The River Speaks: Freshwater mussels & carp with Gary Etter
Gary Etter has spent time on the Little Miami River since he was a boy in the 1950s. He was involved in competitive canoe racing in the 60s and 70s, and he’s watched as the river changed over decades. The Little Miami of his youth was full of wildlife, which he hopes might one day return…
"Back when I was young, we spent a lot of time on our bikes riding around in this area and checking out these covered bridges," Gary recalled. "And I would be remiss if I didn't tell you that the river was far more pristine. On every sandbar, there were mussels, freshwater mussels, four and five inches in diameter, and you could not walk on those barefooted. You would cut your feet up. I don't know if we had PF Fliers or what we had, but we had some kind of cheap tinny that we always wore. And if it got colder, we had clodhoppers on."
"So, fast-forward," he said. "We were out practicing for canoe racing, and we could not come to a conclusion as to what the heck was going on in the river up in front of us. The water was just frothing. We’d been through there before, and this is not a waterfall and this was not a rapids."
"When we got up there, it was carp spawning," Gary recollected. "These carp were two to three foot long, and they were spawning and mating. I'm telling you what, they were just kicking up a storm. They didn't even care that we were there."
"I would just love to see this river come back to that stage, and it will take a tremendous effort to get that to happen," he said hopefully.
"We just have so much more population in the whole watershed," Gary said. "People don't understand that what they throw in the street ends up in the river. 'Where's that going?' It’s going right into our water source. And people think once they throw it on the ground, 'Well, it doesn't go anywhere.' Well, guess what? It does. It ends up right down here on the river. And if we don't catch it here, it goes all the way to New Orleans."
"So, in my early days, when we canoe raced, it was great to have the support of the U.S. Canoe Association," he said. "They were on every river around here, but the Little Miami hosted more than their share."
"A typical race started at Fairgrounds Road and went all the way to Spring Valley. That’s 17 miles, and it was not a walk in the park. It was an all out sprint for 17 miles, which we learned from the first race," Gary remembered.
"We thought we were in for a little glory ride, and we found out that these guys never ever let up. Canoers were in fantastic shape," he said admirably. "So, we had to go out and practice [laughs] and build up our stamina, and if you really want to build up your stamina for canoe racing, you don't go downstream, you go upstream. So, you worked at it to build up your muscles and build up to your stroke."
"The Little Miami—it's just been so exciting for me," Gary fondly said. "We've had some great canoe trips out of Fort Ancient. We got a little campground across the river, and we had boys from the Kettering [YMCA]. We camped overnight there in a group camp. It was fabulous."
"It was fall and our fire got going—it was a nice big ring fire, and all the kids were sitting around," he described. "And we're telling stories when all of a sudden a fire would pop every once in a while. Pop! Pop! And I’m like, 'What the heck is going on?'"
"Right off from the side of the fire was a big old Buckeye tree, and the fire was making the Buckeyes pop out of their shell, and then they dropped down on the fire and then they’d explode," Gary said. "And of course, we rounded up enough Buckeyes for all the boys to have one in their pocket for good luck."
"You know you aren’t a true Buckeye unless you got a Buckeye in your pocket," he said jokingly.
The River Speaks: An Oral History of the Little Miami River is a collaboration between WYSO and the Little Miami Watershed Network. It is funded by Ohio Humanities and The Nick and Edna Weller Charities.