MARK BENNETT: Upriver by hovercraft: Pioneering crews plan 'Wabash River 500'

Cruise up the ‘Bash: Jason Kuehn, a Terre Haute North Vigo High School graduate, poses with the Coastal Pro 2 model craft he’ll pilot.Submitted photo

The Wabash River is no stranger to adventurous pioneers.

William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame, honed his river navigation skills on the Wabash more than a decade before their historic expedition. His brother, Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, led U.S. troops through the bone-chilling Wabash waters and scored a pivotal defeat of the British at Fort Sackville in Vincennes. Two sets of idealistic East Coast settlers voyaged to Indiana to build Utopian societies on the banks of the Wabash at New Harmony.

But none of those free spirits cruised the entire length of the Wabash in one trip, by hovercraft, going upstream. Apparently, nobody has.

A dozen intrepid souls intend to conquer that task. Seven pilots and five support-team members from the Hoverclub of America — including two Terre Haute natives, and cohorts from three other states, Australia and Canada — plan to launch their hovercraft at Old Shawnee Town, Ill., near the confluence of the Wabash and Ohio rivers on July 29.

They will follow the twists and turns of the Wabash all the way to its source near Fort Recovery, Ohio, which they’ll reach on Aug. 2.

Five days. Nearly 500 miles. (It’s 474, to be exact.)

“It’s quite an adventure,” said Jason Kuehn, one of the pilots.

They’re calling it the Wabash River 500 Hover for Hunger. More than merely a daring feat, the excursion aims to raise funds to alleviate childhood hunger in Indiana. All donations will go toward hunger initiatives in the state, including the Vigo County schools’ Backpack Program.

“For some reason, I thought it needed to have a bigger purpose,” said Dave Reyburn, the trek’s organizer and Hoverclub of America president. He drew inspiration from his wife, who assists a backpack program at the Goshen school where she works, providing food for needy kids to take home on weekends.

The forum for the fundraiser — the 500-mile river journey — involves inspiration, too. Reyburn, a 55-year-old software engineer, and some fellow hovercraft enthusiasts hatched the idea years ago. In December, they got serious about turning the bucket-list check-mark into a reality. They will tackle the distance 100 miles per day, camping overnight at Vincennes, Montezuma, Americus (near Lafayette) and Huntington. Some of their targeted campsites may be inaccessible because of flooding. “Plan B is to go sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot, if we have to,” Reyburn quipped.

The outing marks relatively new aquatic territory for the crew of the seven-hovercraft outing. Reyburn consulted the comprehensive “Wabash River Guidebook” by “riverlorian” Jerry Hay. And, Reyburn previously cruised 50-mile round trips on three sections of the Wabash, “but never 100 miles at a time or, for that matter, 500 miles. So this will be a bigger trip than any of us have ever done.”

Kuehn and high school friend Marquis Songer experienced the Wabash via hovercraft in their days as students at Terre Haute North and later Purdue University. Next week, Kuehn , 36, will pilot a hovercraft manufactured by his Indianapolis company, Hoverstream, joined by Songer, a 37-year-old teacher at Terre Haute South. Like Reyburn, they’ve mulled this exploit for years.

“The idea of cruising the entire length of the Wabash has always appealed to us,” Kuehn said, “and now we’ve got the opportunity.”

It won’t be easy. If one of the crafts needs repairs, high waters from recent flooding could leave them few spots to pull over. Campsites may be swamped. In the “most difficult part,” as Reyburn put it — the section between Huntington Dam and the headwaters at Fort Recovery — the Wabash often looks more like a creek, with shallow water, sandbars and strewn tree limbs.

That’s why they’re going upstream. “We’re not sure what we’re going to find right now,” Songer said, “so we figured we’d deal with [the potential obstructions] at the end of the trip.”

Hovercraft need about a 5-foot space to go under a bridge, and high waters could make that tricky, Reyburn said. Otherwise, the hard bottom of the machines hover 8 to 9 inches above the surface, and maneuver well on low or no water, as long as the terrain is smooth, cruising at average speeds of 25 to 30 mph and topping out at 50 mph. But a fallen tree across the stream could prematurely halt the trip.

“That’s part of the adventure,” Kuehn said. “We don’t know what we’ll run into until we get there.”

They’re packing a chainsaw, he said, just in case. Lewis and Clark would approve.

 

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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