River of No Return

By Ed Staskus

   It started in 1974 when the Grand River became Ohio’s second wild river gone scenic. It is bordered by forests of ash, maple, and swamp white oak. The slow steady flow of water along the wetlands makes habitat for wildlife. The lower section of the river in Lake County is designated still wild and even more scenic. There are steep valley walls of Chagrin Shale. After rainstorms sudden waterfalls sweep over the bluffs. 

   The Grand River has its own partnership group working with the Ohio Scenic Rivers Association to assist with preservation. When their work was done, they had no idea they had created a habitat for Gill Man. Oliver, who was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County, warned them the year he spotted the creature, but they were not of a mind to listen to a six-year-old. When he warned them again a year later, they said they weren’t of a mind to listen to a seven-year-old either. 

   “That boy is making more noise than a skeleton key throwing a fit on a tin roof,” the man who made the rules said.

   Oliver rolled his eyes.

   “Pay attention to me son. I’m not just talking to hear my head roar.”

   “What about all the swimmers and paddlers and fishermen?” Oliver asked.

   “There isn’t any monster in that river. Now go, I say go away boy, you’re bothering me,” is what he got for his trouble.

    The Grand River follows a 98-mile course to Lake Erie. It rambles through five different counties, finishing up in Fairport Harbor. The Geological Survey says it is the most biologically diverse river of its kind in the Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair basin. There is plenty of wildlife, including wild turkey, bald eagles, and river otter. They stay away from Gill Man morning noon and night.

    There are six tent camping sites the Lake Metroparks has carved out for outdoorsmen. They are on the primitive side as campgrounds go. Each site does have a picnic table, grill, and a place to pitch a tent. Everybody gets their own fire ring. Campers are expected to pack-in and pack-out. There are no restrooms. 

   There is no rest for the wicked, especially if they run into Gill Man. Unlike the down-home wildlife, most people didn’t know anything about Gill Man and didn’t want to know. Whenever they bumped into him it scared the pants off them. Oliver knew all about the monster and wasn’t going to be scared out of his pants. His nerves were rock lobster steady.

   One of the camping sites is four miles downstream from Hidden Valley Park in Madison. Oliver and his sister Emma and their parents carried their gear and two kayaks a half mile from the parking lot to their weekend fire ring. That Friday night they grilled shish kebabs and roasted marshmallows. They had a tent, but the night was fair, and they slept under the stars. The next day after breakfast they slid their kayaks into the river and set off.

   They went against the current so they could come back with the current. They paddled under South Madison Rd., past Strong Cabin, and around Hogback Ridge Park. They were north of the Debonne Vineyards when they ran into the man who made the rules. He was at the head of a four-man Nighthawk canoe, although two of the men were women. The man at the stern was doing most of the heavy paddling.

   They looked happy. They were happy. They had just come from a stopover at Benny Vino Urban Winery, where they lingered long for tastings. The craft pulled up to each other, everybody said hello, and agreed it was a wonderful day. Before going their separate ways Oliver warned the folks in the Nighthawk to watch out for Gill Man.

   “You’re doing a lot of chopping, son, but no chips are flying,” the man who made the rules said. “There’s no Gill Man. I say you’re way off on this one.”

   Emma, who was Oliver’s right-hand man, stood up for her younger brother, saying, “When it comes to monsters, mister, he’s the Ph.D. of them in Lake County.”

   “Look sister,” the man laughed. “Is any of what I’m saying filtering through that little blue bonnet of yours?”

   “What blue bonnet?” Emma asked. She was wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap. The Indians weren’t the Indians anymore, but she liked Chief Wahoo. She liked his big teeth and big smile. He was a friendly face.

   Oliver’s mom reckoned they had come far enough and besides she had a surprise for lunch. They turned their kayaks around and followed the Nighthawk, which wasn’t hard to do. The muscles of the man in the stern were as soggy as a used tea bag, since he was the only one paddling. The two women were non-stop chatting while the man who made the rules was looking through his binoculars for eagles.

   He never saw the quiet as a fox strong as an ox Gill Man reaching for him until green claws grabbed him and pulled him out of the boat. When he tried to push Gill Man away, he was rewarded with a wet slap to the face.

   “I say what’s the big idea bashing me in the bazooka that way!”

   Gill Man didn’t understand English and ignored everything the man said. The man never stopped yelling and complaining. “Oh, shut up already,” Gill Man finally said, but it was in the language of the Black Lagoon, where he had been born and bred. He couldn’t remember how he ended up in Ohio, more than a thousand miles from the Everglades National Park, many tears earlier. It wasn’t hot enough in the summer and way too cold in the winter. If he knew the way back, he would have gone in a heartbeat, which was one beat a minute.

   “Help, help!” the man cried “He doesn’t know when to stop. Help me!”

   “What should we do?” Oliver’s dad asked. 

   “We need to make Gill Man a fish out of water,” Oliver said. “Get him out of his element, get him on land where he is slow and clumsy. Watch out for his hands, though.”

   The creature had webbed hands with sharp claws on the tips of each finger. His scaly skin was tough as nails. Bullets meant nothing to him. They bounced off him. He was amphibious, breathing in and out of water.

   “Do you remember how to lasso?” Oliver asked his dad.

   Oliver’s father had been a trick rider in rodeos putting himself through college when he was a student.

   “It’s like riding a bike.”

   He made a Honda knot with the rope at the bottom of the kayak. They paddled as fast as they could after Gill Man and snared him with the rope. There was a titanic struggle. They threw the rope landward, tied it around a tree, and hauled Gill Man ashore. The man who made the rules coughed up water and phlegm, shaking himself like a dog. Gill Man roared loud and louder. They wound the rope around him pinning him to the tree until he couldn’t move. 

   “I brought some rotenone just in case,” Oliver said.

   “What’s that?” Emma asked 

   “It’s like kryptonite to Gill Men.”

   Oliver sprayed Gill Man in the nose. The day started to turn to night. An inky darkness came over the creature. He sank into it, his dreams gone dreamless.

   When the Perry Fire Department showed up, they didn’t know what to do with him. Oliver talked to the chief. The chief got on his blower and called for a quint truck. It took six firemen to carry the unconscious Gill Man to the water tanker and toss him inside. They made sure the lid was shut tight. They double checked and checked again.

   Two days later the truck pulled up to the Black Lagoon in the Everglades and dumped Gill Man out. He was never so happy in his life. He waved goodbye to the firemen. They saluted him, the tips of their index fingers tapping the lower-right part of the brim of their caps

    Back at their camp site Emma and Oliver watched their mom bring crescent dough wrapped around hot dogs out of the cooler. She stuck them on roasting sticks while their dad got a fire going. They sat around the fire.

   “Pigs in a blanket!” Emma and Oliver exclaimed at the same time, hungry as hard-working fishermen with a tall tale to tell.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”