TERRE HAUTE —
The only things missing were a volleyball net and a campfire.
Otherwise, the setting fit all the criteria of an NFL game-day TV commercial — a warm sandy beach, glistening waters, a cloudless sky, and smiling people munching on a mess of fresh fish cooked by an expert. For the thirsty, there were coolers full of cold beverages. (Soft drinks and water, for those wondering.)
Try the Wabash River.
Too few locals have seen this fabled, much-maligned waterway from the perspective provided to a couple dozen curious souls Tuesday afternoon during a celebration of the Healthy Rivers INitiative’s second anniversary. The formalities included comments by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and various other speakers praising him for triggering the project, which will eventually protect 43,000 acres of wetlands and wildlife areas, including the centerpiece — the Wabash River and its watershed. In return, Daniels thanked federal agencies, conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, and grassroots organizations like Riverscape and the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission for illuminating the value of the oft-ignored Wabash.
As he spoke, Daniels stood at the spot where most Terre Haute residents get their only exposure to the river — Fairbanks Park. With that backdrop, the governor said during a brief ceremony, “That’s about as pretty a sight as any available in Indiana.”
Less than an hour later, after the crowd at the park dispersed, I realized the governor, with all due respect, was wrong. Actually, the Wabash offers plenty of other postcard-caliber scenery along its 500-mile path, including the most famous segment flowing through Terre Haute and Vigo County.
A trio of vans carried a couple dozen willing souls from Fairbanks Park to the Michael Hunter Kearns Public Access Site near Tecumseh, a few miles north of Terre Haute. From that ramp on the river, a flotilla of fishing boats and airboats ferried a couple dozen willing souls to a large sandbar. As we climbed ashore, a cluster of folks surrounded Bud Montgomery, who was frying Asian carp — yes, those weird, leaping, unwanted fish — in the middle of the sandbar.
The demonstration was intended to spread the word about the problems created by that fish species that invaded the Wabash a decade ago, migrating here through the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But this forum on the sand also highlighted the resilience of the Wabash. Over the decades, man has subjected it to pollution, neglect and now a foreign fish species that devours its algae and plankton — the crucial first layer of the river’s food-chain.
And yet, there was the Wabash, graciously entertaining its human guests once more, as if nothing had ever happened, showing off its hidden beauty under spectacular June sunshine.
Most of us avoid getting too close to the Wabash for various reasons. Indeed, it definitely should not be approached without proper safety precautions and permission. Others worry about its water quality, a significant yet misunderstood concern. For some, visiting its banks is too much of a hassle.
The trip to that sandbar Tuesday was special. The dry weather exposed more of it than usual, said Chuck Adams, senior donor relations manager for The Nature Conservancy Indiana Chapter. The sandbar hugs an S-curve in the Wabash, where the only signs of civilization are utility lines and towers on the horizon above the opposite shore.
“I don’t think many people — even if they’ve lived their whole life in Terre Haute or the suburbs — have ever seen what the river looks like,” Adams said as small waves rocked one of the arriving fishing boats. A majority of those folks, he added, have “certainly not been on the river in any capacity.”
Aside from the presence of numerous dignitaries Tuesday — including two mayors, a state legislator, the directors of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy Indiana Chapter, and John Goss, the Asian carp “czar” for the White House Council on Environmental Quality — the moment on the Wabash was routine for Montgomery.
Others may see the Wabash as an unknown, but not Montgomery. “I was raised on it,” he said, grinning beneath a straw hat. “It’s been there. They’ve just never been to it.”
Representing the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department, Montgomery blackened and deep-fried the Asian carp at the sandbar cookout. He knows Wabash River fish. His 80-year-old dad, Arbie, runs a legendary fish market in West Terre Haute. Often behind the grill at pancake breakfasts and other Parks Department events, Bud said matter-of-factly, “I can cook about anything.”
The thought that his entree on Tuesday was Asian carp from the Wabash might, alone, scare some folks. For me, the second and third bites came much easier than the first. I’ll admit to hesitating before chewing that first Asian carp nugget. Other than a few scattered fish bones, the morsels tasted light, flaky and good.
A month ago, a Purdue University professor who studies the Wabash explained to me that water-quality problems along the river are primarily localized. The Wabash, he said, is actually cleaner than its muddy appearance indicates. It has pollution issues, no doubt. As statistics from The Nature Conservancy state, seven fish and 18 mussel species once native to the Wabash have vanished. Land developments and draining, deforestation and wetlands loss, sedimentation and pollution have degraded the water quality and wildlife diversity, according to the conservancy. But progress is happening.
Daniels contended that the Wabash, and the air above it, is cleaner “than it was when I was a kid.”
Once those 43,000 acres along 93 miles of the Wabash’s watershed are fully protected, nature lovers who experience the river up close “will be in clean water all the way,” the governor assured.
Later, at the sandbar gathering, which Daniels was unable to attend, Larry Clemens — an official at the Efroymson Conservation Center in Indianapolis — offered a measured assessment. Thinking back to the adoption of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, Clemens said, “We’ve come a long ways. It’s been an improvement, for sure.
“I think,” he added, “we have a ways to go.”
Then, he and others boarded a departing fishing boat and headed upstream.
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE —
The only things missing were a volleyball net and a campfire.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
The night it rained tears
March fuels college basketball teams. Fun, glory, buzzer-beater shots and storybook endings in the NCAA Tournament await there.
MARK BENNETT: First BaconFest sure to cure your salty fried meat cravings
Bacon taught me a life lesson.
I wrapped strips of it around chicken livers and secured the cold, gooey bundles with toothpicks to earn money.
MARK BENNETT: New public-access point begins quest to create more spots to experience river
Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.
MARK BENNETT: People spaces
Demolition machinery chipped away at the buildings on the 500 block of Wabash Avenue. I stood and watched awhile, last week. By July 2015, a new $18.7-million structure will replace those relics.
MARK BENNETT: City sparkles during premiere of ‘The Drunk’
William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner cast their hometown in a starring role in their debut effort as filmmakers.
MARK BENNETT: ‘Notes on a River’ exhibition brings Wabash scenes to gallery
The best views of the Wabash come with wet, muddy feet.
MARK BENNETT: Quest for the perfect Valentine’s Day gesture may not involve gifts
You’ll need a broom, a pickup truck, trash bins, shop hooks and aspirin.
Filming a “Sanford and Son” remake? Preparing for the apocalypse?
MARK BENNETT: Illinois officials content their state has its business advantages, too
Most people count the Wabash River as an economic asset for Terre Haute. Of course, economic development officials in the Land of Lincoln beg to differ.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana should revisit its time-zone classification
Mister Spock would look at the situation in Indiana and, in that dispassionate “Star Trek” voice, utter a firm conclusion.
“That is illogical,” he’d say.
MARK BENNETT: Young at heart
Imagine an alternate ending to the old Life cereal commercial.
MARK BENNETT: The Drunk: Making peace
Terre Haute grew fond of Eugene Debs.
The process took time.
Debs film to debut at Indiana Theatre
Set in Terre Haute, based loosely on the legacy of a Terre Haute icon, the movie “The Drunk” has one appropriate place for its premiere.
MARK BENNETT: Album turns memories into musical Christmas message for Terre Haute’s Dave Frey, band
In a way, Dave Frey walked in the footsteps of Charles Schulz.
Both men worked hard to let Linus Van Pelt explain the “true meaning of Christmas.”
MARK BENNETT: ‘Longest Night Service’ a time to reflect, remember
Holiday images rarely depict hurt or struggle.
Raising the bar
Around coffeeshops, kitchen tables and office watercoolers, Hoosiers have cussed and discussed the federal health care law.
John bypassed by Hall of Fame again
Baseball Hall of Fame electors have bypassed Tommy John again. The Terre Haute-born pitcher, who won 288 games in 26 big-league seasons, didn’t receive enough votes from the Veterans Committee as it cast ballots on Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings.
Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time
If you watched the first broadcast of “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 11, 1975, raise your hand.
That gives you something in common with Tim Meadows.
MARK BENNETT: Walk of Fame inductee would stand tall in any era
Unlike most of us, Amory Kinney didn’t let the wall around his comfort zone grow taller as time passed.
MARK BENNETT: Words, and what they mean, is what we remember
I remember scanning the granite wall at the grave of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery, looking for those words.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John getting another shot at Baseball Hall of Fame
Go ahead, circle Dec. 9 on your calendar.
Filling our void: Terre Haute artist Bill Wolfe poured his heart and soul into the project of a lifetime
Bill Wolfe thumbed through a series of photographs documenting his sculpture of basketball legend Larry Bird.
MARK BENNETT: Keeping Terre Haute a vibrant city ‘worth doing’
The past, present and future had just converged at the Crossroads of America.
The moment was made possible by the gutsy spirit of 1920s Terre Haute. Without it, the city would look starkly different.
MARK BENNETT: Tommy John’s Field of Dreams
A kid pedals a bicycle, a ball glove looped over the handlebar, headed to a sandlot game.
It didn’t get much better than that for a 10-year-old in summertime.
MARK BENNETT: Indiana’s Donnelly part of ‘The Middle’ that got deal done
Hanging out in the middle isn’t cool.
Its occupants don’t attract a captivated circle of listeners at parties, their comments don’t inspire hell-yeahs on Facebook, and they don’t pretend to always be right.
MARK BENNETT: ISU professor’s book on Churchill to be TV period drama
Somewhere, Winston Churchill is lighting a celebratory cigar in Michael Shelden’s honor.
MARK BENNETT: Restoration improves courthouse top’s standing in skyline
Terre Haute has a skyline.
From some angles, it consists of billboards, restaurant marquees and convenience-store signs. From other spots, the outlines of historic buildings, church steeples, college dorms and old industries jut into the horizon.
MARK BENNETT: Inspiring project connects Blues Festival, B&G Club members with music
Think a decade into the future. You’re relaxing amid a sea of fellow lawn-chair sitters at Seventh and Wabash, watching the 23rd annual Blues at the Crossroads Festival. Suddenly, the guy on stage starts playing your old Fender guitar. He sounds like the next B.B. King. Then, the guitarist dedicates a song to the person who donated that worn Telecaster to the youth music program in which he learned to play it.
MARK BENNETT: Even Marty McFly wouldn’t want to go back to those paydays
Reliving the 1980s may sound tempting.
Ah, simpler times. Then again … hair styles as big as mushroom clouds, “Miami Vice” jackets, the trickle-down theory, New Coke, Yugos.
OK, “Back to the Future”-style nostalgia obviously has its limits.
MARK BENNETT: Hoops film focuses on life of ‘Slick’ Leonard
Many Americans connect basketball with Indiana.
MARK BENNETT: Rose-Hulman bridge design would let people walk, run, ride across Wabash River
Four months, 500 miles and 18 towns.
In the course of compiling the “500 Miles of Wabash” series, which concludes this Sunday, Tribune-Star photographer Jim Avelis and I heard valuable insights from dozens of people who live, work and recreate along Indiana’s state river. One comment seems particularly relevant to Terre Haute, especially as the ongoing 2013 Year of the River celebration stirs ideas. The quotation affirms the potential of a stellar proposal this community ought to consider.
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- The night it rained tears