Starting in Pittsburgh, 981-mile Ohio River paddle benefits mental illness awareness
Three days’ worth of water and clothes and 15 days’ worth of food — check.
Batteries and solar panels — check.
Mirrored reflector tape on both sides of paddles — check.
Joe Solomon was more than ready Thursday morning to launch from Pittsburgh’s Point State Park for a 981-mile kayak trip down the Ohio River, ending at its confluence with the Mississippi River in Cairo, Ill.
The Cincinnati resident is embarking on the six-week river odyssey to raise money and awareness for mental illness. The proceeds benefit the National Alliance for Mental Illness and Santa Maria Community Services’ Youth Development Program.
Solomon, 38, works with disadvantaged youths for AmeriCorps in Cincinnati. When he returns from his Ohio River trip, he will start his third year for AmeriCorps, moving to West Virginia to work at a Christian camp.
Solomon literally paddled his way out of mental illness after complications in 2012 from anesthesia to mend an elbow injury led to a catatonic state and a host of mental health issues.
“Now, I’m trying to give back to the community that gave to me while I was ill,” he said. “I feel like I can help to end the stigma and to inspire someone.”
Solomon’s love of kayaking took hold about five years ago when he bought a season pass at a local outfitter and kayaked eight miles daily. Since then, he just kept on paddling.
During the past several years, Solomon made shorter jaunts, including multiple trips on the 100-plus-mile Little Miami River between Dayton and Cincinnati. Recently, he paddled a 134-mile portion of the Ohio River from Cincinnati to Louisville, Ky., to help plot out a portion of the Ohio River Recreation Trail.
“I can do an entire river. Why not do something bigger?” Solomon thought, so he put together his Ohio River trip.
Recreational trips down the Ohio River via cabin cruiser, canoe and kayak have been done before. But publicized one-person kayak trips, not so much, according to a recent search of newspaper announcements.
The Ohio is slack water, meaning 20 locks and dams tame the water flow, making it suitable for navigation, especially for commercial vessels.
Solomon feels he’s ready for anything as captain of his 15-foot kayak. He’s already flipped on the water on one of his previous river trips.
“If barges are coming close, I know when to get off the river,” he said. “They can create such a wake. I’m not afraid of it.”
So, what is Solomon afraid of? “A drunken boater on a weekend,” he said.
“Anything else I can deal with. I can control my boat.”
Everything is waterproof and strapped down in Solomon’s kayak. It’s simple: If he doesn’t lose the kayak, he will keep his gear.
With modern day batteries, a solar panel setup, an Apple watch, a marine radio and a tracker, Solomon will be in constant contact with family and friends. In the most remote areas, he can communicate by text message via satellite.
His movements will be tracked and available on his Facebook page, kayaking4acause.
Solomon’s goal is to paddle about 30 miles a day, but he expects to exceed that rate after two weeks on the river. He will camp out along the river during his trip and meet up with “river angels” — people living near the river banks who are committed to helping out paddlers on long-term expeditions — with whom he hopes to visit along the way.
Solomon wants to make it home to Cincinnati on Aug. 19 or 20 to take part in a large fundraiser and cookout before restarting his trek Aug. 22.
He hopes to reach the Mississippi River in mid-September.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .