Rick Rhodes grew up largely in Louisville, Ky., but his fascination with the river that runs through it, the Ohio, was sparked years later and hundreds of miles away. It began in the early 1970s, in Morgantown, where Rhodes was a student at West Virginia University. And it began, actually, with a tributary of the Ohio. "I always was looking at that Monongahela River and I always wanted to take a boat down it," he says.
Some three decades and several careers later, Rhodes made his dream come true. On his 24-foot pocket trawler, the Free State, he sailed the Mon from Fairmount, W.V., down; the Allegheny River from East Brady down; and the Ohio -- all 981 miles of it -- from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Ill., where it flows into the mighty Mississippi.
That grand trip, along with journeys down five other Ohio tributaries, were the basis for The Ohio River, an exhaustive, 320-page large-format book, self-published on Rhodes' Heron Island Guides. While its first sections focus on the river's role in history from European settlement on, Rhodes is, unsurprisingly, most in his element writing about boats. His 2007 book covers everything from the steamboat's propensity for calamity to odd, charming anecdotes of riparine life. You'll learn, moreover, that the salt industry was a key to industrial development in the watershed, and that for long stretches of U.S. history, three of the nation's 12 largest cities (including Pittsburgh) were on the Ohio -- which still services six of the 10 busiest inland U.S. ports. (Pittsburgh is No. 2.)
Mostly, though, The Ohio River is a practical guide for contemporary boaters, with detailed sketches of all eight rivers, dozens of black-and-white photos, and rosters of boat clubs, marinas and other dock sites -- even riverside restaurants. There's also advice on navigating these heavily locked and dammed waterways, not to mention information about rental "excursion barges" for the more passive explorer.
Rhodes, who now resides in St. Petersburg, Fla., has lived on boats most of his adult life, starting with a sailboat on the Potomac River, when he was a federal employee in Washington, D.C. He's twice guided a sailboat to Central America; in his 40s, he served in the Peace Corps in Ecuador, a stint that left him with bad knees and malaria.
In recent years, he's concentrated on writing boating guides, including Discovering the Tidal Potomac. His current two-month summer road trip to promote The Ohio River includes a July 30 stop in Pittsburgh (which Rhodes says is home to what's still his favorite pro football team). Speaking by phone from Louisville, Rhodes bills his talk and PowerPoint presentation at the Monroeville Public Library as "a human history" of the river. He adds that this might be his last tour for a while.
"After this trip I probably gotta get a real job," he says.
Rick Rhodes speaks at 7 p.m. Wed., July 30. Monroeville Public Library, 4000 Gateway Campus Blvd., Monroeville. Free. 412-372-0500