We arrived at the rendezvous point just before twilight, pulling the SUV between a pair of boat trailers parked in the field overlooking the river. The guys had a sizable stack of stuff piled up for the evening's bonfire down by the waterfront campsite, where a couple of tents were pitched on a grassy bench of river bank that smelled freshly mowed and weed-whacked for the occasion.
To get down to the site, my 11-year-old son Ethan and I negotiated a staggered column of cinder blocks set in the dirt slope to serve as steps. The steep bank was worn by the Muskingum River and flanks the flow for much of its meandering through the broad valley the river has cut through the hill country of southeastern Ohio.
As handshakes, nods and a few beers were popped and exchanged in greeting, one fellow soaked the burn site with a steady pee-sized stream of kerosene. I noticed the pile was comprised of river flotsam that included driftwood, pieces of furniture, a tatter of shag carpeting, some warped wood paneling and a Christmas tree eight months past its prime. Ethan's eyes got wide as a railroad flare was struck, spitting pink flame, and tossed into the bowels of the pile to ignite a sudden and substantial pyre. I learned later my boy thought it was a stick of dynamite and was too scared to run.
A few boats were tied up at the small floating dock that set a bit crooked as the slow flow of the river pressured it to move on downstream where, 40 miles distant, the mighty Muskingum joins the Ohio at the former frontier river town of Marietta.
My son and I were guests of a group of boaters, several of them PDB readers, who for the past 15 years have been meeting the second weekend after Labor Day to cruise the historic waterway. The stag affair has matured to include three generations of father-son teams and friends who get away from the women one weekend a year to run whatever boats they happen to own at the time. Some years they cruise up the river to Zanesville; most often the flotilla follows the flow downstream for a day, locking through no fewer than seven ancient lock and dam structures along the route to historic Marietta. On the route, they will clear no fewer than seven rustic, hand-powered, wood-doored locks that have kept the river navigable for more than a century and a half and are now part of a linear state park that flanks the river along much of its length.
Just up from the famous confluence where the Muskingum meets the Ohio at Marietta, the flotilla docks behind a waterfront motel. There, participants spend Saturday evening in town dining and maybe drinking some, shuttled to and fro by designated skippers who safely return everyone to their boats or motel rooms for a night's sleep.
The next day, they burn the better part of the Sabbath retracing their wakes back to the dock at the campsite or to the launch ramp just upriver at the Stockport lock and dam. There, they help each other pull their boats and secure them on trailers for rides back to distant homes all over Ohio. Some participants see each other only at the annual river run. Others boat and fish and work or pal around together all season long.
It's a tight, loosely knit band of boaters who enjoy their craft, the river and the company for a special weekend each September. We felt honored to join `em for a run.