"No river can return to its source; yet all rivers must surely have a beginning" (American Indian inter-tribal saying, author unknown)
Just as a river must have a beginning, so must a story. This story begins on one of the most historic rivers in the entire United States, the Ouabache. Most people today know this river by its English name, the Wabash. No matter how one spells it, its history predates any written language, as did the people who first lived on its banks.
From the Paleo period on through the Woodland period, to the Adena people, the Mississippian Culture, the various historical tribes such as the Shawnee, Wea, Miami, Piankasha, the Illini, as well as many other tribes, the Wabash was the center point of their world. The Wabash was their primary source of travel, be it for trading, socializing, warfare, as well as spiritual matters.
Volumes have been written about the Wabash and its people by some of the finest literary talents in the world, as well as those of us who may not be literary giants but, have a fond place in our hearts for the river itself, and for all of the history that has taken place on and near her banks. This story could not be told without listing a timeline of the history of events that took place on the Wabash herself. Space does not allow for all the important stories to be recounted; however, I believe the reader can understand the magnitude of importance the Wabash played in the making of America.
(Timeline) Hernando de Soto camps on the Wabash at Merom (IN) 1541... French explorer LaSalle travels Wabash 1673... Battle of Pointe Coupee on the Wabash 1779 (the farthest west naval battle of the American Revolution)...George Rogers Clark defeats the British at Vincennes 1779....St. Clair's Defeat 1791 (largest loss of American military at the hands of American Indians ever)...Fort Recovery 1794... Tecumseh meets with Harrison at Vincennes 1810, angered by the Treaty of Ft. Wayne (1809), Tecumseh meets with Harrison again in 1811 before setting out to form his Confederation of the Five Southern Tribes...Harrison sends over 1000 troops to Prophetstown and massacres the entire Indian village (Battle of Tippecanoe) while Tecumseh is away.
In 1813, Tecumseh is allied with bungling British Colonel Procter in the ill-fated siege of Ft. Meigs. Tecumseh personally intervenes and saves the lives of 14 captured Kentucky militiamen; shortly thereafter the British fire three volleys and retreat to Canada, leaving Tecumseh and his warriors to fend for themselves. Tecumseh is killed in this battle, and ironically, after his death, is skinned and mutilated by a party of Kentucky militia. Thus ended the life and career of arguably the greatest single American Indian visionary. William Henry Harrison is quoted as saying of Tecumseh, "If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would perhaps be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory Mexico or Peru. No difficulties deter him. For four years he has been in constant motion. You see him today on the Wabash, and in a short time hear of him on the shores of Lake Erie or Michigan, or on the banks of the Mississippi, and wherever he goes he makes an impression favorable to his purpose."
The summer before last, my very good friend, and Catawba/mixed-blood brother Buck Ashley, introduced my family to the world of kayaking. Our introduction took place where else, but on the Wabash River, in kayaks we borrowed from his family. Three days later my wife, youngest daughter and myself found ourselves with our own kayaks.
Buck is an Indian of many talents. He carves exquisite pieces of jewelry from deer antler and bone. His beadwork has all of the markings of the old ways. Buck is also quite good in woodworking, by that I mean beautiful period-correct Indian short bows. I believe however, his masterpiece to date is the 21-foot, fiberglass reinforced and Honduran mahogany, tandem kayak. It was this kayak that saw us through an incredible day on the Wabash.
I should back up and let the reader know that originally I posed the question to Buck, "Do you think it possible that you and I could recreate Tecumseh's trip from Prophetstown to the Ohio River?" Buck's reply, without hesitation, was "Sure, we just can't do it this year, because of logistics". I then asked "Do you believe that we could at least do his famous four-day (with 400 warriors) trip, starting at Hutsonville, going through Vincennes and halting at Mt. Carmel?". He said it was 'doable', and that we could probably do it in three days.
I began reading everything I could get my hands on regarding not only Tecumseh, but all the aforementioned historical events, as well. I had hoped to leave out of Hutsonville the first week of October. Most sadly there was a tragedy in Buck's extended family in Oklahoma, so we set the date for October 13 (Columbus Day), a day that neither of us celebrate. Unfortunately, that date got pushed back due to the unusually large amount of rains that hung over this area for days, driving the river levels up and keeping them there for 2 weeks, making the trip too dangerous to attempt in a kayak that sits approximately 3 inches out of the water.
Buck phoned me one evening and asked that I consider postponing the trip until next year. I wasn't speechless, in fact, I was anything but. Be it my Kaw/Osage, or Welsh bloodline, or whatever, I can be, at times, a bit "bull-headed". I don't believe I ever ranted or raved, but I was insistent enough that at the very least, I would make a one-day trip solo in my 8-foot kayak, whether he went or not. Being the good brother that he is, he agreed that we would do a one-day trip, from Port St. Francisville to Mt. Carmel. I was happy.
On Monday, October 27, with the aide of Buck's wife Dagana, my wife Pam, and Buck's son-in-law Jesse Caughran, at 10:00am, we launched onto the Wabash. The photo above was taken within the first minutes after launch, and it clearly shows the closest thing to calm waters we were to see all day. With a constant headwind of 20 mph, and (according to weather sources) gusting as high as 35-38 mph, we struggled not only to make our way south, but to stay afloat. The wind was blowing so intensely that the waves were rolling not only over themselves, but over the entire length of the 21-foot kayak. On multiple occasions, Buck was forced to pump out the rear cockpit. Though I was getting nearly beaten to death up front, Buck's cockpit took in much of the water breaking over the boat.
Had the day been ideal, we would have easily traveled five or more miles per hour. In reality, we were barely making two mph. On two occasions we were blown backwards, against the current of the river. Buck, having so much experience on the Wabash and other rivers as well, spent his time seeking out which side of the river offered the least resistance. The only drawback to this is that you can't just immediately turn a 21-foot boat into winds and water like those we were experiencing. To do so, we would have found ourselves capsized. And though I can't speak for Buck, I can say for myself, that I wanted no part of that.
Several hours into the trip I asked Buck if we could try and find an eddy calm enough that I could take a short rest, and check my oxygen level (as I have barely more than one lung). Just shortly after making this request, we spotted a small eddy on the Illinois side of the river, where an abandoned fish camp had once stood, leaving a large piece of oilfield pipe, to which we tethered the aft of the kayak, and cross braced our paddles to the fore of the boat, and with some difficulty, made our way onto shore.
It was at this time I had to look my dear friend in the eye and tell him that my oxygen level was dangerously low, and that I was going to have to rest until my tissues could be re-oxygenated. This is when Buck suggested that we call it a day, make camp, and hope for better weather the following day. Once again, I became bull-headed, or belligerent, or near tangent throwing stage, and said that I had no intention of spending the night where we were, as there was an 80% chance of severe thunderstorms that night. Buck did his best to retain his composure, while trying to explain that at the rate of travel we found ourselves in, we would not be in Mt. Carmel until nightfall...and that was out of the question.
I asked that we resume our way south, and at the very least, look for a place more suitable if the overnight stay became necessity. Buck agreed.
Throughout the day, when brief periods allowed, I was video-taping the river, its banks, its splendor, and its foreboding features as well. I had been anxiously awaiting the rock bluffs, known to many as "Little Rock Farm". We hadn't resumed for more than 20 minutes when they started to appear. We were on the Indiana side, and I asked if we could move closer, if not much closer, so that the quality of the video would show the true beauty of this rock formation. Buck kindly obliged, and began the slow and quite dangerous move towards the Illinois side. Just when I thought it was going to be a flawless cross-over, Buck yelled "Abort, abort, abort!". I dropped the camera into the cockpit, and resumed paddling, so that we could maneuver to face head-on a seemingly endless onslaught of waves, some reaching near 30 inches. Had we been caught with the kayak in even the slightest angle, we would no doubt have found ourselves wet or worse. It was at this time that Buck once again reiterated "we have to find a place to camp". I replied, "well I know those bluffs are in the Allendale area, and Patton is not far from Allendale....can we not continue to Patton, and take out there?".
Buck said he knew of no place in Patton where one could take out a boat of that size, to which I said, "I read on the internet, on both the Indiana and Illinois DNR websites that there was a place at Patton where we could get out...let's go till we find it". At this point in time, we had been on the river almost six hours. A "usual trip" of this distance would have taken about four hours. I found myself a bit down heartened, not only were we not going to be able to finish the trip, but I hadn't even had the opportunity to photograph the bluffs. Inside I felt like I had let Buck down in some manner, simply because a 64 year old, "one lunger", can't go at full speed for hours on end. I sat in my cockpit, dejected at myself, when I chanced to look up towards the Illinois side, and saw an individual waving both arms. I commented to Buck "there's someone waving at us on the Illinois side", to which he said "people have been waving at us all day". I came back with "no...this person is really waving at us, he's waving us in!". Buck agreed to once more pilot us to the Illinois side, taking great pains to do so. The maneuver took several minutes, but we pulled alongside a pretty nice dock, and an opportunity to if nothing more, escape the confines of the tiny cockpits.
We introduced ourselves to the gentleman, who we know only as "Tony". He told us that he had planned to leave a few minutes earlier, but for some reason had walked back down to the dock, to check the river out again, when he spotted us upriver. I made mention to him that I had read on the DNR site there was a place in Patton where we could "take out", and did he know where that was. He flashed a grin the size of Texas and said, "right here...lots of kayakers have gotten out here".
Buck, being concerned, and rightfully so, about his beautiful, hand-built craft said, "where...we can't lift it out of the water here, and if we moor it, it will be beaten to death by morning". Tony replied, "just paddle up to that little creek up there, till you see the steps, and we'll have her out of the water in less than five minutes". Buck and I proceeded to paddle a short distance up the creek, staring at these straight-up banks on both sides, and wondering "how can we get anything this long and heavy up these banks?". We saw the steps, and Tony said for me to come to the top of the bank, for Buck to stay where he was, and that he would get in the middle, and we would slide it up the incline that Tony's kayaking friends used regularly. It went without a hitch. Buck lifted from the bottom, Tony lifted from the middle, and I pulled from the top, and slick as grease the kayak went up the incline.
Tony wished us well in getting home, but said he had to get home himself. We thanked him for being where he was, just when we needed him to be there. Buck asked him one last question: "Can you get cell phone reception here?" Tony replied, "Sometimes........." and was gone. With one reception bar on his cell phone, Buck placed a call to "Search and Rescue", a.k.a. his wife and son-in-law, and gave them a general idea of where they were. "Mission Control", a.k.a., my wife, daughter and her boyfriend, got on Google maps satellite, located the fish camp where we pulled the boat out, and gave them the County Road number they would need to take off Route 1, in order to find us. The coordinated effort quickened our return to Buck's house, where my family arrived just as we were pulling into the driveway. It was quite a day. A day I am most likely never to forget for many reasons, but a day when two mixed-blood American Indians set out to challenge themselves, chasing the shadow of Tecumseh, and a thousand others.
A very special thanks to my brother Buck for making this trip a reality and for having the faith in me to "pull my weight" along the way. Another special thank you to our support team, and thanks to Mr. Roscoe Cunningham for allowing this story to be published, thanks to Barb Allender for contacting me about writing the story, and thanks again to Tony for being in the right place at the right time.
"It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story". (American Indian proverb, author unknown)
Text by T Warren, Photo by Pamela Warren