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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: Pontooning on the Ohio River

By June 15, 20114 Comments

No faithful readers, I have not completely disappeared off the face of the planet. I did go to Austin, Texas, which may not have disappeared off the face of the planet, but seems to be a very difficult place for rain clouds to find. Austin is in the middle of a three year drought, and as I sit here listening to the comforting sound of summer rain and thunder, I feel very lucky to be back in lush Indiana.

It’s not Monday, but last night my husband and some friends of ours were treated to a magical pontoon boat ride down the Ohio River. Alas, I did not take my purse, and therefore did not have my camera, so you’re going to have to rely on the power of my descriptive abilities to convey to you how enchanting this boat ride was in the absence of any pictures.

As we discussed on the pontoon boat, we live in a town right on Ohio River. I see it every day, either walking or driving along. The college where I work sits on a bluff overlooking a beautiful bend in the river. It’s even in our alma mater: “High above a stately river/ Far from mart and town/ Stands our stately alma mater/ Looking proudly down.” And yet, most of us rarely ever actually venture out onto the river, because for that you need a boat. Or even better, you need to know someone with a boat, because then you don’t actually have to worry about taking care of the boat yourself. Thankfully, we find ourselves in that second category.

A pontoon boat is, as our friend described, basically a floating front porch. Perfect. This one came complete with a grill and of course, a cooler with some pontoon-boat-appropriate beverages.

Payne Hollow

Most of the trips I’ve ever taken on the Ohio before have been on riverboats, across the river to a Red’s game or a short cruise as a kid for a field trip on the B & B Riverboat. That was upriver, around Cincinnati. Down here around Madison, once you get past the power plant and Hanover, signs of civilization along the river pretty much disappear. As our pontoon host said, on that part of the river, you can begin to imagine what it might have been like for the early pioneers, floating down a river in what was relative wilderness. When you turn off the engine and just drift along, the only sound are the birds, the river, and an occasional dog barking on the shore.

We had a lovely meal of grilled vegetables, corn on the cob, and ice cream for dessert. And by the time we headed back up river towards Madison, the sun was setting and the full moon rose over the southern side of the river. The light of the moon made beautiful patterns in the water along the boat’s wake. In the fading light of the sun setting and the rising moon, with no lights on either shore of the river, the side of the hills and the sky were perfectly reflected in the river, and the difference between the sky above and the river below seemed to disappear.

As you head back to civilization, smells and sounds from the shore reach you in the dark. We saw someone who looked to be passed out around a campfire on the shore. You could smell woodsmoke, and just a hint of someone doing laundry. Even the power plant looks kind of beautiful at night from the river, as my husband said, lit up like the death star.

Lee Bottom Flying Field

Our friend who owns the pontoon boat was born and raised in Madison, and could offer his own guided tours of the river which I would gladly pay for, given his knowledge of local history. We passed Payne Hollow, where Harlan and Anna Hubbard painted, wrote, and lived their lives of graceful simplicity. And Lee Bottom Flying Field, a grass landing strip along the Ohio where in September, antique airplanes come from miles around for a huge fly-in. Our friend told us that the particular bend in the river around Hanover and Madison was a landmark for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad, where they would cross and head to Kent or Eleutherian College.

On our trip back we found ourselves between two barges, one headed up river farther behind us, and one headed down river which we passed. We got to see the navigation beacons along the river which the barges use to find their way at night, and were temporarily blinded by the high-powered searchlight they use to find the beacons, and to warn boats that might be in their way (we were not in their way, but safely hugging the shore, so I can only assume they were checking us out).

It was just an amazing trip, and a reminder that the river is not just for looking at from the shore. If you ever have the chance yourself to go out on a pontoon on the Ohio, don’t pass it up.

Don’t forget about my 100 Follower Giveaway. I’ve still got a ways to go, but comment on this post or follow to enter and let me know which book you’d like if you win. Also, check out this interview with my good friend Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads) at Algonquin Books’ blog. And, if you’re a Madisonian, this Friday and Saturday, a team of students and professors from Ball State’s Community Based Programs will be doing a charette at Kernan’s Hardware Store on Main St. for their Imagine Madison project. A charette means community folks come in and talk to the students about what they want to see in Madison and based on those discussions, they help generate a whole bunch of ideas for us. So stop by Friday or Saturday to tell them what you think and see what kinds of things they’ve come up with.


  • Audra says:

    This sounds amazing! I love trips like this — I'm so envious. The image of the full moon on the river with the scent of woodsmoke, laundry…WOW. Just beautiful.

  • Who needs photographs when you've got prose like that? Lovely! Were you in Austin for work or for fun? I had no idea that their draught had been going on for so long. Yikes!

  • Robyn says:

    Thanks, Jane. I try. I often think of what you said once, “Why do people want to be unhappy?”, or something to that effect. An important and puzzling question.

    Audra, thanks. It was really a trip for all the senses.

    Emily, I was in Austin for work/fun. A group of grad school friends get together every year to do some sociology and also a lot of shopping, eating, giggling. Love reading about your vacation.

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