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Hoosier outdoorsman navigates 500-plus miles of Wabash River

Posted June 18

— Keith Poole pulled his camo-painted jon boat away from the dock as a handful of Terre Haute well-wishers watched from the shore.

His dog, Paint, stood watch on the bow. A small American flag waved from the stern. All the supplies Poole and Paint needed for the 506-mile trip down the entire length of the Wabash River were tucked in between both ends.

Poole motored into the stream on a sunny morning late last month, 312 river miles done, 194 to go. He waved and was off.

That was May 23. Seven days later, Poole reached the conclusion of the Wabash and its confluence with the Ohio River. He camped in every county along the way — 18 in Indiana and two in western Ohio, where the Wabash begins. Poole embarked on his journey on May 1 and finished on May 29, Memorial Day, covering every mile of Indiana's official state river.

"He did what a lot of us want to do," said Brendan Kearns, a Wabash River expert and advocate. "So many people have that dream. There's some romance to it, a man and his boat, alone on the river."

Kearns and fellow Terre Haute residents Thomas and Lisa Baer shared coffee with Poole on his May 23 stop in Terre Haute. Poole camped in the backyard of the Baers' home near old Fort Harrison, where the couple has a boat dock. In planning the excursion, Poole tapped into a network of river enthusiasts through his membership in the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission and the Wabash River Defenders. Those contacts often offered him water, places to camp — which are limited in several stretches of the Wabash — and gas to refuel his boat's 6-horsepower engine.

"The river people are some of the nicest people around," Poole said after completing the trek. "They just want to help and are concerned and down-to-earth people."

And they would likely say the same of him. The 56-year-old lives along Mississinewa Reservoir, near a pair of historic Wabash River towns in northern Indiana — Peru and the city of Wabash. He's a former Indiana Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist now working for Big R Stores, a sporting goods retailer. Poole is grateful for his employer's generosity in allowing him time off for the journey. That gesture — coupled with the circumstance that Poole is single with no children — enabled him to go off the grid in May.

That's only part of the criteria for making such a voyage. Anyone boating the Wabash from start to finish needs to understand the river's tendencies and dangers, and needs to have experienced shorter outings on the fabled waterway. Poole meets that standard, too. His river navigation background includes a trip from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean via the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers with his friends Mike and Angie Beauchamp. ("I call Mike 'Lewis,' and he calls me 'Clark,'" Poole said, "and when Angie joins us, I call her 'Angie-gawea.''')

Along with that outdoorsy spirit, Poole has an appreciation for the historical and cultural bond between Indiana and its official state river.

"He's kind of the real deal when it comes to being in touch with the Wabash," said Kearns, a program specialist for the Indiana DNR and a Vigo County councilman.

Deciding to just do it

Poole hatched the idea of an end-to-end Wabash trip several years ago. Each time he got close to following through, nature presented an obstacle. "One year we had the flood. Another year we had the drought. So this year I just decided I was going to do it," he said.

He felt naturally suited to tackle it. "I like adventure. I like a challenge. I love the outdoors — camping, boating, fishing, hunting," Poole said. "It just fit."

His strategy reflected his credentials. Poole hiked alongside the river's first six miles, where boating isn't possible. The headwaters of the Wabash manifest as a culvert in a farm field in western Ohio, four miles from Fort Recovery, a tiny village founded in 1793. Though its source is just two miles from the Indiana border, it wanders through the Buckeye state for 28 miles before crossing into Jay County. It looks like a nondescript drainage ditch for the first six miles, which run eastward, before a hairpin turn west. There, Poole switched to a kayak.

Joined there by the Beauchamps, they kayaked through some "dangerous waters," dealt with 15 logjams and portaged over the Roush Lake Dam in Huntington. That 91-foot tall, 6,500-foot wide dam is the lone operational water-control structure on the Wabash, meaning it runs unobstructed for its final 411 miles — the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi.

When Poole and Paint reached the town of Wabash, 28 miles beyond the dam, they climbed into his jon boat and motored on for the rest of the expedition.

Advice, gumption help

The river gradually widens after its "Great Bend" near Lafayette, turning south. Its depth matters to water travelers, too. While high waters present certain hazards, a shallow river can be difficult as well. Unlike other rivers its size, the Wabash has no commercial navigation, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ceased dredging it in the 1930s. The riverbed is uneven.

"It's a wild river," said Thomas Baer, the Terre Haute resident who gave Poole a place to camp. "There is no dredging or anything like that on it. Its course is pretty much done by nature and nothing else. There's nothing guaranteeing you 12 feet of water under your boat on the Wabash. You might have 6 feet of water or 6 inches of water under your boat. You need to be, well, savvy."

It also helps to consult expert advice. That's why Poole carried a copy of "riverlorian" Jerry Hay's "Wabash River Guide Book," the bible of Wabash travelers. He also talked with John and LaNae Abnet, a Berne, Indiana, couple who kayaked, in separate crafts, the entire Wabash and continued south to the Gulf of Mexico in 2015.

There is no official record kept of adventurers who have navigated the river. Many start earnestly, then quit before reaching the confluence with the Ohio River south of Mount Vernon amid the wilderness of Indiana's southwestern tip. Others choose to start farther downstream than the first 100 miles, where low-hanging limbs, sand bars and logjams are common. Completing the full 506 miles alone remains rare.

When Poole got to the confluence, the difference between the busy Ohio and the unnavigable Wabash became apparent. A barge veered around the Ohio's bend southward, ahead of Poole's jon boat coming down the Wabash.

Along the previous hundreds of miles, Poole wasn't deterred by the snags and obstructions, and a handful of "zero days" (involving heavy rain or sickness). "It was the opportunity. I looked forward to (tackling those problems)," he said. "It's like, 'This is cool.'"

Occasionally, Poole and Paint slowed their pace.

"Sometimes I would get in the middle and I would just shut off the motor and drift," Poole said. "And I would hear all the birds and think about all the wildlife, the mussels and the invertebrates. It's still beautiful, and miles and miles of nothing but river and trees."

He expects to take on new adventures. "Lord willing, I'll do something," Poole said. "There's so many rivers to do, so many things in life to do."

Those plans will have to wait, though. "I want to just enjoy this for a while," he added. "I'm still on the river in my mind."

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Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/2raEaw5

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