Reclaimed strip mines are a perfect place to unplug

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bluegill
Jeff Miller shows off a bluegill that was close to a state record, caught on former strip mine land owned by American Electric Power. More than 18,000 acres of AEP property is open for hunting, fishing, camping and other outdoor activities, but visitors must have a permit that can be printed from the company's website. (Photo by Amy Miller)

Jeff Miller and sons Zane, 12, and Brett, 14, believe it’s well worth the more than three-hour round trip from their home near Canton to the former strip mine land still owned by American Electric Power. They’ve been going at least twice a month for the past few years, but during the pandemic, the place called ReCreation Lands drew them almost every weekend.

“It’s just beautiful down there,”  said Miller, a truck driver who’s been fishing for at least 32 of his 48 years.

And that’s the draw for him, his sons and sometimes his stepdad. Many of the lakes and ponds on the reclaimed land were stocked with fish after mining ceased. With little to no fishing pressure, a good many have grown to great size.

“I caught the biggest bluegill I’ve ever caught, almost a state record,” said Miller, who hasn’t lost the excitement he felt. “And this was in the middle of a strip mine lake, not a farm pond with an automatic feeder.”

Then there was the 20-and-a-half inch, five-pound largemouth that Zane landed, and another measuring more than 21 inches that Brett threw back. They release most of the fish they catch — even the monsters, so they can grow even bigger — and keep just enough “chunker” bluegills to make a nice dinner.

State-owned

The AEP land where Miller and his family fish made the news recently. The state budget bill signed by Gov. Mike DeWine included $29 million for the purchase of the 18,000-acre tract of AEP property. 

When the purchase is complete, that tract will become part of about 60,000 acres of former AEP properties spanning Guernsey, Morgan, Noble and Muskingum counties. 

Containing hundreds of lakes and ponds — 707 to be exact — plus 300 campsites and 24 miles of the Buckeye Trail, the contiguous properties will create the largest outdoor recreation area owned and managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.

Between 2018 and this year, the state purchased more than 35,000 acres of AEP land. That land became the Appalachian Hills Wildlife Area, which also made the news in June when Gov. DeWine and ODNR Director Mary Mertz made it the site of the second Inland Fish Ohio Day. 

DeWine and family members were among those who tried their luck in some of the 350 lakes and ponds in that area, which allow shore, kayak and small-boat fishing.

The Appalachian Hills Wildlife Area adjoins the Jesse Owens State Park and Wildlife Area. The state began acquiring that land under Gov. John Kasich, and another 5,735 acres were purchased in 2018. 

The area was named for the African American athlete who grew up in Cleveland and dominated Ohio State University track before winning four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany. 

Big Muskie

In addition to its own lakes and ponds, the area has campsites, a network of horse and hiking trails, and the Miner’s Memorial Park. Donated by AEP to honor the men and women who worked for the company, the park includes the only intact remnant of the Big Muskie: A bucket the size of a 12-car garage.

Strip mining or surface mining of coal in the eastern and southeastern parts of the state began in 1947. The Central Ohio Coal Company, a subsidiary of AEP, was mining 110,000 acres of hilly land that challenged traditional shovels. In the 1960s, the company ordered what would be the world’s largest walking dragline shovel, weighing 27 million pounds and standing 22 stories high. 

A 330-foot boom plopped the bucket down and cables or draglines hauled it toward the machine, picking up 325 cubic yards of dirt with each scoop. The Muskie’s base could laboriously rise and fall and the machine scoot backward, allowing it to “walk” at a whopping tenth of a mile per hour.

It was named Big Muskie for Muskingum County where it did its work. In its 22 years of service, the Muskie removed twice as much earth as was moved in the original construction of the Panama Canal in order to get to the brown, high-sulfur coal below. 

Though the coal was sent to power plants to generate electricity, the Muskie itself required electricity — enough to power 27,000 homes — in order to operate. Huge cables, like giant extension cords, supplied power to the machine that ran 24 hours a day, every day except Christmas.

With the rising cost of electricity and increasing opposition to strip mining, the Big Muskie was retired in 1991. It met an ignominious end a few years later, being dismantled and sold for scrap  — except for the bucket, which is preserved in the memorial park near McConnelsville.

Watching some of the many videos of the Big Muskie in operation, it’s hard to believe the bare earth that was ripped up and tossed around like so much sand is now a place to enjoy nature. But partnering with the ODNR in the early 1960s, AEP began reclamation in earnest, stocking fish and planting more than 63 million trees in what it named ReCreation Lands.

The Wilds

And if a 60,000-acre spread isn’t enough space to enjoy nature, the latest purchase of AEP land adjoins The Wilds near Cumberland. The Central Ohio Coal Company donated more than 9,000 acres of land to a nonprofit in the 1980s. 

The nonprofit still owns it, but the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium manages The Wilds. There, visitors can see rhinos, giraffes, cheetahs and other threatened species and enjoy zipline tours, horseback riding and, of course, fishing.

The ponds and lakes created in the strip mining process contain broken trees and other hazards, which is why no swimming is allowed. But that debris makes great habitat for fish, as does the remoteness of some of the bodies of water.

“This is probably the only area in Ohio where you have lakes you have to hike to,” said Matt Hangsleben, a fisheries biologist with the Division of Wildlife. 

“What’s special is that each lake acts like its own farm pond,” he said. “There are so many so close together that if you’re not catching fish, you can walk five minutes and maybe have better luck.”

Many of the ponds were stocked with bass and bluegill in the past, which are now reproducing naturally, he said. The Division still stocks catfish in some ponds that are accessible by truck. 

But there are also populations of redear and other kinds of sunfish. A few lakes even have crappie.

Although some of the ponds are right by a road and very accessible, others are “so far back in there that they don’t get hit very hard, so the fish can get pretty old,” said Hangsleben, noting that Ohio has documented some 20-year-old bass, and 10-pounders have been caught in the Appalachian Hills area.

 “It’s a place to catch the fish of a lifetime,” he said.

The former strip mine lands owned by the state also provide opportunities for hunting, hiking, birding and camping. So does the land still owned by AEP, but it requires a permit that can be printed from the company’s website. 

Hangsleben said many families have established traditions on the reclaimed land, staying in tents or campers at the primitive campsites (no electricity), looking for mushrooms or picking blackberries.

Miller said he and his family have picked their share of blackberries which, like the fish, can be huge. They actually like the lack of electricity — and cell phone reception — and the adventure of exploring lakes that require muck boots to get there.

“It’s so peaceful,” he said. “It gets the kids unplugged and out in nature.”   

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