ST. MARYS, W.Va. -- When it comes to exploring backwater attractions, there's no shortage of sites to visit along both sides of the Ohio River downstream from St. Marys.
Not just the sleepy, picturesque and historic river towns lining the shores of the mighty river, but literal backwaters -- lake-sized pools of still water connected to rivers and often teeming with wildlife and exotic-looking wetland plants.
The Marietta Adventure Co. in downtown Marietta, Ohio, just across the river from Williamstown in Wood County, includes a full-day backwater kayak tour in its lineup of guided and outfitted kayak trips offered every weekend. Last Saturday, guide Hallie Taylor led a group on a nine-mile journey that included a little bit of everything the region has to offer paddlers.
First, there were whitecaps to surf on a wind-chopped Ohio River, adding a little spray and excitement to what is ordinarily a placid flat-water paddle. Time spent on the big river gave those in the group a chance to get close-up views of the leeward sides of Middle and Broadback Islands, units of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge.
Then there were the backwaters -- Dana's Run and Newell Run on the Ohio side of the river, and the largest on the tour, French Creek, a bay-like stretch of calm water extending inland from the West Virginia shore near the town of Belmont.
The creeks feeding into the backwaters were explored until they were too shallow for navigation, giving paddlers views of densely wooded hills, some of which were part of the Wayne National Forest, and expanses of farmland.
The tour also included a fuel-up stop at the Jug, a dock-equipped burger and hotdog mecca in Newport, Ohio, during the middle of Jugfest, the burger stand's annual customer appreciation celebration and car show.
The trip began at the St. Marys City Park boat launch ramp, in the wind-protected channel separating Middle Island from the West Virginia shore. The calm water gave those in the tour the chance to get used to the feel of their rented kayaks (you can bring your own if you choose, for a discounted rate) and make adjustments to footrest pads and seatbacks.
After passing under the iron bridge connecting Middle Island to St. Marys (Middle Island is the only unit in the Ohio Islands National Wildlife Refuge accessible by car), the tour group crossed to the north shore of the Ohio, paddled past Newport, and paddled under the Ohio Route 7 bridge to reach the Dana's Run Backwater.
Here, the group encountered the first of what would be dozens of great blue heron sightings during the day, and watched swallows and kingfishers dart above the calm water's surface looking for food. A few anglers aboard bass boats and johnboats had taken haven from the choppy waves of the Ohio to cast toward the backwater's reedy shoreline.
While they weren't spotted on this trip, sightings of bald eagles and ospreys dive-bombing the water for fish aren't uncommon in the backwaters and along the upriver end of Broadback Island, according to Taylor.
After picking a route through the shallows at the back end of the backwater, the group paddled single-file up Dana's Run, as the stream narrowed, began a series of S curves, and finally became too shallow to pass through. The group about-faced and paddled back toward the river at a leisurely pace.
"This is a relaxing way to spend the day," said Jeff Myers of Marietta, one of five paddlers in Taylor's group. "I haven't been kayaking in years, and this is an enjoyable way to get back into it."
Once back in the Ohio, the kayakers made for the West Virginia shore, quartering into waves of chop formed by brisk winds pushing against the current.
"I take it back -- it's not so relaxing," a grinning Myers shouted into the wind.
Once along the West Virginia shore, the group paddled under the W.Va. 2 bridge and into the French Creek Backwater, where tranquility reigned. Small groves of dead, submerged trees protruded from the calm water, some of them supporting cylindrical wire mesh mallard nests, occupied only by downy feathers at this time of year.