March 2007 Issue
Naturalist and hiking expert Ralph Ramey shares his passion for the outdoors in his popular guide, Fifty Hikes in Ohio, soon to be published in a third edition.
Ralph Ramey says he's slowing down a bit. That he can't hike as far or climb the hills as fast as he did when he was a younger man. But it's important to note, when considering this self-assessment, that energy and vigor are relative notions.
Ramey wore out his hiking boots during the research for the third edition of his book Fifty Hikes in Ohio, which will be published in May. And no wonder: He spent seven weeks on the road to update the popular trail guide, camping alone in a small tent, cooking his own meals, and hiking more than 150 miles during 27 hikes along the rivers and ridges of the state.
While the book was in the proof stage, he celebrated his 78th birthday by ordering a new pair of his favorite Italian-made hiking boots. He had the new footwear fitted with the orthotic braces he has used for many years to support his troubled feet, and broke in the new leather by wearing them around his Westerville home while he edited the final text, photos and maps for the new book.
For Ramey, the plants, the wildlife, the peace of Ohio's great outdoors are part of who he is, and exploring is something he has to do.
"I love Ohio. Every once in a while, my wife suggests we move out to be closer to the children," he says. (Ramey and his wife of 56 years, Jean, have sons who live in Anchorage and Seattle. Their daughter died in 1997.)
"But I don't know. Two weeks ago when I was out, I walked up on eight wild turkeys. I just froze, and stood there watching them."
Not much keeps Ralph Ramey off the trail. Not his diabetes. Not the knee-replacement surgery he had two years ago. And certainly not a lack of confidence. Since he first developed the hiking bug, as a young Boy Scout growing up in the Columbus suburb of Bexley, Ohio's most restless naturalist has explored the length and breadth of the Buckeye State on foot.
Ramey's excitement about the outdoor world is best expressed in the opening paragraphs of a hike description for the Clear Creek Valley that he first explored as a young man in the company of several eminent naturalists:
"The late-spring flora was at its peak and the trees were full of migrating warblers, vireos, thrushes, and the like," he writes. "My eyes were opened to orchids and trilliums; lizards, salamanders, and snakes; toads and frogs; and much, much more - all new to a kid who grew up with the paved streets, storm sewers, and vacant lots of the city."
Along the way, Ramey has been a tireless advocate for conservation and outdoor recreation in Ohio. Last summer, his lifelong efforts were recognized when he joined the select number of Ohioans to be inducted into the Ohio Natural Resources Hall of Fame, "for his dedication to the preservation and interpretation of Ohio's natural heritage." The honor is one of numerous awards Ramey has earned in his 78 years, from organizations including the Ohio Biological Survey, the Ohio Wildlife Management Association, the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and The Nature Conservancy.
Fifty Hikes has sold consistently throughout the years, and when its publisher, The Countryman Press, decided a third edition was warranted, the firm had no doubt it would tap Ramey again, says Jennifer Thompson, the managing editor.
"Ralph, with his credentials, seemed like the best person to write the books," Thompson says.
Those credentials include work on conservation issues across Ohio, dating back to the 1950s. He landed his first job -as a professional naturalist at a summer camp run by Big Brothers when he was 20 - before finishing his degree in wildlife conservation at Ohio State University. Later, he worked for the Franklin County Metro Parks, and then joined the staff of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, where he helped lobby the state legislature to create a system of state nature preserves. Twenty years later, Ramey became the second chief of the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, an agency created partly because of his work. In between, he was director of the Glen Helen Nature Preserve in Yellow Springs and director-secretary of the Miami County Park System. He has been in leadership roles for numerous conservation organizations in Ohio, and was a founding member of the Ohio Prairie Association, the Cedar Bog Association, and the National Association for Interpretation.
In addition to his books about hiking in Ohio, for several years Ramey wrote a newspaper column on outdoor issues. He also was a Boy Scout or Scout leader for 30 years.
When he's working on a book, Ramey writes 12 hours a day, hammering out drafts on a laptop in his basement work area, which is packed floor to ceiling with slides, as well as books about natural and human history.
"In his hike descriptions, he writes not just about the hike, but a broad description of what geological and historical elements you would find along the way," Thompson explains. "His hiking books aren't just about hiking, but provide a glimpse into the area's history, nature and geology."
Indeed, each hike description is packed with information about each turn of the trail, which organization developed it, and the interconnected elements of the region's geology, botany and wildlife. He points out evidence of abandoned canal towpaths, or the apple orchards in the middle of a hardwood forest that demonstrate the past presence of a farmstead. He comments on everything from the geologic history of the bedrock beneath your feet to the state legislation that paved the way for metropolitan park districts.
"He's a wonderful mentor, and he's taught me more than you can imagine," says John Switzer, a popular columnist for the Columbus Dispatch and a long-time bird-watching companion of Ramey's. "We would go around the state, and Ralph would teach me anything I wanted to know."
For the most part, however, Ramey hikes alone, and always has. From the shoreline along the Lake Erie Islands to the rugged hillsides of Appalachian Ohio, he can be found exploring footpaths of various lengths, swinging his trekking poles ahead of him, carrying a hydration pack filled with drinking water. In addition to one of his many Minolta cameras, he also carries a first aid kit and a loud whistle for emergencies. (Cellular phone signals are unreliable in many of the areas where he hikes.)
"I hike alone, because I can travel at my own speed, stop when I want to, and have my own thoughts," he explains. "And if I want to take a picture, it's easier to sneak up on things."
Ramey is reluctant to name his favorite hikes, although when pressed, he responded to the question, "What trail will never be bumped from an edition of Fifty Hikes?"
"I'd never take Conkle's Hollow out of the book. Or the trail between Old Man's Cave and Cedar Falls, or Lake Katharine, or the Stillwater Prairie."
Although he's been to Africa and the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and Alaska, Ramey still finds it enjoyable to hike the trails of the Buckeye State.
Besides, there are still things he'd like to see in Ohio, which are tied to his interest in conservation. In the introduction to his book, Ramey notes that the restoration of wildlife habitat has brought back many wildlife species that had disappeared from Ohio when he began hiking more than five decades ago.
"Otters are back in Ohio streams and eagles in the Ohio sky. Let us hope that the return of creatures with whom we each share this earth for our few years will continue forever," he writes.
One of those returning animals, the black bear, has been spotted in the woods of eastern and southeastern Ohio, but has eluded Ramey so far.
"I have yet to see a bear in Ohio," he says, stretching his feet in his new hiking boots. "That's on my list."
About the Book
50 Hikes in Ohio, third edition, will be published by The Countryman Press on May 7, 2007. The book can be purchased at local bookstores or from the publisher (www.countrymanpress.com; 800/245-4151). For a signed copy, contact the author at email@example.com.
The new edition of 50 Hikes in Ohio includes 10 trails not listed in the previous edition. A sampling of hiking locales from around the state:
- Blues Creek Preserve, Delaware County Metroparks, 2 miles
- Mill Creek Park, Youngstown, 6 miles
- Chaparral Prairie State Nature Preserve, Adams County, 1.5 miles
- Oak Openings Preserve, Toledo Metroparks, 16.6 miles
- Fort Hill State Memorial, Highland County, 1.4-mile and 3.1-mile options
Ralph Ramey's Hiking Tips
In the Introduction to the new edition of 50 Hikes in Ohio, author Ralph Ramey offers a few tips about gear, safety and hiking etiquette. Among these:
- Carry a map, compass, Swiss army knife, loud whistle, sunscreen and insect repellent (as needed), and a first-aid kit.
- Always carry plenty of drinking water.
- Field guides, a pocket magnifying glass, and binoculars will enrich even the shortest hike.
- Practice minimal-impact hiking and camping: Pack it in; haul it out.
- For the best wildlife viewing, hike alone and spend some time sitting still. And remember: Most Ohio mammals are nocturnal, and nearly all animals are most active closer to dawn or dusk.