Crashing a “Dads Camp” Canoe: Blue River, Indiana

IMG_3390(State #27/50) The Red River of Kentucky was yellow and the Blue River of Indiana was a green brown. So, either these rivers have changed in nature over time, or colors are just fun names for rivers, despite reality. Or maybe it’s just well wishing.

Color confusion aside, the Blue River meanders through the limestone hills of the Crawford-Harrison State Forest before emptying into the vast Ohio River. I kept catching myself staring to the left bank into the tall, open mid story of a deciduous forest taking root beneath rocky cliffs and outcrops. The layers of limestone, former ocean floor from millions of years ago, were stacked like the uneven pages of half buried giant books. The sun camped just above the highest ridge, flashing through the dark forest as I passed below. DSC_0233 (1)

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I couldn’t take the pup with me…

The current was swift in most places, offering multiple small rapids and riffles. A few spots were dangerous where the channel cut into a bank with a downed tree, or strainer. On one particular tricky run, I dropped to my knees and was swept close to a root mass, turning my torso as a good-sized branch smacked me hard on the back, but it was better than being impaled or tossed out of the boat.

I went down another set of small rapids, navigating around the small boulders in a run of blinding evening sun. Suddenly, a fallen maple took shape from the bright water’s surface, thirty feet away. I managed to avoid colliding with it’s branches with a few e-brakes back paddles. DSC_0221 (2)

As I canoed down that evening, I wasn’t going to repeat the mistakes of Kentucky — I was going to find a good camp with plenty of light, make a fire and have a nice pasta dinner. I floated by a few decent options, telling myself I’d return if nothing was around the next bend. Then I discovered a small gravel bar near a riffle. I found the horse trail back in the woods where I could camp within the Crawford-Harrison State Forest.DSC_0208

DSC_0258For dinner, I chopped veggies and sausage, then fried them in canola oil with Italian spices. I boiled up pasta and then mixed the sauce in. I ate it all, straight out of the pot while I read by the fire; the dream of Kentucky realized in Indiana.

The next morning, while cleaning sand and debris from the the tent floor, I turned it upside down only to hear a loud pop. I cursed, knowing what I had done — I broke the same pole I had busted in Georgia, except this time I couldn’t blame it on the wind. Furthermore, this time it snapped at a joint, making the repair much more difficult. I’ll deal with this later…

DSC_0228At nine, the sun was already blazing down. On the beach, I searched for an area to make the fire, which would remain in the shade, but all options were covered in half eroded poison ivy plants. Spying the shady gravel across the river, I packed up the canoe and paddled fifty feet across and made a little breakfast camp. Hoping the eggs hadn’t turned, I chopped up veggies, summer sausage and made two big burritos to serve as breakfast and lunch.

It was a good call, as by one o’clock l was still beneath the shade of silver maples. A breeze blew and kept my new gravel bar home cool. I spent the morning journaling and amusing myself by writing up little scripts for Bad River PSAs, giving misinformation and terrible advice. Some of my favorites were “Tadpoles: They’re not what you think,” “Untreated water: The sweetness of nature” and “Leave your trash behind because others can use it!” In one, about the virtues of diving into lakes, I wrote… “Nowadays, people constantly tell me NOT to dive headfirst into murky water. Well, I for one, am not going to be a part of the wussification of America. Because guess what, all you members of the Everyone Gets a Trophy Generation — they don’t give medals at the Olympics for best feet-first jump. No, even France knows you still have to dive headfirst to win, well in their case, nothing higher than Bronze…” And I rambled on… Yes, this is how I entertain myself alone in the wilderness.

But all that being hilarious had made me hot. Also, I hadn’t showered since Ohio, about five days back so I decided to take a river bath. It was a Tuesday and I hadn’t seen a sign of human life all day, so I didn’t worry too much when I grabbed my biodegradable soap, walked to the river’s edge and stripped nude. The Blue River was cold. That mix of water, warm sun and feeling clean… well, it’s hard to beat. Forgetting a towel, I strolled around the bank, air drying in my birthday suit, giving nature the show it was clambering for.

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*Naked me not pictured

Just as I got back into clothes and began putting out the fire, I looked up and saw a man in a kayak, floating thirty feet away. We exchanged greetings and then several more canoes, filled with skinny, shirtless young boys rounded the bend. Boat after boat of children, wearing those dinky, square orange vests, and steering old aluminum canoes, floated past. Well, that was a close one, I thought. About two minutes separated me from being just a guy on a river bank from being on some sort of list for the State of Indiana.

A few more adults passed. I still had my computer up to write and was asked if I had service a few times. I felt guilty, being seen in nature staring into a computer, so I closed it. “Nice boat!” One man said, I thanked him then realized he was in a newer red Wenonah. We talked a bit before the current whisked Rider’s sister ship away. “Have a great one!” the guy called.DSC_0200

I met the group again at the take out. Unloading my gear, I asked if they had room for me in a vehicle heading back to the launch. “I think we’ll have space!” one adult said. While waiting, I spoke to a couple of the kids. Turns out, they weren’t Boy Scouts (as I had assumed), but were on a week-long Father/Son retreat, which they were thoroughly enjoying.

The guy with the red Wenonah walked over and introduced himself as Brett. I told him about my trip and he told me more about “Dads Camp.” As it turns out, the camp was in its 14th summer and was simply invented by one of the church members. A man’s son wasn’t too keen on most affordable summer camps, so the father asked if he’d go to ‘camp’ if they made their own. The kid agreed so his dad created a camp for him and a few friends. Afterwards, the guy was unsure if his son liked it and asked him. “It was the best camp ever… because I got to go with my Dad!” eye-roll if you must, but I liked the story and what it spawned.

Fifteen minutes after I loaded my canoe back on my car and was on the road, I got a call from Brett. “Hey Eric, you still around?” he asked. “I’ve got a proposition for you… I’ll give you a Bending Branches paddle if you help us write something up for the camp,” Brett offered. I looked back at my fractured wooden paddle and cheap aluminum one in the backseat. “Sure!” I agreed.

KidsGoofingI arrived at their camp at O’Bannon Woods State Park. Some adults were in their sleeping quarters, trying to nap. Some kids were chasing each other around with squirt guns. Another dad and son were battling on an X-box, hooked up in the trunk of an SUV. One group was about to head to the pool — this camp looked amazing. While I had a great time at Boy Scout camp as a youth, none of my memories stem from my knot tying courses or my Citizen of the Community merit badge. It appeared they had eliminated all the obligatory, terrible portions of summer camps. They had planned activities like canoeing, hiking, target practice, etc., but there was also plenty of free time. Last night had been “Fear Factor Night” and tonight was their own version of a man-hood ceremony.

“You want some food? We’ve got plenty,” Brett asked. I declined and said I best be hitting the road. We shook hands and I wished them a good week. I got back in the car with my new paddle and drove on towards Illinois, kind of wishing I could have spent a few days running around with SuperSoakers and getting in food fights at their self-made summer camp.

More about Dads Camp!

I can’t sum up their origin better than this summary… “In 2004 Dan Lafever could not work out the schedule and finances to get his son Jacob to Camp. So, in one of those moments he said, “Son if we can’t get you to camp, we will make you a camp.” From that promise came Dads Camp. He took his son and several friends to a family farm and taught them some outdoor skills. His son loved it and each year it has grown. We take kids and their Dads/Mentor for a week of camping. They go till 18 and often come back as an adult. Kids help plan, cook, lead devotionals, and lead teams.”

The camp isn’t just a free-for-all completely, but the segments of unstructured time are certainly part of the appeal. There’s also an emphasis on team-building, mentoring, having discussions ranging from self-image to ethics to God to relationships with friends, family and peers.  The day I met the group there was a canoe trip (which I almost ruined with my nakedness) planned and a hike. Other activities include zip lining, Air-soft battles (though I have my own cautionary tale about those things), shooting, archery, caving, rappelling, obstacle courses, visiting armed forces bases and fishing contests.

Dad’s camp is about getting kids back outside, connecting a little to the natural world so often neglected and forgotten for today’s youth. There’s been a lot of recent work about all the benefits of being in the outdoors, especially for kids. While I won’t cite research, I can certainly attest that it was paramount to my upbringing and worldview. The vast majority of their activities are done outside, some in beautiful settings like the Blue River.

Most importantly, the kids I spoke with and the Dads/mentors I talked to all seemed to be having a genuine blast. And they were getting to share in these times — from the difficult to the goofy — together.

For any more info contact Brett Thompson (317-417-4287),  brett@fnbft.comThe camp’s website is www.pifn.org (Pay it Forward Now). They are always looking for fun places to go, volunteers, and donations.

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The kids get to dress up their Dads. Sadly, I was not present for this

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Blue River, Indiana
  • Weather: Hot, party cloudy in the low 90’s
  • Miles canoed: 7.5
  • Dates Canoed: 6-19/20-17
  • Elevation: Approximately 400 feet above sea level
  • Launch Point: Launch near the Blue River Chapel (38.226319, -086.256575)
  • Campsite: Off Horse Trail in Harrison-Crawford State Forest (38.202654, -086.294968)
  • Takeout Point: State Park Bridge (out of use) (38.197626, -086.30928)
  • Song Sung on River: Sweet City Woman by the Stampeders
  • Thanks to Kathy at the Indiana Welcome Center for all the helpful info about the State and on where to canoe! Thanks to the multiple rangers at the Hoosier National Forest that gave me additional info on canoeing and dispersed camping. A huge Thanks to Brett and the Dads Camp folks for a ride and the new paddle!
  • Delicious local restaurant: Manna Mediterranean Grill in Evansville (well not really local, but close enough for me!)
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: belted kingfisher, swallows, great blue heron, crows, vultures and mourning doves
  • Mammals: White tail deer

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    Saw this little guy on the road to the Blue River, eating a road killed box turtle

  • Reptiles: Turtles
  • Fish: Large Needle Nose Gar
  • Noted Species: Hellbender (Salamander), occasional Mountain Lion
  • Dominant Vegetation: Sycamores and Silver Maples
  • Ecoregion: Interior Plateau, (71a) Crawford Uplands
  • Current Threats: Invasive aquatic species (coming from the Ohio), erosion and sedimentation and pollutants associated with agriculture use and suburban development.
  • Trash collected: A giant half inflated inner tube, plastic bottles and glass debris.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $2291 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given! https://www.crowdrise.com/canoe-50-campaign
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4 Responses to Crashing a “Dads Camp” Canoe: Blue River, Indiana

  1. Anonymous says:

    I thourghly enjoyed this Eric! So interesting about the Dads/boys camp!! Love the pics as well!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I live close to Blue River and will probably only see it from the shore. It was nice to see pictures of the view from the water.

  3. Lol! Just as well you managed to get your clothes on before all the kids went by! Great story 🙂

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