Thick fog sat atop the Wabash River as the morning sun lit the valley between Lafayette and West Lafayette.
Scott Trzaskus and his teammates would slide their boats into water and row into the scenic abyss.
They repeated that scenario day after day from August through springtime as members of the Purdue University crew team, preparing for collegiate rowing competitions, with the foggy Wabash serving as their practice field.
“Literally, all you would see was the heads and arms going back and forth,” Trzaskus recalled of his days as a Boilermaker rower, from 1988 to ’92. “It was kind of magical.”
Aside from rain-or-shine fishermen, few Hoosiers encounter their official state river more than the Purdue rowers. On any given day, more than 150 students climb into the long, slender boats in groups of eight and churn the oars in rhythm to the cadence of a hollering coxswain — the sport’s equivalent of a horse-racing jockey or an orchestra conductor. Unlike the NCAA-sanctioned varsity programs, crew is a club sport at Purdue, so these teenagers and twenty-somethings don’t receive athletic scholarships.
They do get a rigorous, daily workout on the Wabash, though, along with travel opportunities to compete in regattas in places such as San Diego and Philadelphia, as well as camaraderie and extensive community involvement. They learn the nuances of the river, too, and develop a respect and affection for it. Trzaskus grew up in upstate New York and had never been on a river until his freshman year in West Lafayette. As he walked through campus, a girl handed him a “Row for Purdue” flyer, so he did, spending all four years on the team. Now 42, he’s president of the Purdue Rowing Association and feels quite at home standing on the dock outside the university boathouse on the banks of the Wabash.
In a program dating back to 1949, Purdue rowers have seen changes in the river. Today, the invasive fish species Asian carp leap over — and sometimes into — the boats, and bald eagles nest atop tall trees. Trzaskus saw neither during his days as a Purdue student, but has seen dozens of eagles and countless Asian carp while riding as an active alumnus in coach Dave Kucik’s motorboat. The eagles’ presence represents a healthier Wabash.
“Just the fact that you’re seeing them come back has to be a sign that the river is getting better,” Trzaskus said, sitting with Kucik in the boathouse lobby.
“It’s really a majestic thing when you see them,” Kucik said.
Less than a half-hour later, as Kucik gave two journalists a boat tour of Lafayette’s sector of the Wabash, he pointed to a bald eagle gliding through the sunny June sky overhead. Now 63, Kucik learned rowing as a young man on the Muskingum River in Ohio, served on nuclear submarines as a Naval Academy grad and coached at places such as Cornell University. He understands water. By contrast, 98 percent of his athletes have no crew experience when they arrive for their first practice, yet his Boilermakers successfully compete with scholarship programs at rival universities. Numerous trophies and plaques surround the table and chairs in the main hall of the boathouse, but his base of operations is the river.
“This is my office,” Kucik said, motoring his coach’s boat over the glassy river.
Undammed and fast
Asian carp popped into his office almost on cue on that June excursion as Kucik guided his boat into pockets of water where the fish cluster. The shiny, muscular fish vaulting into the air that day weren’t as hefty as the largest Asian carp, which can measure 4 feet long and up to 90 pounds. They’re a fairly recent phenomenon in the Wabash, reaching its lower sector in 1996. The carp, imported to America to gobble up sewage water, spread into the wild of U.S. streams in the 1970s after escaping Southern hatcheries through flooding. They already threaten the aquatic chain of life in the Wabash. Midwestern states, including Indiana, fear the aggressive fish will inevitably infiltrate and damage the Great Lakes, especially if the Little River, a Wabash tributary, floods into the Maumee River, which feeds into Lake Erie.
Purdue graduate students gathered thousands of Asian carp eggs that morning with cylindrical nets, cast from the edges of motor boats. Conducting research for assistant professor of aquatic ecosystems Reuben Goforth, the young researchers study how often and how long Asian carp are spawning. The students venture onto the water daily and see it as far cleaner than the average student or local resident suspects.
“They kind of look at this place like, ‘Yuck.’ But this is really a pristine ecological river,” said Katherine Touzinsky, a master’s program student who along with a classmate is tracking the Asian carp’s behavior.
“The Wabash,” she added as their boat idled, “is undammed and it’s fast, and [the Asian carp] are only now getting up here.”
The Wabash bisects Lafayette (population 67,140) and West Lafayette (population 29,596) at the river’s 198th mile. As Touzinsky mentioned, the Wabash flows unobstructed for 411 miles, from Huntington Dam to its confluence with the Ohio River south of Mount Vernon — the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi. The Wabash fattens by the time it arrives in Lafayette, 109 miles west of Huntington, having absorbed five tributaries — the Little, Salamonie, Mississinewa, Eel and Tippecanoe rivers. It gets busier, too. Lafayette may be the Wabash’s most accessible stretch, with 10 bridges in an eight-mile span, according to the “Wabash River Guide Book” by river historian Jerry Hay, with seven public access points for boaters. State, Tippecanoe County and the sister cities’ parks and campgrounds line the riverfront. There’s even a small beach.
The convergence of humans is not a geographical coincidence.
“Water is that great magnet for attracting people,” said Stan Lambert, executive director of the Wabash River Enhancement Corp. in Lafayette.
More people lay eyes on the Wabash from the John T. Myers Pedestrian Bridge and the sites on both sides than from any other spot on the river’s nearly 500-mile path, with the possible exception of the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park at Vincennes. College-town shops, bars and restaurants, Tapawingo Park and the Riverside ice skating rink await visitors on the West Lafayette side. To the east, Lafayette’s downtown and arts districts stand, as well as an Amtrak rail station. The Brown Street Overlook at the north edge of Tapawingo Park offers views of the water and local skyline. Fountains bubble at both ends of the bridge.
Investment in riverfront enhancements around Lafayette totals $67 million since 2004, when the cities, county and university created the nonprofit Enhancement Corp. or WREC. That includes $52 million in improvements to the sister cities’ combined sewer overflow elimination projects. More river enhancement upgrades are planned, including new bike-pedestrian bridges, extensions of the Wabash River Heritage Trail, and developments for residential and retail facilities.
“One goal I have is to have everybody in Tippecanoe County feel like they live on riverfront property,” Lambert said.
Riverside amenities can mean 21st-century jobs, Lambert added, especially in the competition for bio-tech companies.
“What they’re looking for is that high quality of life, that place-of-choice to attract the best and brightest,” he said, sitting on a metal street bench on the Myers Pedestrian Bridge. “If you’re a scientist with a wife and three kids, you aren’t going to want to take your family to a place with poor schools and nothing for your family to do.”
Like officials in many other cities, the WREC has studied riverfront developments elsewhere, especially in Chattanooga, Tenn. The fourth-largest city in that state with a population of 167,674, Chattanooga began the process of “reclaiming” its waterfront in 1986 amid sharp local skepticism, according to a 2003 story in the Nashville Tennessean. An aquarium, an idea derided by some, was drawing 1.2 million visitors a year by 2003, when the town launched a new $120-million 21st Century Waterfront project with funds from donors, a hotel-motel tax, land sales, and state and federal resources. Greenspaces, arts, recreation, sports and entertainment were added, along with retail and residential amenities.
Similar ventures unfolded in Louisville, Ky.; Dubuque, Iowa; Asheville, N.C.; Baltimore; Columbus, Ohio; and San Antonio, Texas, Lambert explained.
Cities such as Lafayette originated because of rivers, when waterways were primary transportation routes. The emergence of railroads, Lambert said, caused communities to forget and neglect rivers. In recent decades, river towns realized waterfronts lure and interest visitors, new residents and businesses, and the past neglect has given way to a reawakened appreciation for a healthy, accessible stream.
A scenic, vibrant riverfront is an edge in the quest for economic growth.
“We’re not competing against Carmel, Indianapolis or Terre Haute,” Lambert said. “We’re competing against Boulder, Colorado; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; and Silicon Valley.”
‘Listen to the river’
Even on a lazy Tuesday afternoon in June, the Lafayette riverfront showed life on and around the Myers Pedestrian Bridge, renovated from a former vehicular bridge as the community relocated railroad lines. A dad, with help from a 3-year-old boy, pushed a baby stroller across the walkway. A runner, led by her dog, jogged by, trailed by a couple walking. A skateboarder buzzed past. A woman, sitting on one of the round, concrete benches, played and sang folk songs on a guitar.
“When it’s nice [weather], I’m out here every night,” said Elliott White, a 30-year-old lifelong Lafayette resident. “There’s a few spots down here where you can sit on the concrete and just listen to the river.”
Dianne Holycross, a 23-year-old Purdue student, toted her dog, Sadie, on the Pedestrian Bridge. She’s seen weddings, photography sessions and musical performances on the local waterfront. Holycross fishes and jogs there, and hikes the Wabash Heritage Trail, a 13-mile course from Tippecanoe Battlefield Park to Fort Ouiantenon, the historic site of Lafayette’s annual Feast of the Hunters’ Moon festival. “I walked the entire thing one weekend,” Holycross said.
For Alex Thomas, a Crawfordsville resident who works in Lafayette, the bridge provides access to her “favorite river.” It’s a lunch-hour getaway. “I come out here to walk, get some exercise and cross the bridge to the food joints across the river [in West Lafayette], and to just get a break and enjoy the river,” she said. Thomas likes the conversion of an old train depot into an events center.
Lafayette “has become a miniature upscale city, with the river,” she said.
From the Myers Bridge, pedestrians and cyclists can see boaters on the water. Despite the development, wildlife dominates the view from the water. On the boat ride with Kucik, a blue heron swooped down in search of fish. A backwater finger of the stream looked like a watery tunnel of trees. Swallows fluttered in and out of muddy nests built under the concrete bridge supports. The Wabash turns south from Lafayette’s Great Bend area and flows toward Terre Haute through remote regions, with fewer bridges and signs of mankind. Small towns such as Attica, Covington and Clinton line the segment and feature a few eye-catching natural wonders.
That includes Williamsport Falls in downtown Williamsport. A sign bills it as “Indiana’s Highest Freefalling Waterfall.” Aside from the sign, the falls are easy to miss. They stand behind an apartment house parking lot. The height of the falls, fed by Fall Creek, may have changed as stones on the ledge tumbled to the cavern below. Most sources list the distance at 90 feet. “I don’t know what it is now, for sure,” said Terri Wargo, local historian. Afternoon sun gleaming through the water as it sprays down to the cool, shaded basin is a striking image, whatever the height.
Scenery along the Wabash and its towns captivates many who experience it regularly.
“This whole area is pretty just about all the time,” Kucik said, guiding his boat beyond the bridges and overlooks. “I think it’s a great stretch of water. I’m glad I made my way here from Cornell. I couldn’t be happier.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.
Part III: The Great Bend Miles ... From Lafayette to Clinton
Thick fog sat atop the Wabash River as the morning sun lit the valley between Lafayette and West Lafayette.
VIDEO: Reaching the Wabash
Fairness holds no power over the Wabash River.
The waterway floods where and when it pleases. Its speed and volume take no account of humans using it for recreation.
VIDEO: Tasting their way to a cure
People appeared to be in high spirits Friday inside the historic Indiana Theatre as they gathered for an evening of wine, food and conversation while supporting efforts to find a cure for breast cancer.
VIDEO: Watch these robots play ball
Drivers of remote-controlled robots will match skills, similar to those used in basketball and soccer, to score in the FIRST Robotics’ Crossroads Regional on the campus of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
VIDEO: Munn has made her mark on ISU women's program
Anna Munn has been a dependable leader in the Indiana State women’s basketball program. Her leadership has helped coach Teri Moren build to back-to-back 10-or-more win seasons in the Missouri Valley the last two years.
VIDEO: Mardi Gras at the Swope
Teresa Shaffer was handing out beads and masks at the Swope Art Museum's Mardi Gras celebration Saturday night. The event is an annual fundraiser for the downtown museum.
West Vigo High School's team competed in the Northview Winter Guard Invitational Friday, Feb. 28. Some 80 teams will perform their routines between Friday evening and all day today.
VIDEO: Indiana State women looking to add to winning streak at home
Indiana State looks to put a three-game winning streak together tonight against Loyola, who topped the Sycamores behind 30 points by senior forward Troy Hambric for one of the Ramblers’ nine wins this season.
The Sycamores’ women’s basketball team stifled Missouri State last Friday and knocked off first-place Wichita State on Sunday for a pair of road wins last weekend. They'll look to build upon that momentum tonight at home.
VIDEO: Wilhelm leads South swimmers into state finals
Christian Wilhelm plans to compete in the distance freestyle when he gets to the University of Illinois-Chicago’s downtown campus.
Wilhelm emerged as a state qualifier in the 500-yard freestyle and 200 freestyle as a junior for Terre Haute South. But his senior season took a different turn and he’s hoping to make a big splash in a new event.
VIDEO: Inner beauty
Cheers and applause filled the room as 13 smiling women took center stage Wednesday night in Terre Haute to shine a spotlight on the unique beauty each person possesses — inside and out.
VIDEO: First responders train for ice rescues
The phrase “skating on thin ice” refers to a risky situation, and with good reason. Falling through the thin ice of a frozen lake or pond can be the last thing a person does if a rescue is not quickly made.
VIDEO: The Grascals have Wabash Valley’s toes tappin’
Bluegrass fans came from all four corners of the Wabash Valley to see Nashville, Tenn.-based band The Grascals — and its Vigo County-native member — in concert Friday night in Union Christian Church.
Jo-Ann Jones of Clinton was “pew dancing” in front of the sold-out crowd.
VIDEO: Eyes in the sky
Downtown Terre Haute gets demonstration of Pocket Drone and GPS navigation software.
Video: Navy veteran recounts tale of kayak trip
Sharing his story is exciting for a Dugger man who made history by becoming the first blind solo kayaker to travel the entire length of the Grand Canyon.
Video: SPPRAK-ers spread message
Six-year-old Sunny Santharam knows what kindness is.
When his father Ram asked him the definition, Sunny quickly responded, “Be nice to everyone!”
Video: Full-time Eagle Scout
Seth Boland poses with his Eagle Scout award at the stage extension he built in Ryves Youth Center at Etling Hall. Boland had the help of family, friends and fellow scouts, taking parts of three weekends to build the structure.
VIDEO: Conserving the Wabash River, Sugar Creek corridor
More than 1,200 acres west of Turkey Run State Park along Sugar Creek will be open to the public in April, thanks to Indiana’s Healthy Rivers INitiative.
VIDEO: ‘Notes on a River’ exhibit brings Wabash scenes to gallery
The best views of the Wabash come with wet, muddy feet. Free flowing and untamed, the river’s banks often test human visitors. The Wabash looks its finest at water’s edge, where nature rules and man’s domain lies over the bank, out of sight. Nancy Nichols-Pethick set up her easel there, atop uneven stones, mossy dirt and marshy weeds.
VIDEO: Clay Schools to install district-wide video surveillance system
Soon, Clay Community Schools Corp. will have a district-wide video surveillance system in place that will enable a few school officials — and eventually law enforcement — to monitor nearly 300 cameras at 15 facilities, should security issues arise.
VIDEO: Vigo mumps case confirmed
A Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology student has been diagnosed with mumps, and there are at least six other “probable cases” of mumps in Vigo County, according to the Vigo County Health Department.
VIDEO: Rosedale igloo
Keaton Allen checks one of the rooms in the snowy structure he and friends Noelanie Loomis, Gabe Whitford and Isaiah Bowman are building at the park in Rosedale.
VIDEO: Broken heart
Heinl’s Flower Shop will not be open for Valentine’s Day — or any future Valentine’s Day.
After a devastating water pipe rupture resulted in substantial damage to the design area, show room and an upstairs apartment on Jan. 9, owner Vonda Monts has decided not to re-open as a floral shop..
VIDEO: Traveling Lincoln exhibit at ISU
A traveling exhibit that takes a closer look at Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during the Civil War has arrived in Terre Haute. “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” opened Thursday in Cunningham Memorial Library at Indiana State University. It will be on display through March 21.
VIDEO: Plans emerge for historic move from Sage House
“We’re moving into the second life … of the historical museum,” said Marylee Hagan, executive director of the Vigo County Historical Society and Museum.
Video: Historic roller rink under renovation
Robert Kramer has one of the best jobs in town.
Kramer, a native of Martinsville, is leading the charge to bring the Wigwam skating and event center back to life.
Video: Election board OKs ballot change
The Vigo County Election Board Wednesday adopted a resolution to permit the central counting of absentee ballots.
VIDEO: Cold case homicide: 15 years later
Fifteen years is a long time to wait for a payoff when it comes to arresting a suspect in a homicide investigation.
VIDEO: Judging their piece of the pie
The smell of delicious pies filled the air inside the Wabash Valley Banquet Center at the Wabash Valley Fairgrounds during a pie contest on Thursday — National Pie Day.
VIDEO: Sen. Donnelly updates T-S editorial board
Passage of a long overdue U.S. farm bill could be completed by the end of this month, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., said Tuesday.
VIDEO: South coach to be inducted into state high school tennis Hall of Fame
When Illinois resident Bill Blankenbaker debuted as Terre Haute South High School’s tennis coach for boys and girls back in 1996, he had no idea how long he would continue with those duties.
VIDEO: Martin Luther King Jr. Day: Day of service
Indiana State University students Paige Clouse and Samantha Beccari wore face masks and gloves as they helped clean up an abandoned house on South 13 1⁄2 Street.
- More Multimedia Headlines
- VIDEO: Reaching the Wabash