"The Best Experience of Your Life You Never Want to do Again!"
by Wade Coggeshall
July 5, 2006
What started as an excuse to go out with a girl instead became a hands-on learning experience when three Wabash College students canoed Indiana's length of the Wabash River.
Homer Twigg, Clayton Craig and Zach Webb spent 15 days during their summer break paddling 340 miles to study the history, biology and aesthetics of the Wabash River. They started on the Mississinewa River south of the Huntington Dam and ended where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River in northwest Kentucky.
The trip was made in conjunction with Present Indiana, a program funded by the Lilly Endowment where students study the cultural and natural wonders of the state. Eight other projects were done under the same umbrella this year, including studies on Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut and Indiana's historic covered bridges.
Twigg originally wanted to take a canoe trip with his girlfriend. After finding out he could get paid to do it through Present Indiana, he brought on Craig and Webb to study the biology and history of the river, respectively.
That began a "long and arduous process" of outlines, meetings, paperwork and project layouts before they ever got in the water.
Craig studied agriculture and its affects on the Wabash. Specifically he studied erosion and what happens when farmers clear their land right up to the river's banks. He also took water measurements, like how much oxygen the river contains.
"It was pretty elementary, but still good stuff to get an idea of the health of the river," he said.
Most of Webb's research was done before the trip started. Along the way they stopped at historical markers along the water's edge, like Forts Quiatenon in Lafayette and Sackville in Vincennes. Much of his study focused on the 17th century, when French voyagers first met the Native Americans in the area and established crucial trade.
"Reading about (historical sites) and then getting to see them is the most important part in presenting it," Webb said.
Twigg wrote a narrative of the experience, "trying to give a glimpse of what we went through, both positive and negative." The trio gives its first presentation Aug. 15 to the international students and new faculty members at Wabash College. After that they expect to split up and give talks to 4-H and local elementary schools and civic organizations over the course of the next school year.
They brag they're the first to canoe the new river trail established by the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission. It would seem so, because they never saw another paddler on the trip. "It's very lonely out there," Webb said.
The camping was good, as they found sand bars farther south they could use — referred to as a "poor man's beach" by two guys they met along the way. But it was also "campers beware." They had 15 feet of sand between their tent and the river when they went to bed one night. It was down to 3 when they woke in the morning. Unbeknownst to them it rained up north, sending more water their way.
They might've known had they more communication channels other than the country, oldies and static stations playing "the latest static hits" they picked up on their crappy radio, which unfortunately didn't survive the journey. That left ample time for chatting, which they did when they weren't too tired or grumpy to talk. Or too preoccupied watching mud dry in the bottom of the canoe.
And the wind, oh the wind. The three were up against it a lot.
"I think it's worse than the cold," Twigg said. "Because the cold you can make go away by paddling harder. But the wind, you just hate more because you're going harder against it when you paddle. I hate wind, unless it's going my way."
That's not to say the adventure wasn't worth it. All three say it was a fun and educational way to spend part of their summer. But "I don't know if I'd ever want to repeat it again," Craig said.
"It was like (fraternity) pledge ship," Twigg summed up. "It's the best experience in your life that you never want to do again."
Coggeshall is a reporter for the Crawfordsville Journal Review.