W.H. Chip Gross

Hellbender

What the heck's a hellbender?

Herpetologist Greg Lipps, standing knee-deep in the Kokosing River in Knox County, lifts the side of a large, flat rock and tilts it up on edge. As the swirling mud below slowly clears, he stares intently into the water.

No one seems to know for sure how or where the name “hellbender” came from. One theory claims that this docile, harmless salamander was named by early American settlers who thought it so ugly, “it was a creature from hell where it’s bent on returning.” Other common names for Cryptobranchus alleganiensis include devil dog, mud dog, water dog, and grampus. My personal favorite — for the disgusted reaction it triggers — is “snot otter,” describing the heavy coating of mucus that covers the creature’s wrinkled, mottled-brown skin.   

Feathers from some birds, such as the great egret, were in such demand by the millinery trade that they were worth twice their weight in gold.

A feather in your cap?

Sometimes, it’s good to remember just how far we’ve come in wildlife conservation.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, bird feathers were the fashion fad in the millinery — hatmaking — trade. Some feathers, especially plumes from great egrets and snowy egrets, were in such demand that they were literally worth twice their weight in gold. During the 1890s alone, it’s estimated that 5 million birds were killed annually for their feathers. To make matters worse, those birds were taken almost exclusively during the breeding season, their eggs left to rot or their hatchlings to starve and die.

Charles F. Kettering working on his revolutionary electric car starter.

Small-town genius

When automobiles were first being developed more than a century ago, they were as dangerous to start as they were to drive. You didn’t just turn a key in the ignition or press a button on the dashboard as we do today.

Born in Loudonville, Ohio, in 1876, Charles Kettering was the fourth of five children in his family. Poor eyesight caused him headaches in grade school, but he persevered to attend the College of Wooster before transferring to Ohio State University in Columbus.  However, continuing eye problems eventually forced him to withdraw, and he took a job at the Star Telephone Company in Loudonville as foreman of a line crew.  

A ghost plant found in Ohio

Specter of the forest

I enjoy reading — always have. One of my favorite books is Wilson Rawls’ 1961 classic, Where the Red Fern Grows. The author reveals the origin of the title of his fiction novel through his young protagonist, Billy Colman, who lived in the Oklahoma Ozarks: 

The plant grows in such deep, dark forests and is so short-lived that I’ve only seen a handful during a lifetime of wandering the woods. One was growing along the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, spotted during a day hike with my wife. Several other plants I’ve stumbled across here in Ohio (not literally, thankfully), but not often. Each serendipitous find is truly a special event to be celebrated and, of course, photographed.

As a girl, Annie Oakley was a market hunter before she became a sharpshooter.

Little Sure Shot

The greatest exhibition shooter of all time — male or female — was a young woman from Darke County, Ohio: Annie Oakley (1860–1926).

“The museum has the largest display of Annie Oakley photographs, firearms, and memorabilia anywhere in the world,” says Katie Gabbard, marketing director at the Garst. “An entire wing is dedicated to her, chronicling Annie’s many shooting accomplishments as well as her lesser-known philanthropic endeavors.”

In fact, very few of Annie’s medals and awards survive today, as she had most of them melted down near the end of her life so she could raise money for charity.  

Tall ships festivals are scheduled at two Lake Erie ports this summer: Cleveland in July and Erie, Pennsylvania, in August.

Tall ships

On Sept. 10, 1813, a few miles northwest of the Bass Islands on Lake Erie, a David-versus-Goliath confrontation pitted the fledgling United States Navy against a fleet of mighty British warships during the War of 1812.

Shortly after the cannon smoke cleared, Perry scrawled what has since become a famous note on the back of an envelope to send to his commanding officer, Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison (who would, of course, go on to become the ninth president of the United States):  

Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours.

A black bear lounging in a tree

Shooting black bears!

I’ve lived in Ohio all my life, spent tons of time in the outdoors, and have never encountered a black bear in the wild in the Buckeye State. That’s not to say they’re not here, of course.

Predictably unpredictable, black bears are not the bumbling oafs or cuddly teddy bears they are portrayed to be on some television nature programs. No matter where they live, by nature a bear is still a bear, and they are much stronger, smarter, and more adaptive than most people realize.  They are also fast, able to run 30 miles per hour for a short distance (the best an Olympic sprinter can do is in the low 20s). It is the wise wildlife photographer who gives bears a wide berth.  

The 'Lake Lady'

Gone fishing

If you’re an angler, at least once during your lifetime you must experience the unique, majestic beauty of a Lake Erie sunrise.

“I enjoy teaching people, male or female, young or old, the sport of walleye and yellow perch fishing on Lake Erie’s Western Basin,” she says. “I probably average about 100 guiding trips per year, from the islands east to Huron, depending on where the fish are biting.”

Preening woodcock

Sky dancer

Head outdoors with me after supper some evening during the month of April, and remember to take a jacket, as it will be chilly by the time we return after dark.

You’ll likely hear a woodcock long before spotting one, the sound beginning just after sunset. The woodcock’s call has been described as a single loud “peent” or “buzz,” spaced every few seconds. That usually continues for several minutes before the male finally takes wing in a spiral flight skyward, making a twittering sound as he climbs.