It started out a rainy day with thunderstorms. The rain was very heavy and kept us confined indoors. Which really wasn’t a problem as we all had laptops, tablets and cell phones to play around with. I kept checking my weather app to see what the percentage the chance of rain was hour by hour, and every time I checked, the percentage kept creeping into the next hour where it had once been zero. As the rain extended into the afternoon, I think we all gave up hope of it ever relenting. Just after dinner, the rain finally relented and though we could hear distant thunder, we decided to chance it.
My cousin Brent, my boyfriend Tim and I all loaded onto Brent’s beautiful cherry red all terrain vehicle. Brent smiled wide and said to us, “You ready to go muddin’?” I was so excited to be off and it felt like we flew down Morgan Place towards Brent’s friend’s house. Brent sped up to 50 miles per hour, the fastest I’d ever gone on anything without a roof. We went over hills and dips in the road and I checked from side to side for flora and fauna I could identify.
Brent veered off the road and we started following a trail that only ATVs could fit down, it was so narrow. We were right besides Prairie Creek, following its flow into the Wabash River. We hit mud puddles and got splashed a bit. The rain had drenched the trees and plant life, and now it dripped onto us as we passed by. The creek wandered through the woods and its banks were so high that some of the tree’s branches dipped into the water. Everything was wet and after we hit one large mud puddle, so were the insides of the boots my cousin’s wife Zelah had let me borrow.
We got to Brent’s friends house and met up with his friend and son. Now it was just Tim and I on Brent’s ATV and Brent and his friend Gary on Gary’s ATV and Gary’s son Cody on his own ATV. We had our crew together and decided to take off for the river bottoms inFairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife Area. As we backed out into the street, I looked up and could see sunshine on one side of me, dark clouds on the other. Tim had only driven the ATV once before, and only for about 20 minutes. He was pumped about being able to take it out into the nature preserve on his own.
As we made our way to the river bottoms, which were only a couple miles away, Tim experimented with putting the ATV in 2 and 4 wheel drive. We were on dirt and gravel roads and the feeling between the two settings was the difference between having control and not having control of the vehicle. The entrance to the nature preserve was marked with a sign warning hunters to have appropriate licenses and the houses in front of the preserve all had Rose of Sharons in bloom.
We turned off onto a different road and I asked Tim, “What kind of road is this?” It was so narrow and muddy, there was no way a car or truck could travel down it further into the nature preserve. We started to speed up as we followed a trail maintained primarily by the ruts of previous ATV travelers. Tim would yell “Duck left!” and “Duck right!” or just “DUCK!” as we zoomed below trees with branches that stuck out into the path. There were a couple of times that we couldn’t get out of the way fast enough and just got hit by the switches. We laughed so hard.
When we got deeper into the nature preserve it got really dark, and it wasn’t because of the weather. As I looked from side to side, I could see trees only a couple inches thick sticking up from everywhere. The ground was all mud, there was no grass or small plant life at all on the ground. These trees may have been small in diameter, but they had such a thick canopy, it blocked out the sun almost completely. There was a dim daylight just like what you would see on a very cloudy day. I’d never seen a nature preserve like that before. All the ones I had the pleasure of visiting were thick forests filled with vines, bushes and smaller grasses.
I could look down as we zoomed around and see different tracks in the mud. It was pretty cool to think that creatures could survive here where there wasn’t anything green close to ground that would provide shelter, a place to hide, or even food. I mainly saw deer tracks. The ground was thick with mud which felt like it was composed of clay, slippery feeling when touched. Lake Michigan has just the same kind of mud if you wade out into its waters a few feet, I’ve actually slipped on it before in the water and fallen. Brent and Gary, whose ATV was only 2 wheel drive, kept swerving and kicking up mud with their tires, sometimes directly aiming the mud fall at Tim and me! We started get clumps of mud on the ATV and all over ourselves.
We got to Prairie Creek again and had to cross it in order to get to the Wabash River. Brent got a stick and threw it in the river to see how deep it was. He thought it was shallow enough for us to cross and asked Cody to do it first. Cody went right through the creek, standing on his ATV as he passed through it. Brent instructed Tim to lean into the bank on the way down, then give it a ton of gas and stand up, leaning forward to get us out. Tim did exactly as he was told and we went right through the creek, the water was up to my knees! Brent and Gary were next. They made it through as well but kicked up a ton of water and mud along the way.
Having made it through the creek, we were pretty close to the Wabash and by this time had traveled several miles through the woods. The path was never straight, it always weaved right and left a lot. The curves were really fun as Tim would put the ATV into 2 wheel drive to lose control and fishtail, then snap it back into 4 wheel to get going again. It was like turning on a magic switch. We passed over what looked like an ancient stone bridge, only a few feet above the water but still holding. We finally made it over to the great Wabash River, the site where people decided it would be a good idea to start a settlement due to the high lands (Terre Haute means high lands in French) above the river and the proximity to the river for commerce. We all hopped off of our rides and walked in the mud over to the Wabash. The river was very high, and it appeared to be moving at a good rate. I imagined how the river could flood even more into the woods and then recede again.
Brent leaned towards me and said, “When you get home, make sure you told your dad you were here, where Prairie Creek dumps into the Wabash River.” This is a special place to my family. There have been at least 3 generations of us that have used this place for recreation and hunting.
As we walked closer to the river, I could see a campsite where people had left a cooler and some pop cans and bottles. I think I saw a laundry detergent bottle and some other plastic containers along the way, unsure if the river had carried them there or if people left them after camping. It was sad to see these things, objects that should not be in a nature preserve. I don’t like the thought of humans leaving their mark. Aside from the trails, which surely are used by other animals, it just seems like this place should be left as it is.
We could still hear thunder in the distance, though it hadn’t started pouring rain again. We all hopped back onto our ATV and headed back towards Gary’s house. Brent and Gary got stuck in the mud, once in the Prairie Creek crossing, and Tim had to pull them out. Tim was like an expert towman and plucked them out right away each time. We parted ways with Gary and Cody and were all once again piled onto Brent’s sweet ride. The sun had started to come out and Brent took us into a different part of the preserve, one that looked more familiar to me with green plants everywhere and gravel roads. There were oil rigs stationed every hundred yards or so. Brent explained there was still oil in the area and it was being pumped out. One of the companies still in operation, Brent told us, was calledTrueblood Oil Company and were probably some distant relation to us. It was the strangest site to see oil rigs pumping oil. They looked as old as the bridge we had crossed and were very rusty, but somehow they were still functional.
Brent rode on and the mud turned into water, just a few inches deep, as we approached the Wabash River water shed. The backwaters were vast, as far as the eye could see, engulfing the bases of trees. Brent took us to a spot in the woods where there stood a tree several feet across. It was the largest tree in terms of width I’ve ever seen. We stopped for a look and I was amazed. That tree had been there for centuries, long before people who look like me settled the land. I looked around the tree, wondering where all the other large trees of its kind were at. There weren’t any. For some reason, we probably logged all of the large trees like this one, but it still stood. I am not sure if the tree was lucky or unlucky.
We tried to get across the back waters but they were too deep for us to cross, and so we headed home and out of Fairbanks Landing. On the way home, the sun was in full force, with a few stubborn clouds dotting the sky. Brent drove us on the county roads and we clipped along at a good pace. Again, I looked from side to side and couldn’t help but smile. At this point, we were all completely covered in thick clods of mud. I could see the standing water in the boots I had borrowed. The corn and the woods that surrounded them were all emerald green, so deep and luscious. The sky was so heavenly and the sun seemed to kiss everything it could touch. I had the wind in my hair and two of my favorite people by my side. I felt free and alive.