Rivers have always captivated people. Books such as “A River Runs Through It,” have become classics, as are songs such as “Old Man River,” “Moon River,” “Proud Mary” and even the Indiana state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash.
So today let’s all kayak down the Wabash River, putting in at the Department of Natural Resources launch site just west of Delphi. We will paddle 9 1/2 miles down river to our takeout point, the confluence of the Tippecanoe and the Wabash Rivers.
Before we head out, let’s review a little Wabash River history. As all rivers do, it starts as a small stream, and in the case of the Wabash it starts as a tiny stream in Ohio. Widening and deepening into the heartland of Indiana, it travels southwesterly for 475 miles, draining over 60 counties, and finally merges with the Ohio River.
Considered our state river, the Wabash is also the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. No different than any natural river, one left alone by man, she goes where she wants, bending and turning at will, deepening formerly shallow parts and filling in formerly deep spots, reinventing itself at will.
The Wabash travels through a huge valley carved by glacial runoff as well as across fertile flat land, sometimes moving at a slow pace, other times it rages against nature, downing trees and flooding valleys. It is a river to enjoy, a river with a rich history, but one to be both respected and feared. If any river deserves the moniker of the Boss, it is surely the Wabash, especially when prodded by rains.
The name “Wabash” is an English spelling of the French name for the river, “Ouabache,” which in turn was taken from the Miami Indians name for it, “waapaahsiiki,” which means, among other translations, “water over white stones.”
During the 18th century, the French used the Wabash for transportation linking Quebec and Louisiana. Five colonial and frontier-era battles have been fought on or near the river, including the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. In fact, today we will end our paddle at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers, only a few miles from the battlefield.
Steve, our shuttle driver, is dropping us off now at the aforementioned DNR site. Look how muddy the river is today, muddy because it drains so much farmland. We ease out into the shallows where the water is still slow, then sit down and start paddling into the main part of the river. The river is low and lazy today but we are still getting some assistance from the current.
See the four buzzards circling overhead? It’s something I always hate to see on my adventure trips, as though it is a warning or omen! Let’s ignore the buzzards and just enjoy the beautiful blue sky in which they soar. With temperatures in the low 80s there is a mild wind at our backs, though it has played tricks on us today, sometimes doing an about-face. Directly in front of our kayak, large fish, probably carp, shoot out ahead of our kayak, sending out large v-shaped waves in the shallow water.
Our oars are dipping from left to right, sometimes hitting the gravel bottom. It is hard to believe that a river this big is so shallow. But we must remember that we are on the river, and rivers hold many perils: submerged trees, rocks and deep holes. Remember, the river is the Boss.
One mile into the trip, and we look over and see a raggedy coyote running along the shoreline for about 100 yards. He’s not looking our way, but we’re confident he is aware of our presence. See him move up the muddy, low bank and disappear into the narrow band of trees lining the bank?
We are two miles into the trip now and wondering, “How did early man, specifically Native Americans and early pioneers, navigate these large rivers, or communicate?” There were no cell phones, no GPS, no energy bars, no sunscreen, no bottled Perrier water. They had no lightweight kayaks — ours weighs just 32 pounds — or paddles made of aluminum or fiberglass.
We are taking this trip for fun; they took it for survival, and the longer we go the more isolated and humbled we are by the primitive surroundings. But I wonder, and so do you, what did their canoes look like? Were they dugouts or frames of wood covered in bark or skins? How did they paddle, especially under high water conditions? Did people line the shore to welcome them home, did dogs bark at their arrival? What did they wear, how did they catch fish or start fires?
We are at four miles and see two people on a large gravel bar that extends into the river. We exchange pleasantries, ask each other about fishing and continue to paddle. We wonder if they will be the only people we see in 9 1/2 miles. (Spoiler alert: they are.)
See the red tail hawk soaring overhead with crows taking up pursuit of their avian adversary? We are not immune to harassment either, as a stately great blue heron along the banks takes off and squawks a string of heron expletives at us. I assume he thinks we are competing for his meal, though he ignores harassing a neighboring heron just 50 yards away. I diagnose a simple case of redirected aggression.
This part of the Wabash is beautiful, isolated from everything, widening ever so slowly. The width of the river and the tall maple and sycamore trees bordering it combine to make us feel cloistered in this river, don’t they? But its thin border worries us, for once they fall in, there will be no structure to firmly hold the banks. Erosion will then occur at a fast pace.
We have been out three hours now. Can you see the concrete ramp on the left that signifies our take-out, and the mouth of the Tippecanoe on the right? Beautiful trip, don’t you think? Easy flowing, even though the river was low. The Wabash has been good to us, but certainly not a river I would want to argue with if the water was high and swift.
This beautiful take-out spot brings to mind the chorus of the Indiana state song: “Oh, the moonlight’s fair tonight along the Wabash/From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay/Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming/On the banks of the Wabash, far away.”
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