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The Great Wabash River Adventure

BY ANTHONY LOMBARDI - alombardi@perutribune.com

Keith Poole welcomes a challenge. 

Each summer, the 56-year-old tackles multiple North American rivers. He’s conquered the Columbia River, the largest in the Pacific Northwest region in Canada. He’s also paddled hundreds of miles from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean.

This month, the Peoria, Indiana, resident is taking on the Wabash River – all 503 miles of it. 

“I’ve wanted to do it for years,” Poole said. “I guess I’m kind of an adventurer.” 

In January, Poole decided this was the year he was going to tackle the longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. Poole’s close friend, Michael Beauchamp, usually accompanies him on his escapades.

“We’re kind of like (the American explorers) Lewis and Clark,” Poole said. “I call him ‘Lewis’ and he calls me ‘Clark.’”  

But while “Lewis” wasn’t able to join “Clark” on this particular expedition, Poole didn’t have to go alone. His mutt “Paint the Wonder Dog” came along for the ride.  

“Paint is my best buddy,” Poole said. “He just loves to be with me, and I like to be with him.” 

Poole and Paint began their Wabash voyage on May 1, about 24 miles upstream of Ft. Recovery, Ohio. 

Water levels were so low at the start the duo walked the first six miles. At mile seven, they put the kayak in and climbed aboard. 

Poole’s averaged about 30 miles each day. He took most of Tuesday off – only traveling seven miles – and just enjoyed nature with his best buddy.  

Poole said he loves to glide in his boat and listen to the soothing sounds of singing birds as they fly overhead or sit in the trees near the riverbank. He’s tried to keep family and friends updated on his travels by uploading videos and photos to his Facebook page whenever his cell is solar-charged. One of the biggest highlights of the trip is the amount of wildlife he’s seen, which includes multiple bald eagles and their nests. 

But it hasn’t been just all fun and games. 

“You always have to be aware of what’s up in front of you,” Poole said. “People don’t realize the power of the water and the current.”

Whether he’s dodging log jams, avoiding fallen trees or keeping an eye out for hidden rocks, there’s always something to keep Poole on his toes. He did make a change in boats in Wabash, switching from the kayak to a 14-foot jon boat equipped with a six-horsepower motor. He said the current was so strong earlier in the week that he was able to shut off the motor and drift downstream at four miles per hour. 

He’s not in any hurry to finish. 

“I’m not trying to rush,” Poole said. “I’m going to say maybe 10 more days … I’ve been stocking up since I got the OK to take May off.”  

Poole’s inventory is mostly just the essentials: gas for the motor, a five-gallon jug for water, a tent and sleeping bag. His menu consists of dry foods, pasta, granola and trail mix. And, of course, plenty of dog food for Paint. 

One of Poole’s main goals was to camp in as many of the 21 counties the Wabash runs through as possible. 

On Wednesday, Poole and Paint slept at French Post Park in Carroll County. A couple days before that, it was France Park in Cass County. So far, they’ve slept in 10 counties in Indiana and two in Ohio. 

“I have a drive for getting my goal done,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but I’m loving every minute of it … I feel like I’m 25.”

Poole’s love for Indiana’s most famous river stems from all the hard work he’s put into it. 

As a member of the Wabash River Defenders, a nonprofit group that removes debris from the river in Wabash County, Poole said he has helped clear out more than 500 tons of garbage since 2010. In 2013, the Defenders honored Poole by naming him a Tall Sycamore of the Wabash, an annual award given to those who have dedicated substantial amounts of time and energy to better the river. 

He also represents Wabash County as an alternate member of the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission, a state authorized organization responsible to “protect and enhance the natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources and encourage sustainable development” of the river. County commissioners of each county that contains part of the river corridor appoints an individual to the commission.

As Poole floats by each county, he’s been contacting his fellow members to arrange a time and place to meet. On Monday, Miami County’s representative Ken Einselen caught up with Poole in Peru near the Broadway bridge. 

“It was lunchtime, so I got to go down and talk with him,” Einselen said. “(We) just talked about his trip ... It’s really exciting.” 

Poole has a saying, “We all live downstream,” that everyone should interpret how they want. But to him it means something specific. “Everybody is a part of a river system no matter where they live,” he said. “What you do to your river can effect somebody downstream.” 

Poole’s and Paint’s adventure will most likely end some time this month near Old Shawneetown, Illinois, where the Wabash River meets the Ohio River. 

It’s a long way home, but the well-traveled friends will see a familiar face at the finish.

“Lewis is going to pick me up.”