Imagine the perfect Indiana autumn afternoon…the perfect temperature, warm sun shining, a light breeze, and the air smelling rich and ripe with a tinge of crisp. The stage was set for success for a unique Next Indiana Campfires event on the afternoon of Oct. 8, 2016. This hike took place on water, in 10-person hand-crafted wooden canoes. The “voyageur” style boats were similar to those used by early French explorers, and felt appropriate to see on this trip up Trail Creek in Michigan City. The event was co-hosted by the LaPorte County Soil and Water Conservation District and was set to be a dynamic experience, as Trail Creek showcases a rich history of how this waterway has built the Michigan City economy, played a vital role in environmental conservation and education, and offers places for people to relax and socialize. As we gathered, members of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association (NWIPA) were heading out for an afternoon group paddle. More and more people arrived, until we had enough to fill 6 boats! People of all ages and from as far away as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne snacked on artisanal Ugo Nature Bars (made in Bloomington) and Upland beers. The guides from Wilderness Inquiry out of Minneapolis, MN, oriented us to the boats and safety measures, and we climbed aboard.
A big group, big boats, a water hike…the adventure had begun, and I haven’t even mentioned the Bicentennial Torch! On its journey across the state, it was headed our way at the time when we were planning to arrive back for our campfire, dinner, and s’mores. The President of the NWIPA, Dan Plath, had been selected to carry the torch, which he would do on the back of his kayak in a specially designed torch holder. Getting back in time for this historic moment was a key part of our afternoon, so we left knowing we would see it handed off and get paddled away – if we got back in time. Trying to talk with a group of this size is challenging indoors, and with the timeline and the distractions of the river, I was not sure if the literature I had carefully selected would be heard or appreciated. Since it was so nice outside, and everyone was happy from the snacks and the sun and the good company, I figured it would not matter too much: we would have a good time and be part of Hoosier history.
Before we set off I set the stage by reading an excerpt from Journey Into Summer by Dunesland native Edwin Way Teale. In it he describes the early explorers of northwest Indiana waterways and his own journey retracing his footsteps. This offered a nice reminder that we were entering into a dynamic landscape with a rich past, present and future.
As we paddled upstream, the water sang beneath the boat and the paddlers were talking and exclaiming over the sights seen on and near the water. We paused at a small bend in the creek. A piece from Scott Russell Sanders’ “Honoring the Ordinary” helped connect us from our separate boats clinging to our own paddles to one another and the early fall landscape:
…the seeming solidity of the world is an illusion. Not only are all things constantly in flux, but all apparently separate things are aspects of a single reality, like waves on the sea. Nothing is separate, nothing is permanent, least of all that flattering illusion we call the self.
Since we had discussed the evolution of Trail Creek and its evolving role in Michigan City, and we could see the leaves beginning to turn, it seemed an important reminder of all that we were experiencing.
We paddled a bit farther, then turned back to our corner of the creek for the poem “At the River Clarion” by Mary Oliver, who, while not a Hoosier, a Pulitzer-winning poet who often writes on environmental and spiritual themes.
Said the river I am part of holiness.
And I too, said the stone. And I too, whispered
the moss beneath the water.
I’d been to the river before, a few times.
Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly.
You don’t hear such voices in an hour or a day.
You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears.
And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway, through
all the traffic, the ambition.
… Of course for each of us, there is the daily life.
Let us live it, gesture by gesture.
Before we went back into history waiting to happen, we had a few moments left to listen to the river sing, and to soak in the wildness that the creek had become in a short paddle.
As we neared the dock, we saw crowds of paddlers who came to see the torch! We joined in, heard the story of the torch, how the flame was kept alive, and kept an eye on Dan Plath’s boat. Soon, the torch was spotted on land, and we watched it get placed onto the kayak. Dan proudly and confidently paddled as we clapped and cheered. Another chapter in Trail Creek history…
All the excitement and fresh air had made us hungry, so we went back to the docks and clambered onto the shore. What surprised me most at this point were the paddlers who came up to me, flush with the sights and sounds, to express how moved they were by the readings. They thanked me and headed home or towards the campfire. After the fire had warmed us, and we had eaten our fill, there were a couple closing readings to help us reflect on our experience together and with Trail Creek. One from Gary Snyder’s “The Etiquette of Freedom” offered thoughts on wildness:
Thoreau says, “give me a wildness no civilization can endure.” That’s clearly not difficult to find. It is harder to imagine a civilization that wildness can endure, yet this is just what we must try to do. Wildness is not just the “preservation of the world,” it is the world. … Nature is not a place to visit, it is home — and within that home territory there are more familiar and less familiar places.
It also offered a timely message for an interesting time in our country’s political history:
…An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style. Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms. Rudeness in thought or deed toward others, toward nature, reduced the chances of conviviality and interspecies communication, which are essential to physical and spiritual survival.
As I concluded, I looked up and around the group. A few spoke up with soft comments about a phrase or moment that resonated with their experienced. Many more offered thoughtful gazes at me, and towards the campfire. Afterwards, more people came up, one at a time, to offer their thanks and amazement at pairing an experience with the wild and literature.
Next Indiana Campfires has been an inspirational way to connect Hoosiers to our diverse, complex, and accessible natural resources. Not only have we celebrated our natural heritage, but the resulting inspirations we have drawn, and will continue to draw, from it.
Next Indiana Campfires is a unique way to connect nature, literature and Indiana’s Bicentennial. The program is supported by the Efroymson Family Fund, the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires. Indiana Humanities is supported in part by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the National Endowment of the Humanities.
This post was written by Trek and Talk Guide Krista Bailey and is part of the weekly blog series devoted to the initiative. Check back every Tuesday to learn more about Indiana’s great environmental literature, find out interesting facts about Hoosier stewardship, get all the latest program details and more.