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 email@example.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
The only things missing were a volleyball net and a campfire.
- Mark Bennett B-Sides
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.
MARK BENNETT: When did athleticism surpass skill in sports?
Baseball has gotten too athletic.
MARK BENNETT: Steve Martin keeps Terre Haute on burner
If insults are a form of flattery, Steve Martin still likes us.
Better yet, he hasn’t forgotten us.
MARK BENNETT: At 71, Paul McCartney still rocking it eight days a week
I’ll admit, I worried about Paul McCartney during the blistering intro to “Helter Skelter.”
MARK BENNETT: Forget the cellphone, enjoy the summer
The third rail post from the left on the second-floor patio. By holding a cellphone at eye level, with your left hand, while standing perfectly still, without blinking, a faint one-bar signal was possible. Possible. Otherwise, there was no connection to the outside world at this retreat spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where my wife and I stayed earlier this month
MARK BENNETT: Time for surf, sand and a good book
I can read a book on the beach. Until I start sweating. Then it feels like exercise, minus the fitness perks. My brain shifts into neutral as the waves roll in, blissfully washing away footprints in the sand and my inclination to think. Better put, I enjoy starting a book on the beach, and finishing it later, elsewhere.
Police: Mom, son conspire to kill witness
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department seems to have prevented what it believes was a mother-and-son conspiracy to commit murder.
Banks of the Wabash Festival is more than just yearly entertainment
Pioneers think counterintuitively. Where others see widespread apathy, they focus on the possibility for progress. In a way, the 2013 Year of the River celebration began in the 1970s.
MARK BENNETT: After running for 28 hours straight, what’s another 5 miles?
Some phrases can only be uttered by a few people, or none at all.
MARK BENNETT: Glitches show limitations of high-stakes testing concept
The dog ate my homework. That age-old excuse — based on a shockingly unforeseen complication — rarely works for a kid who didn’t finish yesterday’s math assignment. Yet, in a role reversal, Indiana school children, along with their teachers and administrators, are left to accept an explanation for a disruption best described as the mother of all ironies.
MARK BENNETT: One step at a time to save lives
Remember that name.
MARK BENNETT: Sometimes, the mere posing of questions is significant
The era seems quaint now, almost like a fable. When people left their house doors unlocked. When the sight of a police officer in a school meant it was Career Day.
MARK BENNETT: New reality steers Nashville singer to Crossroads for Historical Society concert
People pass through the Crossroads of America for lots of reasons.
Business trips. College campus events. Federal prison sentences. Visits with relatives. Gas pitstops.
Or maybe a career change and a twist of fate.
Ty Brown makes his first stop in downtown Terre Haute as the headliner of a multi-band Sweet Sensations Country Jam concert May 4 in the Ohio Building — a fundraiser for the Vigo County Historical Society.
MARK BENNETT: Terre Haute barber ‘sharpens up’ customers for 50 years
People streamed through this section of downtown Terre Haute in those days.
“You could hardly walk by here,” John Hochhalter said, pointing toward the sidewalk outside the window.
The bustle has faded since the early 1960s. Hochhalter remains. He’s still barbering in the same shop he and late business partner Kenny Thomas opened a half-century ago this week.
MARK BENNETT: Memories, emotions rush back with announcement of new pope
I saw a pope once.Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot. Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
MARK BENNETT: Reflections of grid success stir with Brent Anderson’s passing
A few hundred miles away, and nearly 40 years gone by, a special game ball still occupies a fond place in Rudy Bohinc’s memories.
Lent meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute
Initially, the concept might conjure images of Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman jumping out of an airplane or sitting atop the Pyramids. Instead, think “Lent Meets ‘The Bucket List’ in Terre Haute.”
- More Mark Bennett B-Sides Headlines
- Tim Meadows: SNL cast member knew he was prime time