in a fallow field near the bank at what will soon come to be known as Camp Slug. As we set up the tents in the rain, that sycamore idea sounds pretty practical. We dig up some wild onions to add to our dinner and, with a disproportionate amount of pride, point out that this is exactly what Johnny would do. The thunderstorm chases us into our tents long before dark and Bill reminds us, feigning a hurried tone, that it’s only 13 hours to put in. As I count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the crack of thunder, I worry that we’ll get struck or that our canoes will be swept away in a flood.

The flood never comes, though, and we awaken to dark skies but no rain. And about a million slugs on everything we own. We reorganize our five dry bags into two dry bags and three wet bags then set off to explore Nursery Island. There is absolutely no sign of a former apple nursery here, proving that time, like the river, moves relentlessly. We look across the water and see two giant trees, a cottonwood and a sycamore, that look old enough to have been here when Johnny was. They are, perhaps, a physical link between him and us. But I don’t really care if they are or not. It’s not the physical artifacts, but Johnny Appleseed’s spirit of adventure, simplicity and goodwill that provided the inspiration for this trip, as well as his sense that heaven is right here right now. Attila and I thank Bill for keeping the Appleseed legacy alive. Bill thanks us for putting this adventure together, pointing out that the last time he owned a tent it was made of canvas and had a center pole.

With all the rain, the current is swift and we make quick work of it to our final take out point at the confluence of the Mohican and Kokosing Rivers. Upon our return to Mohican Wilderness livery, Ken Wobbecke greets us again to ask how the trip went. He loves his job, he says, because he gets to meet people with all kinds of unusual interests. He goes on to categorize humankind into two general camps; the ones who just tolerate life and the others who aim to get the most out of it. Ken, of course, means to tell us that we’re in the latter category. As we drive off, his words ring in my ears. Upon reflecting on what has become the theme of the trip, What Would Johnny Do, I figure he’d aim to get the most out of life. And so do we.

Where it’s at: From I-71 between Cleveland and Columbus, take State Route 97 east 20 miles to its dead end into State Route 3. Turn north (left) to see Mohican State Park Campground A on the left and several canoe liveries on the right.

Digs: Mohican State Park, www.ohiodnr.com/parks/parks/mohican.htm or (419) 994-5125; Mohican Wilderness, www.mohicanwilderness.com or (740) 599-6741; both have tent camping and cabins

While You’re There: Johnny Appleseed Outdoor Historical Drama, www.SeeJohnnyAppleseed.com or (800) 642-0388

Contact: Loudonville-Mohican Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-2-MOHICAN, www.loudonville-mohican.com ; Mohican Country, www.mohicancountry.org or 800-722-7588