A Sense of Place: Ohio and the Mohican 100

As I write this, I am sitting on Southwest flight 4472, returning from a week in my home state of Ohio. While I have gone back to Ohio one or two times per year since I moved to California in 2003, this is my longest return visit, and the first where I've spent most of my time hiking, birding, and running through the places I used to enjoy when I lived there. My primary reason for this trip was to run the Mohican 100, a 100 mile trail race through Mohican State Park and State Forest. I wanted to run this race because the area is intensely beautiful, and frequent childhood trips here were important to my development as a biologist and lover of the outdoors. As my mom and stepfather were working during the weekdays on my visit, it gave me my first significant opportunity since I moved to California to rediscover some of my favorite places in the state.

Leading a bird walk at Blendon Woods Metro Park, Columbus, Ohio with David Sibley to publicize the release off Audubon's

Clear Creek Metro Park

My hiking and birding trips along Clear Creek Road long pre-date the establishment of the Park that is there today. The area is densely-forested, with stunning rock formations, and is located at the beginning of Appalachian foothill region when traveling southeast from Columbus. With the establishment of the park comes easier access to some of the most productive breeding warbler habitat in the state of Ohio, including the Cerulean Warbler, which is a range-restricted species only found in a subset of the forest types in the region.

Given the short time I had available, it mattered little to me that showers and thunderstorms were on tap for the day's weather. I headed up on the Cemetery Ridge in a light rain, which shortly turned into a heavy downpour. Despite the harsh weather, birdsong was ever present, and I was surprised by the degree to which I remembered immediately the songs of species I hadn't heard in years. The hike opened with a singing Northern Parula in the spruce near the parking lot, which is the exact same location I'd reliably get that species more than a decade ago. A White-eyed Vireo sings from shrubs at the edge of a clearing. A Black-and-white Warbler sings next to the trail. Then, as if on cue, a Cerulean Warbler sings from the other side of a ravine where I'd have them in years past.

Top of Cemetery Ridge. Photo by Marcus C. England.

As I made my way to the top of the ridge, trying in vain to avoid the developing puddles, I walked a short ways off trail to investigate an old barn that I hadn't seen since 2002. Upon poking my head inside, I found a Black Vulture looking down at me. Shuffling back and forth, I almost felt as if he or she was asking me to find my own shelter from the rain. I left it alone and proceeded toward the Hemlock Trail, passing through more tall broadleaf forest and prairie openings along the way, even recording a Prairie Warbler in one of them.

The Hemlock Trail, as the name implies, is a path winding up and then down a steep, rocky embankment cloaked in as fine an example of Eastern Hemlock forest you'll see anywhere. While the bird diversity was not great in this portion of the hike, it was to the beautiful soundtrack of several species of Catharus thrushes that I reabsorbed the beauty and reflected on how comfortable this environment felt to me. As much as I love the mountains of California, this felt like home, and I felt completely at ease and relaxed in a way I haven't felt in a long time.

Eventually, the trail reaches Clear Creek Road. I crossed to walk the trail between the road and the creek back to the parking lot, listening for Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos (hearing or seeing neither), and recording several species of herons, as well as a Louisiana Waterthrush. Upon reaching my car, I tallied my species list at 53, submitted the info to eBird, then drove back to Columbus.

Male Hooded Warbler at Clear Creek Metro Park. Photo by Marcus C. England.

Killdeer Plains

The next morning, I headed promptly to Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area in northwest Ohio. Killdeer Plains is located in the relatively flat northwestern portion of the state, which is the only portion of the state that matches what most non-Ohioans think of when they think of Ohio. Agriculture abounds in this region. The wildlife area includes some farmed areas that are managed specifically to attract wildlife. While management of the area is focused on game species, it is an all-around excellent birding location, with a wide variety of deep water lakes, shallow ponds, marshes, agricultural fields, prairies, and woodlands.

Killdeer Plains sign.

I spent the day hitting all of these habitats. Unlike the previous day, I did most of my birding by vehicle, with some stops to look over the top of levees and taller vegetation to see what was behind. These stops usually only lasted a few minutes, until I was forced inside by the swarms of bloodthirsty horse and deer flies. While I got few excellent looks at things, I did see most of what I wanted to see, including species such as Bald Eagle, Red-headed Woodpecker, Dickcissel, and Orchard Oriole. I was very pleased to see that Red-headed Woodpeckers appeared to be much more common in the area than they used to be. In fact, my only disappointment on the day was that I couldn't get to 75 species, as I ended the day at 72.

Male Dickcissel singing on a power line at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area, Ohio. Photo by Marcus C. England.

While Killdeer Plains doesn't have the scenic beauty of some of the other places I visited on this trip, a visit there brings back many fond memories of all my birding trips and rare species discoveries there over the years. I most frequently visited there during the winter months, as there are few better areas away from Lake Erie in the state of Ohio for waterfowl, as well as Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting. While most of these trips were birding-specific endeavors, I also stopped there on the way to or from (or both!) my grandmother's house in Findlay, Ohio. A stop at Killdeer Plains was even included on one of the few birding tours conducted by Ornithology Expeditions, a birding tour company founded by myself and Lee Jones in 2001 that initially appeared to take off like a wildfire, until that day in September that - among the least of its side effects - altered many people's travel plans. We folded the company in early 2002, but took one of our clients on a truncated version of a trip she was interested in at no cost.

Lee Jones with Eleanor Nunley at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area sometime in early 2002. Photo by Marcus C. England.

The Mohican 100

Me at the start line of the Mohican 100. Photo by my mom.

I had high hopes for the Mohican 100. I've had that race on my mind since I first started long distance trail running. The only reason I hadn't pulled the trigger on a race entry the last few years was because it is so close to the Angeles Crest 100, but it hit me this year that that won't change, and if I'm going to keep running the Angeles Crest 100, then why not run the Mohican 100, too?

My mom was nice enough to come to the race to provide crew support, as she wanted to learn what kind of ridiculousness I was putting myself through. After spending the night at the Mohican State Park Lodge, we arrived at the start area on Saturday, June 20, at 4:30 am. It began raining as soon as we arrived, and we headed under some trees to shelter with other runners until the 5 am start. I spoke some with my mom, engaged in pre-race nervous babbling with other runners, and headed out onto the course with the "go!" signal promptly at 5 am.

Unlike some races I've been in, the middle of the pack started at a very relaxed and easy pace. The race opens with approximately 1.5 miles of pavement winding through a developed campground. Suddenly, everyone stops. We're at the start of the single track trail heading into the deep forest and there is a traffic jam. There's more chatter. The rain starts coming down harder. Then, we finally get into the forest and start climbing.

It is probably more than most would want to read to know the precise details of the course. The course is almost entirely single track trail. It is comprised of four loops, the first two being 26.5 miles each and the last two being 23.5 miles each. A significant portion of the "long" and "short" loops is the same, you just take some cut-through trails to avoid certain areas. On the first loop, much of the trail was in decent condition and runnable, with the exception of a steep descent and climb on either side of a large ravine where the trail consisted entirely of deep and deeper mud. As the race progressed, the increasing intensity of the rainfall and increased use of the trail by the hundreds of runners on the course badly deteriorated the conditions. I had zero concerns the first time I passed through a hand-over-hand climbing section at Little Lyons Falls. The second time, it was a little dicey, but I hung around to help some other folks that were having trouble. As I ran the last five or so trail miles at the end of loop two, it was becoming increasingly difficult to run, despite the fact the rain was finally beginning to let up.

I finished loop two, a little over 53 miles, in 14.5 hours. I entered the aid station at the start/finish area feeling great. That changed when I sat down. I suddenly felt how badly chafed I was from the wet clothing (there is only so much Body Glide and Vaseline can do in those conditions), and my stomach started feeling bad for the first time. I took off my shoes, and my feet were so wrinkled they were hardly recognizable. I knew I need to do the following before heading back out:

  • Get my feet to dry and smooth out.
  • Eat a full meal.
  • Change into dry clothes and shoes.

View from Pleasant Hill Dam during the race of the search effort for a child that drowned. The race went down the slope, through the middle of the search. Photo by my mom.

I did all of the above, with the first one taking nearly an hour and half. By the time I headed back out onto the trail, though I felt a little stiff from sitting down, I overall felt pretty excellent. I headed out with my headlamp, and as I walked and ran my way down the mowed path trail section through the campground, I watched a camper fall face-first into the mud. This was a sign of things to come.

Heading back into the forest on the single track, I expected the trail conditions to have dried a bit. I was wrong. The opening trail sections were completely runnable on the first two loops. This time, on loop three, I struggled to move at all without falling. I passed a couple runners who were having more trouble than me, and was likewise passed by some runners (some of whom were running part of the time) who apparently had magical powers or, more likely, shoes with lugs that were made for muddy terrain. I'm not certain I took one step in the next 4.5 miles where I did not slip to some extent, often in mud over the tops of my shoes, and often coming close to falling over, and catching myself with my hands. I needed to grab trees and rocks to get past steep sections. I knew, within a half mile of this, that I was not going to do this all night, especially as the pace I could move at was so slow that it was impossible for me to even come close to finishing within the 32 hour time limit. While it is a major part of ultrarunning for runners to refuse to give up even when they know they can't make it, until someone tells them they have timed out and are pulled off the course, I thought doing that was absurd and I was better off saving my body for other things. I pulled the plug when I saw my mom 4.5 miles later.

While the lack of a finish was hugely disappointing, I won't get down about it. There are far more important things in life. Those far more important things include the search that was going on during the race for one of two kids that drowned at Pleasant Hill Dam the evening before. I felt a little awkward running through the middle of the search effort, and it wasn't until the next day that I learned that the boy's family was among the crowd at the top of the dam where I stopped to get support from my mom during the race.

Those far more important things also include getting to spend some quality time with my mother at a place that we spent a lot of time at when I was kid, and getting to spend my day running around on the trails. The race brought back many, many memories, and it was a joy seeing spots that I haven't seen since I moved to California in 2003.

Clifton Gorge

After giving myself a couple days to heal and stop hobbling around, I intended to set out on Tuesday for Hocking Hills State Park. As soon as I left the house, I changed my mind. I instead headed west to Clifton Gorge, a place that I have always considered a gem of the state. Clifton Gorge was formed by post-glacial runoff carving its way through various layers of limestone and shale. Hiking its trails is a sensory overload of spectacular rock formations, the roar of rushing water, and intense aroma of verdant vegetation. Birding is somewhat difficult because of the roar of the water, but none of that matters: This place is a feast for the senses. I consider it best to not write about it and just post photos.

Clifton Gorge. Photo by Marcus C. England.

Clifton Gorge. Photo by Marcus C. England.

Clifton Gorge. Photo by Marcus C. England.

Clifton Gorge. Photo by Marcus C. England.

In the end, while I did not get 100 miles, I did get 100 species. Or, more accurately, 101 bird species. Better yet, by the time I flew back home on Wednesday morning, I felt as relaxed as I had been in a long time, and further reconnected to where I have come from as a person. While I can not imagine moving back to Ohio, as I have never been able to tolerate the winters and I love the mountains, I feel a sense of place in Ohio's natural areas that I do not have here, and have not felt anywhere else.