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Our trip down the upper Vermilion came on the backend of a full day of paddling. Earlier my partner and I had kayaked in the 37th annual Vermilion River Race, produced by the Keelhaulers canoe club. Iíve read a lot of reports about the well traveled middle section of this river and have found less information about the upper section. This section of river covers the stretch from Wakeman, OH to the traditional river race put-in at Schoepfle Gardens in Birmingham, OH. Iíve seen reports that have listed this section anywhere from an 11 to 15 mile paddle. We were able to stretch our trip into a four hour run, which could have easily been extended.
Upon completing the race we loaded up our gear, pulled out a map and headed south along Route 60 towards Wakeman. This section of the river was new to us; we had hoped to be able to scout it from the road as we headed to the put-in. We decided to take West Rd. rather than Route 60 because it appeared to follow the curves of the river better than the two lane highway. Unfortunately, both roads offer very few opportunities to get a glimpse of the river. The Vermilion cuts through a river valley and you feel as though you are on a plateau above the river unable to see the bottom because of the gradient and the trees.
Our goal was to find the low head dam in Wakeman and put in below. From experience there are usually water access points or a park near such water features that would allow for easy access. Finding that the river was a good 200 feet below the rural downtown of Wakeman, there were no easy access points close to the dam. Crossing the Route 20 Bridge we could see the river, but no access points or the dam. Upon parking on the west side of the bridge near several fishermenís vehicles, we were able to see the dam almost directly below the bridge. We also found a 45 degree pitch dropping off to the riverbank below. We were able to scout the immediate area on both sides of the river via an old abandoned train bridge directly downriver from the Route 20 Bridge. Below the bridge wader wearing steelhead fishermen were casting into the pools below the dam.
Not willing to let a little hill or bushwhacking deter us, my partner and I decided to gear up and line our kayaks down the hill and through the underbrush with ropes. One would guide from above and one of us would direct from below as we lowered both boats to the bottom of the river ravine.
After a few weird looks and some brief goodbyes from the fishermen, we were on our way. We had hoped this section of the river would have a little more water than the middle section from earlier in the day and throughout the afternoon the Vermilion did not disappoint. From the moment we put in, the current whisked us down river and around a bend. We could see why this river is a prime steelhead trout fishing river. In every set of rapids, steelies could be seen working their way up river to spawn. Iím sure a few fish received a decent sized headache from our boats or paddles.
The best way to summarize our trip was said by my padding partner ďwe are basically creek boating in our sea kayaks.Ē It was true, while the gradient was not as severe as one would find in West Virginia or Tennessee, the entire length of this section was defined by pools that would drop into a set of rapids. All afternoon we would gather above a section of moving water and then drop down the rapids and eddy out to watch each other come though. Many times we had to pick river right or left as the river split into two equally exciting runs. The longest stretch of slack water was probably 124 yards in length.
Paddling unfamiliar water also presents some potentially dangerous situations, from downed trees, to not knowing what is around the next bend. While the USGS gauges were hovering just below 3ft, any higher and we would have had to get out and scout more than we did. There were several sections where downed trees would have presented a problem. For the most part we were able to easily scoot under or around any potential problems.
We did have our one keystone cop moment of the day when I followed my partner too closely into a set of rapids. My partner got hung up on a downed tree and our boats got tangled as I was swept sideways trying to avoid a collision. Needless to say, bath day came early for my partner and I had to play clean-up as I gathered gear downstream from the incident.
We were both amazed at the amount of trout in the stream and if fishermen could see what we saw, they would be jealous. Some of the areas seemed fairly remote and most of this section of river is lined by state forest park land. I did stop for a few moments to see a fisherman finish his struggle with a trophy sized catch. For most of the trip we followed a pair of Canadian geese and we also spotted raccoons, ducks and a few blue herons. We did have a couple of turkey vultures circling above us on several sections of the river and we joked about the birds knowing something that we donít know. Civilization and houses were rare sights along this stretch and Route 60 can be seen for only a few moments where it intersects West Rd. There is also a great surfing wave at this section. The lack of spring foliage did not take away from the trip, but having the forest in full bloom would add to the sense of remoteness of this trip.
We ended the day where we started at the Schoepfle Gardens take-out. The sun was speeding its trip towards the horizon and our location in the river valley helped to make the day seem later than it was. We pulled out, filled with excitement and accomplishment gained from a full day on the water. We had put almost 20 miles under our belts if you include the race earlier in the day.
While you will never see our names in a history book or PBS special, we felt like we experienced something foreign and unseen. Iím sure Lewis and Clark would be proud of our modern day outing.
Accommodations are few, except for a few gas stations and carryouts to grab a few last minute items. There are hotels in Vermilion if you wanted a soft bed. There are not rest room facilities at the put-in, but there are excellent facilities at the Birmingham take-out.
The easiest way to get to the put-in from the east or west is by traveling across Route 2. You can go from Toledo to Cleveland Ohio on Rout 2. Go south on Route 60 to Wakeman. Route 60 intersects Route 20 at Wakeman and crosses the river at the bridge.
If you are coming from the north you will pass the take-out on your way to Wakeman. Turn left onto Route 113 at the Wooly Bear Restaurant. Schoepfle Gardens will be on your right as you pass through Birmingham.