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.