John Carlson: Can’t Beat Barge Watching

This barge isn’t headed up the White River. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonThis barge isn’t headed up the White River. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

One thing I really enjoy is watching giant barges go floating past on a majestic river.

Naturally, being a longtime Muncie resident, this love developed here along the White River. After 34 years of residency, unfortunately, I was still waiting for that first barge to pass. That’s when I commented to Nancy, “You’d think one’d chug by sooner or later.”

That’s what you’ve been waiting 34 years for?” she said, in disbelief. “A barge?”

“Well, yeah … sorta.”

So we headed south to the Ohio River in Madison and danged if once again, I wasn’t right.

Having found lodging on a bluff overlooking the river’s north bank, The Riverboat Inn offered the three amenities necessary for effective river-barge watching, those being easy access to tasty hamburgers, a patio with lots of comfortable furniture and a bar well-stocked with neighboring Kentucky’s excellent bourbons. The beautiful Bluegrass State’s opposite bank seemed to soar into the sky as high as the wispy smoke from some entrepreneur’s still.

Watching that river traffic was fascinating. You’d see tremendously powerful tugs motor past, pushing multiple formations of heavily loaded barges. You’d also see a goodly amount of recreational boaters pulling skiers, rafters and, yes, a smattering of suicidal nincompoops riding blow-up floating devices in the barges’ paths.

The charm of this whole setting was that if you were to spot a flat-bottomed wooden boat crewed by crusty, sweat-soaked river men smoking corncob pipes using poles or mule teams for propulsion, it would not have seemed too out of place. Watching something as enduring as traffic navigating the Ohio River makes it possible to imagine time indefinitely suspended. This makes it the perfect antidote for when modern life seems not worth living – like during last Sunday’s Colts game.

Of course, maybe any river has that effect. For all I know, our White River has been flowing for as long as the Ohio has, or even the mighty Mississippi. And while I find its lack of giant coal barges troubling, it’s undoubtedly more navigable in a canoe or kayak with far less chance of being minced into bass rations by Ohio River tug propellers.

Like many others, our own excursions along the White River in canoes and kayaks have been the touristy ones that start in Morrow’s Meadows near Yorktown Middle School and end somewhere north of Daleville, a distance of roughly 600 miles.

Haha! Just joking!

It only seems like 600 miles if you are ridiculously out of shape, the flabby sort of “human french-fry disposal unit” that, in my retirement, I am striving to become. Usually about 20 seconds beyond our first bend in the river, I assume the whiny countenance of a bratty kid headed to Disneyland, demanding of Nancy, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

As a loving wife, so far she hasn’t turned around and whacked me with her paddle.

This is no surprise, though. Being on river water tends to have a soothing effect on people. This is even true of short-tempered, edgy, disgruntled people, folks we might more commonly classify as jerks, ding-dongs and drips. In no time, the wet swishing of oars through river water does amazing things to your psyche. Good things. You relax. You coast. You take in the view, and it’s often a beautiful one.

Not that it’s always, been. I vaguely remember years ago approaching certain scenic White River panoramas when it wasn’t so nice. “Hey, look!” you might point out to your canoe mate, as if spotting a bald eagle. “Somebody dumped a Frigidaire!”

“Yeah! And over there’s a toilet!”

While admittedly I haven’t been on the river in a couple years, I know these days your chances of spotting a bald eagle are considerably higher and spotting a toilet considerably lower. This is thanks to the concerted, heartfelt efforts of selfless volunteers who have taken it upon themselves in recent years to make a positive difference. Another clean-up occurs Saturday morning, in fact, hosted by Muncie-Delaware Clean & Beautiful.

And that’s good, because whether you’re talking about the White, the Ohio, the Mississippi or whatever, a river is a thing to be treasured, lack of barges notwithstanding.

A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  

Editor’s Note: 

The annual White River Cleanup will be 8 a.m.-noon Saturday, Sept. 16, at Westside Park. The statewide cleanup effort brings volunteers together to remove trash from the White River. Volunteers will be meet at the park shelters furthest to the west, and will be dispatched at 9 a.m. to walk the bank and river or navigate the river in canoes to collect trash. Lunch will be served by 11:30 a.m.

Participants are encouraged to wear clothes than can get dirty and wet, and to take gloves if possible.

Last year’s Delaware County event drew more than 400 volunteers. For more information/registration, visit the Muncie-Delaware Clean and Beautiful Facebook page.