Continuing west of Marietta, the Ohio Riviera begins to wrestle in extremes.

Continuing west of Marietta, the Ohio Riviera begins to wrestle in extremes.

Rugged hills are pierced by power plants that blink, flash, grind and spew smoke. Around one bend of the river lies the foamy wake of a motorboat; around another lie thick clouds of factory smoke. One stretch of the river is dotted with state-run boat launches, while the next is pocked with decaying sprawl.

It's a landscape of constant flux, of coal barges and jet skis, of natural resources and the competition for them.

Yet even here, barges and motorboats, strip malls and produce stands continue to coexist. One of the first things you learn along the banks of the Ohio is not to lose hope: There's usually a nicer bend in the river a few miles down.

One of the bizarre spots that seem to pop from nowhere is Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park, a former plantation settled in 1798 by Irish aristocrat Harman Blennerhassett. Visitors can access the island with a short sternwheeler ride ($8) from Civitan Park in Belpre.

Once ashore, rent a bike ($4 per hour) to explore the gravel roads winding beneath walnut trees, past horse pastures and around ruins built and destroyed during a rich, complex history. The island's open for self-guided exploration, but you need a ticket to access the mansion. I learned this when scolded, 18th-century style, by a woman wearing a floor-length dress and a cotton bonnet.

Once back on the mainland, I stop for supplies in Hockingport, essentially a bait shop and marina where the Hocking River meets the Ohio. It's one of the small towns that lie along the state's southern coast and, in a primal way, wouldn't exist without it.

Beyond the hiking and biking, it's these towns that make the trip. Each has its own story of being settled, a unique way of doing business and a deep love of being near water.

Downriver, you'll find Gallipolis. It's little more than a town square and some stores, but it was founded by French aristocrats in 1790. Beyond that is Portsmouth, a struggling manufacturing center with a 2,200-foot floodwall painted with murals.

My final destination is Forked Run State Park, a relatively unknown preserve secluded in the emerald hills above the river. Visitors will find an entire day of recreation - disc-golf course, fishing lake, river access - and evenings camping among boaters and fishermen from across the southern part of the state.

They're surprised to meet someone from Columbus and generously share wood for an evening campfire. Then, in a humble but assertive way, they let me know that the park name's actually pronounced "Fork-ed Run."