Narrow escape on a foggy river

My first impulse was to yell for help, thinking some of the boys in the village might hear me, even though I knew if they responded they could do nothing more than watch me die.

I knew it was useless to hope Mom and Dad might hear me, maybe take comfort in hearing my last words.

But they lived farther back, up near the railroad tracks. I knew my father was already off to his job on the railroad. My mother would be cleaning up the breakfast dishes, no doubt singing – as was her wont (archaic English word meaning custom, or habit) – some old ballad, like “Barbara Allen,” as she worked.

But such is the frustration felt by a person who faces the end of life – especially at such an early age.

My father knew that me and some of the boys were fishing an Ohio River trotline. It was he who warned me to never, ever look the line until the fog – prevalent almost every morning at that time of the year – had lifted.

The fog that morning was especially heavy and clung more stubbornly to the surface. The other boys responsible for that line with me had – as was their wont when school was out for the summer – slept in, a luxury I should have enjoyed.

But I suspected the line and its 50 hooks would be heavy with catfish. I loved the way that line throbbed in my hands when fish were on.

Sometimes those old channel cats can twist and turn until they work themselves fee of the hook. I would have a catch in the live box that would make the boys envious when they did arrive.

The Ohio is a commercial river. Those big towboats pushing their barges upstream plowed in closest to the Kentucky shore. That was so because of the sandbar that jutted out below the mouth of the Scioto River, located straight across on the Ohio side.

The pilothouse on a towboat is not located high enough to permit the pilot to see what lies immediately in the path of the string of barges he’s pushing.

And with the fog being as thick as it was that morning he would not even have been able to see the end of the barges.

But I was young, fast, indestructible, and foolish. I could wait no longer. I untied the little red johnboat from the willow root and pushed off.

I spotted the cork float attached to the line about 30 yards from shore. I picked it up and pulled the line off the bottom. I hadn’t worked my way along very much of the line before I felt the wonderful throbbing that indicated fish on.

I had taken off a couple of three-pounders and felt the tugging of something much bigger farther out along the line.

That’s when my excited anticipation was replaced by a sudden fear that shot through my body like a bolt of lightening. I heard a sound, from downstream, of water rushing around something, something big.

And it was coming straight at me!

My first impulse was to jump and swim for shore. We river rats were all excellent swimmers. Instead, I leaped for the oars and rowed for life – for my life and the life of our johnboat.

I’d always heard that a towboat’s barges can suck you under, even if you get too close to the side of one of them. If one runs directly over you, of course, you would be sucked under. You would find yourself bumping your head on the bottom of barges, attempting to hold your breath long enough to escape the pounding delivered by the paddlewheel.

But probably you would be dead before you reached the paddlewheel, your life flashing before you as your lungs filled with dingy river water.

I remember seeing the front of those barges, apparently empties, their tops rising seven or eight feet above the surface.

I was a goner.

I rowed with a strength and speed I never knew I possessed. Thankfully, the oars stayed in their locks.

Had one slipped out, I wouldn’t be recalling the incident today.

Suddenly I reached the corner of the starboard barge. The water being shoved upward by its movement pushed the little boat upward and around the corner and toward shore, like a surfer riding a Hawaiian wave.

I rested the paddles as the barges slid silently by.

After nosing the johnboat against the shore, I sat for long minutes, trying to quell the shaking of my knees and waiting for enough strength to return to my legs to allow me to rise.


My friend Tom Clay, president of the Kentucky Outdoor Press Association, of which I’m a dues-paying member, said he put his boat in at the main launching ramp on Grayson Lake sometime back and paid the launch fee of $3. He went back this week and found a 40 percent increase in the fee – to $5 per launch.

So far the increase has raised more questions than answers: Who approved the increase, and why is it necessary? Was there a public hearing? Is our Congressman and state representatives aware of the issue?

Does the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Huntington District pay the marina operator to collect the fee, or what?

Pleasure boaters and fishermen do not like launching fees, period, not on a public ramp already paid for by our federal and state taxes.

Years ago, before the public launching ramp (free) and parking lot were developed at Burke’s Point in Wheelersburg, a landowner operated a launch ramp on his riverfront property a couple of miles downstream from there. Users of the steep and rough ramp left $4 or $5 in a box at the top of the bank.

But paying such a fee on private property can be understood easier than on a fee for using our own public facilities.

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G. Sam Piatt

PDT Outdoors Columnist

Reach G. SAM PIATT at (606) 932-3619 or [email protected]