Group recalls retracing historic journey

MARIETTA – On June 1 three long wooden kayaks sliced their way along the Monongahela River from McKeesport toward Pittsburgh and the Ohio River confluence.

The weary trio manning those vessels – Dan Jones and Gary Murphy of Marietta, and Roger Murphy (no relation to Gary) of Duncan Falls, Ohio – were entering the second week of a 22-day bicycle-and-kayak journey from Ipswich, Mass., to Marietta.

“There’s no place at all to get out of your boat on the Monongahela near Pittsburgh; there are just a lot of concrete walls along many industrial sites,” Jones told members of the Marietta Noon Rotary Club Thursday during a presentation on the trio’s “Westward Home” expedition.

Their 926-mile journey traced the route Gen. Rufus Putnam and the Ohio Company of Associates traveled in 1787 and 1788 on their way to founding the settlement of Marietta.

“I had called ahead to be sure we could lock through the Braddock Locks and Dam on the Monongahela that day, and was told there would be no problem, just call the lockmaster when we arrived,” Jones said. “But when we reached the dam and I called the lockmaster he asked if we had a 56-foot line.”

He explained that small craft like kayaks and canoes are apparently required to toss a line over the edge of the lock wall that they can hold onto while passing through the locks.

“We didn’t have a 56-foot line, and he wouldn’t let us lock through,” Jones said. “So we had to paddle all the way back upriver to McKeesport where we had put in that day. That was the longest day of our entire trip on the rivers.”

The trek started May 18 in front of the First Congregational Church in Ipswich, Mass., where Putnam’s original journey began. Jones and Roger Murphy mounted their bikes there. Gary Murphy joined them on the route a few days later. He stayed behind to help care for his wife who had just undergone hip surgery.

“That was probably the most emotional part of the trip,” Jones said of that first day. “We were having our photo taken by a sign in front of the church. Bill Wesel had tears in his eyes.”

Wesel and his wife, Sally, of Marietta, followed the three adventurers in their recreational vehicle, while another member of the expedition, Pete Prigge, also from Marietta, drove the forward “scout” vehicle, towing the kayaks and other equipment and keeping the trekkers on course.

Also staying behind in Marietta to maintain a daily web log site chronicling the journey were team members Mike Pyles and Tom Perry.

They met with kindness from many people along the way, Jones said, noting folks like Gordon and Deb Harris of Ipswich in whose home the travelers stayed the day before they began the journey. Gordon Harris, an avid biker, also rode along with the expedition for the first 60 miles.

Later, after Gary Murphy had joined the group, the bikers were about halfway up a steep hill just outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when a woman came out of her home and offered each a couple of cookies.

“Those cookies gave us the energy to make it to the top of that hill,” Jones said.

In the small town of West Newton, Pa., where the Putnam expedition stopped for two months to cut trees and build canoes and boats for the rivers portion of their trip, the 2013 expedition members were treated to hot showers at a bed and breakfast, dinner from a local pizza parlor, and lunch courtesy of the West Newton mayor.

All along the route the travelers shared about the historic significance of the journey that coincides with the 225th anniversary of the founding of Marietta and the gateway to the Northwest Territory.

The trek ended as the three kayakers arrived in Marietta June 7, welcomed by a flotilla of other boaters and the Marietta Fire Boat with water cannons spraying fountains of water out over the Ohio River.

Gary Murphy expressed great respect for the skills and endurance of his co-trekkers, Jones and Roger Murphy, noting both are five years his senior and are seasoned kayakers and bikers.

“I did this, too, but it was a once in a lifetime experience. I won’t be doing it again,” he joked.

In addition to commemorating the original Putnam expedition, Gary Murphy said the trip was a fundraiser for the Washington County Boys and Girls Club and Harmar Community Center.

“We raised just short of $40,000 from this trip,” he said. “We were shooting for $50,000, but we’re very happy with the amount we’ve received. And I want to thank the entire Westward Home team as well as everyone who supported us.”

Bill Wesel thanked Jones for coordinating the trip for the expedition and for the benefit of the local community.

“We didn’t know each other very well when this expedition began, but we sure do know each other now,” he said. “This really was the experience of a lifetime that gave me a new outlook on life. I was in ‘retirement mode,’ doing less and less every day. But this trip has turned me around.”

Sally agreed.

“I think we’ve all adopted Roger Murphy’s motto – bolder, not older,” she said.