2021 Project Achievement and Leadership Award Blog Series: Ohio River Recreational Trail Digital Guide

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OKI Regional Council of Governments: Winner of this year’s Project Achievement Awards with their Ohio River Recreational Trail Digital Guide

The Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) developed the Ohio River Digital Guide, an interactive digital map that is designed to aid boaters, paddlers, anglers, cyclists, and motorists to safely explore the Ohio river communities. The guide provides real-time updates of where commercial vessels are and where the barge “sail line” is in the river. In addition to this, the guide includes links to river community websites so travelers can learn about the wonderful amenities that can be found within the river communities.

David Rutter, Senior Planner at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments  explains just how important this river trail guide is to the region at large and his personal experience with this guide:

My first experience of the Ohio River occurred from the backseat of the family car driving across the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati in the early 80s. We were near the end of a multiday family trip from Texas to my parents’ hometown in central Ohio. From my backseat vantage, I looked out at a brown industrial looking riverfront, not really inviting. Views from bridges pretty much sums up the fullness of my experience of the river for the next several decades whether that was in Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Marietta, or Cincinnati. They all looked very similar, lots of concrete, industry, and very little public access. 

It was not until I moved to Cincinnati in 2016 to work for the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI) that I finally got close to the river and began to kayak on it. Tentatively at first, always looking out for barges and motorboats. My love of paddling led to my involvement on the Paddlefest planning team. Paddlefest is an annual event held on the first Saturday of August in Cincinnati, where the Ohio river shuts down to motorized traffic and over 2,000 people paddling nine miles from the East side of Cincinnati to the west side through downtown. It is a great way to see the city skyline and the communities on both sides of the river with the added benefit of not having to watch out for those larger vessels. Proceeds from the event help to support Adventure Crew, whose mission is to get city kids out into nature.  

In 2018 my involvement on the Paddlefest planning team also gave me the opportunity to be part of a team of nine people paddling in a 30-foot voyager canoe straight through from Cincinnati to Louisville, 130 miles in 33 hours. The organizers of the trip were from River City Paddle Sports in Louisville who invited people from the Paddlefest team to join them. I learned a great deal from the seasoned “big river” paddlers on the trip such as the benefit of paddling in as straight a line as possible to reduce the distance traveled and with it the number of strokes required. This involved continual crossing from one side of the river to the other on the diagonal between bends. All of us kept our eyes and ears open for barges in case we needed to make a quick dash towards the nearest shore to avoid being river kill. As we paddled through the night our conversation turned to how we could make it easier for others to experience the river like we were doing.  The seed for the digital guide was planted and the Ohio River Recreation Trail began to germinate. 

OKI supported Paddlefest for years and had recently created an online map that participants in Paddlefest could pull up on their phones to see the route, where they were at, and learn more about some of the things around them by clicking on them. As the Ohio River Recreation Trail planning committee began, we knew we wanted something similar but more robust, a guide that would show the user where they were at, access points, points of interest around them, and most importantly where the barges were located. 

Barges, big seemingly slow-moving juggernauts, easily avoidable so long as one knows where they are. That seems like it should be easy given how big they are but they can be amazingly quiet, especially when coming up from behind or if you are around a bend in the river. More than anything else, fear of the barges seemed to keep people from paddling on the Ohio River. One of the most unique aspects of the digital guide is having real time AIS data showing the location and direction of travel for commercial vessels.  

A few months after our initial paddle from Cincinnati to Louisville, I decided to do a solo trip from Portsmouth, OH to Cincinnati after dropping my oldest off at Ohio University. To plan for the trip, I used the Ohio River Guidebook by Jerry M. Hay since the digital guide was still just an idea. It was helpful but bulky and required me to continually guesstimate my approximate location and how far to my next stopping point. It also did not provide much guidance on things to do, places to see, where to eat, or sleep. So, I rarely stopped to explore the small towns I was passing. Meanwhile I was continually hyper alert for any indication of a barge headed in my direction. Every crossing from one side of the river to the other to take the shortest route involved intense paddling to get out of the shipping lane as quickly as possible.  

In June 2020 we released the digital guide. My first trip out on the river was very different. I still watched and listened closely for barges and other motorized traffic but now I could more confidently decide when it was a good time to cross the river. The real time data allowed me to see around the bends of the river and look several miles up and downstream to anticipate when I would need to be extra cautious as a barge approached. It also helped me know what our river towns have to offer, restaurants and shops, hotels, campgrounds, and marinas. It encourages the user to explore further and conversely for our river towns to keep the data for their communities up to date. Local leaders have been quick to see the potential for the guide to bring people to their communities fueling their economies. 

The digital guide has helped make recreation on the Ohio River safer, at least for the 274 miles between Portsmouth, OH and West Point, KY and helps highlight the unique character of each of the towns along the route while emphasizing their connectedness. It is our hope and aspiration to expand it to the full 981 miles of the Ohio River in the near future.    

Written by David Rutter, Senior Planner, OKI Regional Council of Governments

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