One of the best ways to connect with nature is to kayak or canoe on a river.
At eye-level in a kayak, for example, the rocky and wooded shores of the stream, and the towering trees that sometimes surround it like a forested tunnel, put you right in the middle of the action, and in the moment.
As you navigate and chart your course on the water, you hear the songs and warning calls of birds, the chirping of mammals, the buzzes and hums of crickets and cicadas, the rushing and trickling water, and even the ripping, sizzling sound that a kayak makes as it splits calm waters. Sometimes, there are no sounds at all.
At a deeper level, kayaking a river is a lot like life. The water pulls you downstream, whether you want to go or not. All you can do is learn to steer and maneuver as best you can and hope for the best! However, when you do successfully maneuver through a set of rapids or a challenging situation on the water, you can’t help but smile at your small triumph over the forces of nature. You even start to look forward to the next challenge.
People living in western Ohio are fortunate to be close to dozens of water trails that can provide this connection—or reconnection—to nature. This includes the Stillwater River, which is a designated State Scenic River that starts in Darke County and then passes through Miami County before joining the Great Miami River in Dayton.
Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
Kayaking the Not-So-Stillwater River
While much of the river lives up to its name of being still and shallow, the northern section of the Stillwater River contains quite a few rapids, especially when the conditions are right in spring and early summer, and sometimes again in the fall.
The best rapids are located in a section of the river known as the 7-Mile Drop. It starts at Maple Ridge Reserve, located east of Bradford, and travels exactly 7 miles to the F.L. Blankenship Riverside Sanctuary, located just south of Covington. These are both Miami County Park District parks that offer designated river access points and parking. There’s also an access point just north of Maple Ridge at the Goode Reserve Riverside Access on Bradford-Bloomer Rd.
What makes the 7-Mile Drop unique are the 20 or so rapids that kayakers encounter on the journey, not to mention the beautiful scenery, which includes passing four major parks, unusual rock formations and four unique bridges. This is a very rural part of Miami County, ruled by wildlife rather than humans, so kayakers will also see a variety of wildlife, including blue herons, eagles, hawks, owls, ducks, geese, turtles, otters, deer, frogs and more.
Mind you, these “rapids” are not whitewater rapids of any magnitude. In technical terms they are mostly Class 1 (the weakest, least dangerous) and some Class 2 (still not very dangerous). This is good for people who are new to kayaking, as well as families interested in taking their children on the river.
In terms of safety, there’s a simple rule of thumb on the Stillwater River—if you fall out, just stand up and walk. It’s really never that deep, especially in the rapids.
What makes the rapids so fun is the speed at which they propel the kayaker through the water and the obstacles they present, whether it’s a place where the river splits in two, or finding the best spot to maneuver around the numerous rocks, trees and sandbars that can trip-up even the best kayaker. There are consequences for the wrong choices and rewards for the right ones.
The reason for the abundant rapids has to do with the geology of the area. In short, the altitude of the river drops from 950 feet at Maple Ridge Reserve to 900 feet at the F.L. Blankenship Riverside Sanctuary. This 50-foot-drop in elevation over 7 miles means that this part of the river is like a long, flat, cascading waterfall that slowly drops toward Covington before evening out and becoming more “still.”
These same geological forces carved out the numerous rock formations and cliffs that can be seen during the 7-mile journey. The most interesting are found at Stillwater Prairie Reserve, which the Stillwater River cuts directly through.
The four unique bridges are spaced out along the trip. The first is the suspension bridge at Maple Ridge Reserve. It’s the longest bridge of its kind in Ohio and located just a few feet from the river access point. The next is the old stone railroad bridge at Covington Community Park. Not only is the structure itself fascinating, but the still waters beneath it create a beautiful, mirror-reflection in the water, making it look like you’re kayaking through a tunnel. As you pass under the bridge, look up to watch the golden hue of the stone shimmer and dance in the reflecting sunlight (see video at bottom of page).
The final two bridges are connected and located at the F.L. Blankenship Riverside Sanctuary. Kayakers will pass under an old steel bridge at the park just before exiting the water for the day. Next to the parking lot here is an old stone bridge that, just like the stone bridge in Covington, often has a beautiful mirror-like reflection in the water that passes beneath it.
The 7-Mile Drop takes about 3 ½ hours to complete. A longer adventure can be had by stopping at one of the parks for lunch or getting out and exploring the miles of hiking trails that surround the river.
Taiters Kayak Solutions, based in Dayton, offers trips on the 7-Mile Drop. To set up an adventure, call (937) 716-5091 or visit taiterskayaks.com. Although they do not advertise this trip, other options may include Hometown Kayaking, also based in Dayton at (937) 608-3918, or you can attempt to contact Adventures on the Great Miami in Tipp City at (937) 266-6252 or Barefoot Canoe in West Milton at (937) 698-4351 to see if accommodations can be made. Additionally, good used kayaks go for around $300 and can be found in abundance online.
Whether you’re a novice kayaker looking to reconnect with nature, an animal lover interested in seeing local wildlife, or you just want to put a little adventure in your life, kayaking the 7-Mile Drop, and many other water trails in western Ohio and eastern Indiana, is a great way to experience the wonders and challenges of nature.
Click on the map below for the official Stillwater River Water Trail Map.