Responding to Indiana White River Guide Book: East Fork and West Fork, by Jerry M. Hay (Terre Haute: Indiana Waterways, 2002).
Although I am a bicyclist rather than a boater, traveling on roads rather than rivers, I have long been interested in the waterways that shape the land and human cultures that develop along their banks. This interest influences the books I read, such as Blaine Harden’s A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia and Always a River: The Ohio River and the American Experience, edited by Robert L. Reid.
Now that I am living once again close to Indiana’s White River (West Fork), I am focusing attention on this ribbon of water that twists in an almost tortured way from its starting point near Muncie, Indiana (home of Ball State University), to its confluence with the Wabash River at Mt. Carmel, Illinois.
The first book on this river that I have been able to find, and this is in the reserved section of the Indianapolis Public Library, is a spiral bound document, with 8.5 by 11 inch pages, that provides a boater’s guide to both forks of the river. It is divided into thirty-seven sections, each with two facing pages, one primarily text and graphics and the other a line-drawing map of a section of the river that is approximately ten miles long. The map shows nearby roads, dams, bridges, power plants, access points, and other information that boaters need to know as they travel on the river. The author provides information on “reading the river,” navigation information and advice, and other material that would be important for safe boating.
The West Fork of the White River begins east of Muncie, flows 273 miles to its confluence with the East Fork, and continues an additional forty-six miles as the White River with no fork designation, for a total of 319 miles to its mouth at the Wabash. The East Fork officially begins near Columbus, Indiana, at the confluence of the Flatrock River and the Driftwood River, the longest tributary of which is the Big Blue River. The Big Blue-Driftwood River is 152 miles long and merged into the East Fork of the White River at Columbus, flows another 162 miles to the junction with the West Fork. Adding these two figures, the Big Blue-East Fork is 314 miles. It then travels another forty-six miles as part of the White River, making a total length of 360 miles.
Larger cities along the West Fork are Muncie, Anderson, Noblesville, Indianapolis, Martinsville, Spencer, Bloomfield, Edwardsport, and Washington. Starting at the officially designated beginning of the East Fork, larger communities are Columbus, Seymour, and Bedford. Hay’s description of this two-forked river confirms what one sees when looking at maps: for the most part, this river runs through rural country. In addition to towns and small cities, and the one major metropolitan area, Indianapolis, there are many villages, and cross roads settlements along this river. Even so, travelers should pay attention to food and other supplies. When motor boats are being used, special attention should be given to the fuel supplies.
One characteristic of the White River system stands out in the line drawing maps that Hays provides: it twists and turns in a constant sequence of wiggles throughout the length of both forks and their tributaries.
I have no experience with canoes or motor boats and therefore will not be able to see the White River according to Hay’s guide. As a cyclist, I could gradually work my way along, taking little roads to the river in many spots along its nearly 700 miles (counting the full length of both forks). It would be a slow process, and I’m not likely to undertake the full challenge.
I can, however, imagine a gradual process of exploring vantage points in Indianapolis and Marion County. Hays devotes two sections to this stretch, starting at mile 101 and ending at mile 127.
Another way to develop a bicyclist’s understanding of the White River would be to develop a route that pieces together roads and trails that stay close to the river. Even if such a route could be developed, riding would have to be easy-going. Just to figure out where to turn to stay on the right back roads would be a challenge. Often the roads would be rough and inhibit fast riding. And always, there would be things to look at and people with whom to talk.
In my mind’s eye, I can see it now. But will this virtual trip translate to tires on the road? Well….? What do you think?