62 Tons: Wabash River Defenders celebrate a cleaner waterway with 62 Ton RiverFest

by Aaron Johnson

One might wonder, “What kind of benefit can come from having a cup of coffee in a small-town café?” The following is a story that Mike Beauchamp might use to answer that question.

“I went out to the Lagro Café one day and decided to have a cup of coffee,” Beauchamp said. “All of the sudden I’m in a roundtable with a bunch of river rats.”

Beauchamp uses the term “river rats” as a term of endearment, as he describes himself as such.

The “river rats” talked and talked, and soon enough, an idea with a plan behind it developed. “I tell you what, one thing led to another,” Beauchamp said. “We said, ‘We ought to clean this river up,’ and you know before it was all done we had designed this idea like Adopt-a-Highway.”

The group came up with an idea to help clean out the river: a clean up revolution. Before long in their conversation, they ironed out the details of an event that would yield more trash than any of them could imagine.

“We got the idea to have 20 teams each clean up a mile of the river: one team for each mile,” Beauchamp said, “and that’s what we did.”

Four years later, on July 26, a celebration was held in Paradise Springs Historical Park. This celebration was to acknowledge the completion of three successful cleanouts of the Wabash River. The Wabash River Defenders (WRD) started the cleanout event in 2011, with nearly 400 participants in its first year.

Steve Johnson, executive director of the Wabash County United Fund and volunteer of the River Defenders, helped in the preparation of each of these cleanouts. After three years of cleaning out the river from Huntington County on the east, to the Miami County border on the west, the River Defenders planned for a change.

“We had the three extremely successful cleanup events,” Johnson said. “We knew the volume of the material was going down, and we thought it might be a really good time to just have a celebration to recognize the milestone.”

The WRD Committee knew that this celebration was worth the time and effort, as in the last three years they spent 1,000 man and woman days removing debris from the river. In the three cleanups alone, the Defenders compiled 62 tons of waste, ranging in size from candy wrappers to tires to the front end of a school bus. In honor of the amount of waste collected from the river, the committee decided to call the event the “62 Ton RiverFest.”

“What started out to be a celebration for those who participated in those cleanup events in those three years,” Johnson said, “expanded to become this festival event where word spread to canoe shops around the state.  In addition to Wabash County residents, visitors brought their canoes and kayaks from Fort Wayne, Indianapolis, Kokomo, and Lafayette and helped us celebrate the Wabash River.”

The RiverFest drew eyes from other parts of the state as well, including those of Indiana Attorney General Gregory Zoeller. As special thanks for being a supporter of the WRD, the River Defenders honored Zoeller with the Tall Sycamore of the Wabash. This award was given on the grounds that Zoeller inspected the length of the Wabash River to raise awareness about the invasive species of Asian Carp. As Zoeller accepted the award, he spoke briefly to all the Defenders in attendance and thanked them for all the work they put into cleaning the river.

“When I got this invitation, I decided coming up here and trying to highlight the work that you all do in your 62 ton effort so far, and really the idea that you clean up and that you appreciate the river is, I think, something that needs to be spread throughout the whole state,” Zoeller said. “I’m a big fan of the River Defenders. The reason for coming up here is to focus on the work that you all do and to tell you to keep up the good work that you all do. I’m here on behalf of the whole state to thank you for all that you do.”

The RiverFest featured a fish fry, prepared by Rollin McCort and the Christ United Methodist Men’s Group. The meal included catfish and crappie, but the main attraction was the Wabash SilverFin. The SilverFin is a member of the Asian Carp family. Unlike common carp, it is not a bottom-feeding fish, meaning it feeds higher on the food chain. This means the meat of the SilverFin is very white and has a mild flavor. SilverFin are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.

The fish fry followed a five-mile Family Fun Float down the Wabash River, where participants brought their own canoes, kayaks, and rafts to go downstream. Leslie Downing, a WRD volunteer, made sure that those needing a canoe were able to participate by transporting canoes from Wabash Friends Church and Miller’s Canoe Rental to the launch site in Lagro.

“One 83-year-old woman used this opportunity to go downriver with her grandson,” Johnson said. “The event wound up doing exactly what we wanted it to do. That was to promote the river, to get people out there, to get on the river and enjoy it, as well as to let them know that the river is there for recreational purposes as well as serving a function.”

The Family Fun Float began at 8:30 a.m., when the WRD volunteers met the participants at the launch site in Lagro. Even though this was not a “cleanup” event, there were River Defender volunteers pulling tires and other debris onto the banks. While some groups left early, and some left late, the majority of the canoeists and kayakers left at nearly the same time, around 9 a.m. An estimated 200 people were on the river, including members of Green Hat Productions, who documented the event for the River Defenders.

Green Hat Productions were prepared with a new piece of equipment this year: a flying drone camera. A remote controlled aircraft suspended the camera. Green Hat Productions used this to get video footage in addition to the method used during each of the three cleanouts. Aaron Johnson shot photos for Green Hat Productions and The Paper of Wabash County from an open cockpit airplane that was flown by Dick Beamer, another WRD volunteer.

The Wabash River Defenders have been working toward investing even more time and effort into keeping the Wabash clean. Outside of the cleanups, Beauchamp and Jen Rankin of the Wabash County Solid Waste Management District, have developed a Junior River Defenders program, in which students in grades one through four can help clean out Wabash River tributaries. Rankin teaches the elementary students about the environment by using the Freddie the Fish Campaign, which was designed specifically for this purpose.

“We’ve had all the first graders, second graders, third graders, and fourth graders in Wabash in creeks here teaching them about ecology and the importance of taking care of Mother Earth and keeping stuff out of the creeks and rivers.” said Beauchamp. “They’ve been just like the River Defenders. They’ve been in the creeks pulling out debris too. They take a vow that they’ll be a River Defender the rest of their life.”

Looking ahead, the River Defenders will meet to decide how they can best work for the river in the coming years. Their decisions will result in a strategic plan of action that will take them into the future.

“After each one of these things, we’re not sure what we’re going to do in the future,” Beauchamp said. “Our close team gets together and go out to the Lagro Café and drink some more coffee and we decide what we’re going to do next.”

So, one might still wonder, “What kind of benefit can come from having a cup of coffee in a small-town café?” A cup of coffee can lead to a lot, especially in good company. The benefit a cup of coffee can have can be measured for some, and for Beauchamp and the other River Defenders, an eight-ounce cup of coffee led to a 62-ton revolution, with possibly even more to come.

Posted on 2014 Jul 29