PARKE COUNTY, IND. —
Mark Twain probably would grin at the sight of John Cornell, Jim Foster, Dan Remaly and their raft.
Most likely, Twain would feel a bit prideful, too. Turns out, words do hold power. Reading does inspire. A book — Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — sent this trio of 50- and 60-something guys on a 100-mile river journey from their hometown of Lafayette to Terre Haute.
Remaly bought a copy of the 1885 novel at a used bookstore going-out-of-business sale in March. He first read it as a teenager. Forty-five years later, it rekindled his boyhood spirit. Day after day, Remaly pored over “Huckleberry Finn” during lunch breaks, sharing highlights with his Lafayette Parks Department co-workers Cornell and Foster.
“He’d go, ‘Hey, that’s always been a dream of mine,’” Cornell recalled Tuesday. “And it turned out to be a dream of everybody’s. So it just mushroomed from there.”
Soon, they were seriously considering a rafting trip down the Wabash River.
“We were thinking how much fun it would be to just disappear and get out on the river,” Remaly said.
And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing since Saturday. They camped along shore in Parke County on Tuesday night and continued drifting south on Wednesday, hoping to reach their final destination — the Tecumseh access point just north of Terre Haute — by Friday.
Their saga differs a bit from that of Huck Finn and his cohort, Jim. Huck was a kid. Twain’s characters were escaping — Huck from an abusive father, and Jim from a life of slavery — and they found their raft on a wild quest for freedom along the immense Mississippi River. By contrast, Foster is 52 years old, Remaly 59 and Cornell 61. They spent three months and $300 building their 16-foot-long, 8-foot-wide wooden raft, which is buoyed by eight donated 55-gallon drums. They’re raising money (at least $1,400 in pledges so far) for another co-worker, Dan Watson, who is fighting cancer. Unlike Huck and Jim, they haven’t encountered any murderers or grifters. These guys are on vacation.
Yet, just as Huck’s trek enlightened him about the injustices faced by Jim, the 21st-century rafters are learning first-hand about the river so many of us overlook.
“It’s so peaceful out here, just seeing the river, the woods and the wildlife,” Foster said by cellphone Tuesday as they paddled toward Cayuga.
Just as they passed the bridge at Interstate 74, they watched a bald eagle swoop down to snatch a fish from the water. They’ve seen deer swim across the river. Blue heron tiptoe along the banks. They caught a smallmouth bass near Manhattan Island just north of Montezuma. When Trib-Star photographer/wildlife affcianado Jim Avelis caught up to them by canoe Wednesday, they were standing up as they paddled, taking in the view.
“It’s a beautiful river,” Foster said. “It’s a lot cleaner than I thought. We’re not seeing a lot of debris or stuff on the banks. I’ve always seen the Wabash as a little on the muddy side, but it’s actually a lot cleaner.”
They’ve taken on the most historic hundred miles of this famed 475-mile waterway, which runs from Fort Recovery, Ohio, to Mount Vernon, Ind. Its sweep through Terre Haute inspired Paul Dresser to write the Indiana state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away).” In the early 1800s, William Henry Harrison and his U.S. Army troops won the Battle of Tippecanoe near Lafayette, and Harrison and fellow future President Zachary Taylor served as leaders of Fort Harrison on the northside of what is now Terre Haute. At its 316th mile, near Terre Haute, the Wabash becomes the border between Illinois and Indiana.
Though Cornell scouted several points along their route before their departure Saturday, the scenery and places they’ve seen are new to them.
“We actually see the good and the bad from the river,” Remaly said. “We see the sewage outlets, and we’ve seen the beautiful colors and foliage.”
They’ve also discovered that during this long stretch of dry weather, the Wabash is moving slower than they anticipated. The three experienced canoeists have paddled vigorously to keep moving downstream, especially when steering into southerly winds. “This is a lot of work,” Foster said. “It’s enjoyable, but it’s a lot of work.”
Then again, it’s also quiet, except for the distant sounds of passing cars on a bridge or the hum of a power plant. And the Wabash, even at its currently low 1.09-foot river stage, is still eye-catching. “I’m seeing big, wide-open water,” Remaly said, while paddling.
In that sense, Remaly, Cornell and Foster share a connection with Huck and Jim. The present-day adventurers have a few advantages, including a Weber grill, a decent stash of food, camping and fishing gear, and cellphones. But the atmosphere affects these guys much as it did Huck and Jim.
As Huckleberry said in Chapter 12, “It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking out loud, and it warn’t often that we laughed, only a little kind of low chuckle. We had mighty good weather, as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all, that night, nor the next, nor the next.”
Remaly uttered pretty much the same observation Tuesday. “It’s stress-free. If we want to lay down and take a nap, we lay down and take a nap. If we want to fish, we fish. If we want to eat, we eat,” he said. “No deadlines.”
Until Monday. That’s when they’re due back at work.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.