Story & Photos by Matt Bayman
One of the most interesting sections of the Great Miami River to kayak is between Sidney and Piqua, and more specifically between two places on the river, both named Roadside Park. One park is located on the south end of Sidney near the Big Four Bridge, and the other is located on the north end of Piqua, close to Johnston Farm & Indian Agency. This is a distance of about 10 miles on the water, which takes about six hours to complete.
What makes this section unique are the numerous caves and rock formations located in the middle of the route, plus the rich history and natural beauty that surrounds this part of the Great Miami River.
Located on private property, but clearly visible from the river, the caves and rock formations are possibly some of the oldest in Ohio, and several are deeper than you might think.
Brian Christian, who owns property where the caves are located, said the deepest cave (known to geologists as the “Miami River Cave”) goes back about 150 feet and contains a “room” that is 5-by-5-feet wide and about 4 feet tall. It was used to store illegal alcohol during Prohibition! Later, a summer camp was located near the cave and children attending it would dare each other to stand with their backs to the dark entrance.
Christian said another cave in the area is nicknamed “The Drive-Thru Cave.” Located right on the river, he said when the water is high enough; it is possible to canoe right through it! A small waterfall often cascades down a steep hill next to this cave.
Other caves in the area (all located just north of the Interstate 75 bridge in Shelby County and on private property) are too small to enter, but tell an interesting geological tale.
According to Douglas Aden, a mapping geologist with the Ohio Geological Survey, the rocks that the caves formed in are somewhere between 443 and 419 million years old. Only two other caves in Ohio are known to have formed in older rocks. They’re both located near Cincinnati.
Aden, who has not visited the caves in Shelby County but is aware of their existence, said the rock is made up of dolomite and was laid down when Ohio was covered in an ancient sea.
“This rock formed as a thick reef below the tides, likely in a very salty lagoon, when the majority of Ohio was under water as a shallow inland sea,” Aden explains. “Later, as the sea receded, these caves may have formed as flank margin caves along the land-sea contact or much later through more traditional weathering and dissolution. We don’t know when they formed (for certain), but they probably took a long time to form. Either way, these caves were likely later buried and infilled by glacial sediments and were later exhumed as the Great Miami cut back down.”
Aden said it is very likely that other caves exist in this area. They’re just buried beneath the glacial till (dirt and gravel) that covers western Ohio, which is sometimes hundreds of feet thick.
“These caves are only visible because the river cut down so far into the glacial sediments to expose the rock,” he said. This makes them a unique and rare sight in western Ohio.
NOTE: Aden said some of the caves in Shelby County may be home to sensitive bat populations and should not be disturbed.
A Native American Highway
Moving up a little further in time, this part of the Great Miami River has been used by humans for more than 10,000 years, and certainly by the Adena, Shawnee and Miami Indians who lived here for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. Knowing this seems to animate the kayak trip, especially when passing the confluence of the Great Miami River and Loramie Creek, just north of Piqua.
About 3,000 years ago, Native Americans we call the Adena lived in abundance near this confluence and in modern day Piqua. They built dozens of earthworks and mounds in the area, some for burial and others for purposes we don’t fully understand. Thousands of years later, the area near the confluence became the site of the Pickawillany Indian village, which was one of the largest villages in Ohio in its day. It later became an English trading post known as Fort Pickawillany. Today, the Johnston Farm & Indian Agency honors and shares this and other local history with visitors.
For thousands of years, Native Americans used this section of the river as a source of food, agriculture, trade and transportation. It would have been the most efficient way to reach other large Native American populations in modern day Dayton and Cincinnati, where goods could be traded and festivals celebrated. In short, it was a busy, active part of the river, with the area around Piqua being especially active. Again, knowing this makes the kayak trip all that more interesting.
The Miami and Erie Canal
As kayakers get closer to Piqua, the history moves closer to the present day as remnants of the old Miami and Erie Canal (pictured above) appear on the banks of the west side of the river, and then again at the take-out point near Roadside Park in Piqua.
The Native Americans were long gone by this point (1845), but the miraculous canal was in full swing, transporting goods and people from Lake Erie to the Ohio River and creating boom towns along the way, including those that many of us live in today. The canal used the Great Miami River as a source of water and often followed it very closely.
During this part of the river trip, kayakers will pass next to a restored section of the canal at Johnston Farm & Indian Agency. In season, Thursday through Sunday, it is possible to hear the sound of mules pulling the General Harrison II canal boat and its passengers along the parallel canal. Regular admission to the historical area includes a ride on the canal.
A Two-Part Trip
This trip can be broken down into two main sections. The first section—from Roadside Park in Sidney to the Interstate 75 bridge (roughly in the middle)—is filled with rapids and caves and rock formations. After the bridge, in the second section, the rapids become less frequent, the water gets a little deeper and the sides of the river valley become taller and steeper (and less rocky), especially between Kirkwood and Piqua.
Right after entering the water in Sidney, the Great Miami River starts to stair-step down toward Piqua. This creates a long series of rapids that rarely gives way to calm waters for a good distance. In fact, from the moment you enter the water in Sidney, there are rapids and a strong current that lasts almost all the way to the caves. You barely have to paddle or use much energy, you just have to steer. However, some of the challenges in this area include larger rocks and obstacles in the water, which can easily tip over a kayak. The water is not too deep, but it can move pretty fast, making it hard to stand up. This section passes the water treatment plant in Sidney, which takes away from the serene mood, but only momentarily.
The second section is different. With few rapids, it takes more effort to paddle. But the scenery makes up for the effort, especially north of Piqua. In some of the deeper, clearer parts of this section, it is possible to see large fish (mostly bass and catfish) swimming below the surface. There are Great blue herons, ducks, turtles, deer, hawks, frogs and many other creatures that call the river home. You might even see an eagle.
A highlight of the first section is passing beneath the Little Four railroad bridge, which happens shortly after starting the trip. This historic triple arch bridge, which is still in use today, towers above the water and creates an interesting mirror-effect. Next to it are two parts of an old bridge foundation that once spanned the river. There is room on the banks of the river to stop and explore the scenery.
(Warning: Trees and other debris collect below the bridge. Sometimes, the debris can block the path completely. This can be hard to see from a distance, so approach the bridge with caution and be prepared to portage around. Remember, the water is moving faster than usual in this area, so you’ll need to act quickly.)
There are several other challenging areas in this section, including a few shallow areas where you might need to stand up and pull your kayak to deeper water. It all depends on the water levels. There are also several forks in the river that need to be navigated. It is usually easy to differentiate the correct direction. Just look where the most water is flowing and follow that direction. If the stream looks still, stay away, as it’s most likely a dead end.
All in all, kayaking this section of the Great Miami River is a chance to travel an ancient path through history, geology and natural beauty, and all without leaving your own backyard.
How to Take This Trip
There are a few things to know before taking this trip. While Roadside Park in Sidney has a designated kayak launch area, the one in Piqua does not. Upon arriving to Piqua, near the park, kayakers have to pull out of the water at Swift Run Creek and carry their kayaks about three hundred yards to the parking lot, mostly along the Great Miami Recreational Trail. This might be the last thing you’re interested in doing after spending six hours on the water!
For a more convenient take-out point, continue past Roadside Park (Swift Run Creek) on the river and paddle into downtown Piqua, to either the County Road 25-A bridge, or possibly to Rivers Edge Park on Ohio Route 66. You could also paddle directly to Lock 9 Park, where parking is located nearby.
Make sure to bring enough water and snacks. Chances are, you’ll need them throughout the entire day. You also might want to bring bug spray. Bugs usually don’t bother kayakers on the water, but they will be nearby when stopping for a break on the side of the river. And, of course, always make sure the river is safe enough to kayak and wear a life jacket! Most of all, though, prepare to see a part of western Ohio that few people ever see.
It is hard to find references, but, according to the paper, “An Early Discovery of Flint Artifacts in a Small Limestone Cavern in Shelby County, Ohio,” the late Claude Britt Jr. wrote that several Native American flint points were found in the Miami River Cave (which he refers to as Five-Mile Cave) when it was excavated in the 1920s. This makes the cave one of the only caves in Ohio where flint artifacts have been found, he wrote. Could these flint points be from local Native Americans who lived in the area, or were they from a group of hunters and gatherers just passing through on this ancient river path?