ON THE WABASH RIVER —
A daylong journey on the waters of the Wabash River has brought new environmental insights to many eighth-graders in Sullivan County.
How our daily lives and practices affect the river also took on new meaning for me during my ride in an inflatable raft with six students from North Central Junior High School. We went on the first day of the 13th annual Eighth-Grade Wabash River Expedition, a learning initiative that hosts different groups of students over three days.
With 2013 being celebrated as the Year of the River, this year’s expedition down the Wabash offered a great opportunity to listen to today’s young people and their views on this meandering force of nature.
Twelve yellow and blue rafts departed from the river’s sandy shore at the Riverview boat ramp in Sullivan County on Tuesday. Enthusiastic students wrapped in life jackets and instructed by Indiana Conservation Officer Tom Lahay on how to use their paddles — “paddles, not weapons,” — collected their sack lunches into plastic tote containers and waded into their rafts with adult volunteers to begin what some of the teenagers initially saw as a “day out of school.”
It turned out to be longer than an actual school day by the time the last rafts reached their destination at Hutsonville, Ill., and the school buses returned the water-weary students to their school.
More than a few “soggy bottom boys” and girls, and adults, enjoyed the day’s activities — absent banjo and fiddle music, but with a serenade of birdsong and wildlife chatter that made the day on the river an enjoyable and memorable assignment.
The crew of raft 10
In Raft 10 were eighth-graders Dylan Bursley, Jonathan “Jonny” Hines, Marissa Miller, Caleb Stamper, Austin Taylor and Cylie Webster. Parent Angi Kennett sat at the front of the watercraft, while this journalist and camera-laden chief photographer Joe Garza weighed down the back of the raft. We were both armed with paddles (not weapons) and used them liberally to propel our craft down the river.
As the flotilla of educational opportunity began to spread out along the river, it became evident that the veteran rafters of years past knew to take advantage of the river’s current to add speed and distance to their journey. It also became evident that Raft 10 was hampered by a “snag magnet” that attracted our bouncy craft toward every tree limb or obstacle lying in wait just below the water’s surface.
We became snagged by only one large obstacle that required our “rescue” by the conservation officers keeping tabs on the rafters. Our crew sat calmly in the boat — after we all raised our paddles upward to indicate an emergency, as instructed by Lahay during our pre-float orientation session.
Hearing from Lahay that we were lucky our craft didn’t overturn was a bit unnerving, and then we caught the current and continued on our merry way.
“Absolutely tremendously important” is how Judy Bengochea describes the river expedition.
In an annual survey among high school seniors, 87 percent say it is the best field trip of their school careers.
Businesses and local people pay for the costs associated with the trip, and 100 community volunteers give their time and energy to make the trip possible.
“Everyone in the community is behind it,” said Bengochea, who started overseeing the event during its third year and is now retired from the Sullivan County Soil and Water Conservation District. “For Sullivan County to sustain this for 13 years is tremendous.”
The Sullivan County SWCD is the lead agency involved, and district coordinator/educator Carrie Green said many of the volunteers look forward to the opportunity to introduce the students to the river.
On Wednesday, students from Sullivan Middle School filled the rafts. Students from Carlisle Junior High, Union Junior High, Rural Community Academy and a Vigo County 4-H group took the river trip Thursday.
Bengochea said the student river expedition is a program that has been mirrored in other counties around the state.
The three eighth-grade Vigo County 4-H members on this year’s trip will be eligible to participate in a “Discover The River” 4-H project and display a poster to be judged at the Vigo County Fair.
River as a trail
John “Jack” Gettinger has been on every one of the eighth-grade river expeditions. That’s three days of rafting for 13 years, or 39 trips, for the now 80-year-old Gettinger.
A retired elementary school teacher, Gettinger said he loves the trips with the young people. He is thrilled that the students get to see the Wabash River from a different point of view than from a car traveling across a bridge.
Public access to the river is an issue, he said. Many private properties have an access point, as evidenced by the numerous stairways leading down to the water. But Hutsonville is one of the only public spots that has any kind of nearby commerce, where a boater could restock supplies. Even in Terre Haute at Fairbanks Park, there is nowhere nearby to buy boat fuel or provisions, he said.
“We have to get public access every 10 or 12 miles, so people can get on and enjoy the river,” he said, noting that the Riverview boat ramp where the expedition kicked off is not a public site.
“When you’re on the river, getting provisions is an issue,” Gettinger said. “If you’re coming downriver, you need to get supplies. We want people to think of the river as an Appalachian Trail.”
Creating future stewards
A member of the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, Gettinger was complimentary of the attention that the river has received this year through the 2013 Year of the River celebration.
Mary Kramer, executive director of Art Spaces Inc., is at the forefront of promoting the river and its importance in our daily lives.
“Through 2013 Year of the River, what we hear often is how sad people are that they don’t have an easy way to get onto the river,” Kramer told the Tribune-Star. “I think it is fantastic to give students that age the opportunity to get on the river with adults that are enthusiastic about it and share that with the students. When you learn things, or have positive experiences when you are young, they have lasting impact. It makes it more likely that as adults, people will be good stewards of the river. It is an impressive program, and I’m happy to hear they are continuing it.”
Just keep rowing
Orange traffic cones were set up along the shoreline at various points. We were directed to float as close to each cone as possible and to record our coordinates using a handheld GPS device supplied to each raft. Raft 10 did a capable job on this task. We also had a laminated list of wildlife, plant life and aquatic life to watch for on our journey downstream.
At one point, a crew member pointed out what we thought was a white egret in the distance, partially concealed by a sandy outcrop along the western shore. Turns out it was an egret-shaped limb bleached white by the elements.
Floating above on the air currents were several large birds, some proclaimed to be eagles, others hawks — all undoubtedly calculating the likelihood of rafter carrion as a source of communal feasting.
Splashing was kept to a minimum, save the accidental toss of water by a paddling error. But jocularity reigned in Raft 10, where the “Finding Nemo” chant of “just keep swimming, just keep swimming” was modified to “just keep rowing, just keep rowing.”
Two hours into our excursion, Raft 10 rounded a river bend to see a lovely sandbar, where our midday activities were planned. After gobbling down our lunch — river rafting makes for hungry boaters — and drying out a bit, each raft team was directed to one of the educational stations. Here we watched water quality testing, a rain simulator demonstration and tree identification by a forester, and learned about the history of the river, construction in flood zones and macroinvertibrate identification.
Laura Young, of the West Central Indiana Watershed Alliance, talked about the watershed, about construction in a watershed, and the planning and permits needed. The students then had to apply for permits to build sandcastles near their rafts.
Trees that grow along rivers and how wildlife depends on them for food and shelter were the topics addressed by forester Jeremiah Lemmons of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
State Sen. John Waterman represented the Buck Creek Muzzleloaders as he explained early pioneer weapons, showed tools and knives used by native people of the area, and displayed the hides of native animals, such as beaver and coyote.
The Raft 10 crew was dismayed to see our craft somewhat deflated from our morning’s journey. Possibly, our hang-up on the snag did more damage than originally thought. But, a quick fix and more air by the expedition’s support crew soon had the raft re-inflated. With the promise of a prize awaiting the first rafters to arrive at the Hutsonville boat ramp, the teams took off for the final hourlong leg of the journey.
‘We did good’
Enthusiasm and a promise of a prize at the boat ramp had all the raft teams paddling furiously for the first 15 minutes or so, until, once again, the rafts spread out along the river. With only six rafts ahead of us, however, Raft 10 began making good progress in catching the leaders. An offer of Dairy Queen treats for everyone was added as incentive. Fatigue soon set in, though, along with snags, shallow water and discussion of a possible “shortcut” through a shallow-looking meander that would have led nowhere fast.
The question — “Will you ever come out on the river again? — was posed to the eighth-graders as the raft drifted past a lifeless Asian carp that had apparently jumped the wrong direction and become stranded on shore.
“Definitely to fish,” said Austin, with agreement from Jonny and Caleb.
“Maybe in a speed boat,” added Jonny.
“It was like, a lot of work,” said Marissa.
The boys said they enjoyed watching the Asian carp jump out of the water whenever a motorized boat passed.
“We did good,” Cylie said after regrouping with friends in Hutsonville. “It was fun. When we worked as a team, it was fun.”
Taking another rafting trip down the river with classmates as a school event won’t be high on her personal to-do list, she indicated, but she said she would enjoy “chillin’ on the river” with friends as recreation.
‘Something all kids should do’
Diane Medley teaches special education at North Central, and she said she makes a point of going on the annual excursion so that her students can go, too.
“I look forward to it every year. It’s a ball,” she said. “Now that I’ve done it before, I can talk about it to the students before we go, and when we get back and they process things, we can talk more about it.”
One of her students caught a fish during the midday stop at the sandbar, and that “fish tale” may be included in the writings that the students do after the trip.
“It’s an experience that, even though they do the writing thing, they will continue to talk about it throughout the year,” Medley said. “It’s something all kids should do.”
Others near the blue raft floating Medley’s students could often hear her students chanting in unison, “Row ... row ... row.”
“They get competitive and they really worked together,” she said. “You could see them problem-solving when the raft started to turn.”
Next they will write
The Sullivan County students survived the expedition, a little damp but a lot more knowledgeable about the Wabash River.
They have each been assigned to write an essay about their experiences.
This journalist also completed her assignment to write about one day on the waterway, but found it difficult to do justice to the natural beauty of the Wabash River. I’ll just encourage everyone to take their own floating expedition on Indiana’s river. It is well worth your time.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa