Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Urban youths test new waters

They're canoeing, camping for days

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

OREGONIA - Thirteen-year-old Jesse Clements had a question for river guide Jeremy Ingram:

"Where's the bathroom?"

Nearly two dozen canoes were lodged, side by side, on the muddy shores of the Little Miami River in this Warren County community. It was nearly 10 miles into their five-day canoe trip, and urban youths like Clements were learning the hard knocks of life in the wild.

"Third tree on the left," Ingram replied with a snicker.

Monday morning, 30 Cincinnati teens joined with river guides and Cincinnati Recreation Commission staff on RiverTrek, a yearly float down the Little Miami. For many, including Jesse, it was their first time canoeing.

Jesse and his brothers are mainstays at the Over-the-Rhine Community Center in their neighborhood. After school Jesse, Christopher, 12, and Stephen, 15, are sure to be at the homework club. They go on all the field trips, and they play for intramural basketball and hockey teams.

But when center director Steve Gerth convinced the boys' mother they should go on a five-day canoe trip, Jesse wasn't so sure.

"I was scared because I thought the boat was gonna tip over," Jesse said.

Staff members at the Cincinnati Recreation Commission hope to achieve much this week as they tote teens 56 miles down the windy, narrow river: learn a bit about canoeing, a bit about the river and a lot about themselves.

It "gives these kids a chance to recreate themselves outside their normal environment," said Dale Doerman, a recreation commission service area coordinator who helped start RiverTrek seven years ago. "It's something most kids don't get a chance to do anymore."

Monday they camped at Fort Ancient Campground near Oregonia. There they ate like kings with a homemade meal from livery owner Gary Morgan: Amish barbequed chicken, green beans, baked potatoes and rolls.

After 12 miles on the river today, they will spend a night at the Loveland Castle along the river. Fourteen miles later they will spend Wednesday night camping at the Lower Craig Boy Scout facility. Thursday, the longest day of the trip, will end near California Woods after a 17-mile canoe dash. In between they will learn about river ecology, river etiquette and perfect their canoeing and kayaking skills.

They will finish their trek Friday at the public landing of the Ohio River near U.S. Bank Arena in downtown Cincinnati. After four hard days of paddling, a power boat will tow them in rafts from the mouth of the Little Miami along the Ohio River to downtown, with an escort from a Cincinnati Fire Department boat.

Supported by a $5,000 grant from the Charles Dater Foundation and various sponsorships, including the canoe livery, Morgan's Canoe and Outdoor Centers Inc., recreation commission staffers say this is an important event to keep despite city budget crunches.

"Youth today are so tied into television and video games," said Becky Smith, a recreation commission employee. "It's great for them to know there's a whole 'nother world out there."

For Jesse, Monday was the first time he saw turtles. He also saw cows lounging and blue herons flying above. Amid all the fun, Jesse may have even learned something.

"Never go through rapids with large rocks," he said.


E-mail rforgrave@enquirer.com

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