Downriver among the trees of the West Fork

We gather at Canoe Country along the West Fork of the White River on the northside of Daleville. The parking lot is full of all kinds of cars and trucks…

We gather at Canoe Country along the West Fork of the White River on the northside of Daleville. The parking lot is full of all kinds of cars and trucks and all kinds of people. I marvel at—and remember—how universal canoeing and tubing is for so many people. Family tradition for some, a once-to-try-it outing, a monthly rendezvous, a reason to fish or meander or drink beer. Everyone on the river together.

We stock up on water and Upland beer and take two old shuttle buses upriver to Yorktown and disembark in Morrow’s Meadow on the westside of town where Buck Creek joins the White River. While Canoe Country staff organizes our canoes and kayaks, we read an excerpt from “Remembering Indiana,” the opening chapter of The Near-sighted Naturalist by Ann Zwinger, who grew up farther up the White in Muncie. “Indiana has become a measure, my ‘type location,’ as a geologist would say, for judging and evaluating the rest of the world.” I ask, as I have at about every Campfires event I have led, about attendees “type locations.” I am always surprised at the range of answers: corn fields; the St. Lawrence River, which is clear instead of muddy like Indiana rivers; water everywhere in Minnesota; roaming free in a small town in southern Indiana; the Ozark riverways and their similarity to Indiana rivers; not being allowed to play in the creeks of Indianapolis; the Fox River in Wisconsin with forests, small communities, and Native American reservations; the woodlots around Hartford City and Montpelier, Indiana; the coasts and rivers and Maine where everything is outdoors and where you learn to see nature through the eyes of children.

We launch our canoes and kayaks, a flotilla really since 36 people are on the trip. Here the White River seems more like a creek, narrow and shallow, as small or big as Sugar Creek where it runs through Turkey Run and Shades State Park. It’s hard to imagine this narrow flow becoming the wide, flat river at the heart of Indianapolis. This stretch is tree-lined the whole way, and many trees angle over the river to provide shade. But we see the bubbles of and smell the effluent, either from storm drains or septic drains or sewer overflows or farm runoff.

At the first gravel bar big enough for all of our canoes and kayaks, we pull out of the river. Our first reading is from John James Audubon on the Wild Turkey and his travels in Indiana while he was working on Birds of America. “While once I sitting in the woods, on the banks of the Wabash, I observed two large Turkey-cocks on a log, by the river, pluming and picking themselves. I watched their movements for a while, when of a sudden one of them flew across the river, while I perceived the other struggling under the grasp of the lynx.” Audubon’s observations give us a rich description of Indiana’s diverse ecosystems and wildlife soon after statehood, and along that first stretch, someone saw kingfishers. Around our feet on the gravel bar, we see the opened shells of various mussels, a key indicator of river health. Indiana and surrounding states have been referred to as the Amazon of mussel biodiversity. The Miami Tribe’s names for the Wabash River and the White River both reference the white river bottoms. The water was so clear that they could see the limestone bedrock on the riverbottom.

Almost a century later, the famous songs “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away” (1897) and “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” (1917) show us in their lyrics that Indiana was already an agrarian landscape of farm fields and fragmented forests. This is the Indiana we know now in 2018 with a river healthier now than it has been in the century since “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” was an international sensation. But in 1999, a chemical release by a closing factory in Anderson depleted all the oxygen in the river for 50 miles, killing all aquatic life. The river has recovered from that and many other problems. Although zebra mussels aren’t a problem on moving water, other invasive species like bush honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and asian carp can be a problem. Muncie residents are working to remove dams along their stretch of White River, and the Mounds Dam and Reservoir in Anderson has lost momentum. Cities and towns are finally getting serious about stormwater management with retention or detention methods like bioswales or rain gardens so the rainwater doesn’t run directly into local rivers and creeks.

We paddle back into the shaded river and some tighter meanders. Other rivergoers paddle kayaks, fish from the shallows or from boats, or laze along in red inflatable tubes. Some of the riffles are shallow, and we have to get out to walk our canoes. In other places, giant boulders lurk under the water’s surface, carried there by glaciers and yearly floods. The heat dissipates, and the clouds darken into possible storms. We pull up at a good-looking gravel bar, and the rain starts once we are all safely under a tree.

Our readings from Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry pull us into the 1960s and the birth of the environmental movement. Carson asks at the end of her “Rivers of Death” chapter from Silent Spring, “If we could divert to constructive research even a small fraction of the money spent each year on the development of ever more toxic sprays, we could find ways to use less dangerous materials and to keep poisons out of our waterways. When will the public become sufficiently aware of the facts to demand such action?” The group on our trip is aware of all this and acts on it, and we would not be on the river if not for Carson’s book, and the resulting inspiration and actions from people led to the passage of numerous environmental legislation. But places still need to be protected, like Eagle Creek or Whitewater River.

Wendell Berry challenges us in “The One-inch Journey” from The Unforeseen Wilderness to protect more than scenic places and to know a place well enough to protect it. This stretch of the White River is scenic enough to protect other stretches, and many locals along the river know their stretches well enough to preserve the corridor. Many towns are reclaiming their riverfronts, and we can do more to get industry on the side of nature. The White River is still under threat from run-off from lawns and golf courses. Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), which produce as much waste as small towns, are located near many of our rivers. Other pollution continues from agriculture and industry. That is one of many reasons Hoosier Environmental Council is spearheading the Mounds Greenway Project. The project will also preserve important historical, cultural, and ecological areas along the White River and create a trail system that can be used by all people and that will drive economic development.

The rain ends when our conversation ends, and we get into our wet canoes and kayaks to follow the meanders toward the Canoe Country put-out. Even at our leisurely pace, the end comes soon, and we slow even more to lengthen our trip. The staff pulls our boats up the bank, and we head to our picnic tables for our meal. We end with a reading from John Muir, who lived in Indianapolis in 1866-67 after dodging the Civil War draft in Canada. I contend Indianapolis transformed him into the John Muir we know as Sierra adventurer and founder of the Sierra Club. In a journal from 1875, he writes, “How infinitely superior to our physical senses are those of the mind! The spiritual eye sees not only rivers of water but of air…. Again we hear the earthquake rock-falls. Imagination is usually regarded as a synonym for the unreal. Yet is true imagination healthful and real, no more likely to mislead than the coarser senses. Indeed, the power of imagination makes us infinite.” What are some of the things you imagine?


I imagine the river permanently protected.


I imagine children having contact with the river so that it becomes part of their lives and they work to protect it in the future.


I imagine the Native Americans here.


I imagine what it was like to see it before pioneer settlement and what it was like to get to it then.


Another act of imagination we discuss is the opening poem “Star-struck Blacks” from Adrian Matejka’s 2017 book, Map to the Stars. Matejka grew up in Indianapolis and now serves as the Poet Laureate of Indiana. The poem opens


Again, winter & Indianapolis’s 30th Street Bridge

is salty over the iced-up White River. & above


both salt & ice, stars constellate into back-lit animals

& ancient heroes posturing in the edges of the Earth’s


afro—as inevitable as morning frost in morning

hair after a park bench sleep….


We’ve spent the last few hours experiencing the river the best possible way—on the river—and now we will return to our usual way of seeing the river. In the poem, we see how most people interact with a river—from afar on a bridge, bluff, bank, or road—and how universal that experience can be.

We end with one other act of imagination, one that came from my imagination and eighteen Indiana authors, the Upper White River Watershed bookmap. The bookmap contains writing on each small watershed that feeds into the West Fork of the White River, and each Campfires participant receives one at the 2018 events.