Big Pine Creek Whitewater Paddling

Shredding on Big Pine Creek
Shredding on Big Pine Creek

On an average day the Big Pine Creek flows quietly through northern Warren county from its birthplace on the prairies, cutting down through exposed bedrock of Mansfield Sandstone until finally reaching the level of the Wabash River. During the warmer months, fishermen wade the picturesque streambed in search of smallmouth bass while canoeists float the swift but gentle waters.

Traffic jam on Big Pine
Flying in formation

However, a different side of this scenic Hoosier stream emerges after a heavy rainfall.  The creek becomes aggressive and boisterous as it crashes across the section of bedrock, in turn drawing what is perhaps the most high-mileage group of Hoosier adventure sport enthusiasts: Indiana’s whitewater paddlers. When the water is running, the Big Pine is the only game within 500 miles.

Armed with kayaks and the occasional whitewater canoe, an invasion of paddlers descends upon this well-known location to practice their sport in a state not exactly rife with such opportunities.  Aside from the world-class artificial whitewater course located in downtown South Bend, Indiana paddlers face long weekend drives to reach the prime whitewater of northern Wisconsin, West Virginia or Tennessee.

Traffic jam on Big Pine Creek
Traffic jam on Big Pine Creek

Hoosier whitewater junkies are very familiar with weekend migrations that begin with a marathon drive immediately after work on Friday and conclude at one or two a.m. Monday morning, allowing just enough time for a combat nap before the work week begins anew.   Thus, when geography and excessive rainfall combine to turn certain streams into something resembling legitimate whitewater, paddlers statewide will drop everything to come and play.

Ken Jordan of nearby Attica has been dropping everything for 20 years to paddle the Big Pine.  “Though it’s only a class II (on a scale of one to six, with six being unrunnable), it’s the only thing around and it beats driving to the New River (West Virginia).”  Trying to take advantage of the high water, Jordan had already run the creek once that day.  “First thing this morning, I had 6 kayaks and a canoe on my van.  Now I’m taking another group down the creek.  I’ve gone through one generation and I’m starting on the second, with my grandson. It’s a very forgiving creek and a great place to for new paddlers”, he said before bolting downstream to catch a group as they passed on the swift floodwaters.

Purdue Students Fred Beasley, Shawn Moore and Craig Wojcicki are also Big Pine regulars.  Wojcicki has several years’ experience in kayaks, while Beasley and Moore are relative newcomers to the sport.   Moore said, “I’ve only been paddling about seven months.  I learned to roll in the indoor pool and we come here to practice”.

ww4Ken Jordan and the Purdue students aren’t alone.  The scene on Big Pine can sometimes approach gridlock as the boaters gather along the shore near good play spots, floating in line for their turn on large stationary waves caused by the stream contour.   Each paddler is allotted a self-imposed 30 seconds to practice maneuvers such as the “Endo” before allowing the river to flush them to the bottom of the queue.   By stopping at each play spot, the five-mile paddle can take all day though mileage is not the ultimate goal in whitewater boating.

Upstream at the appropriately named crossroads of Rainsville, a homemade gauge is painted under a road bridge to measure the water level.   Most whitewater paddlers won’t waste their time if the creek is running less than a foot high but as the water rises, the waves grow larger and more frequent until the creek is more foam and froth than solid water.  It can also become life threatening to unskilled or ill-prepared paddlers.

There are other, smaller streams that also serve as makeshift Hoosier whitewater runs, but none have the easy public access of the Big Pine.  With the smallest creeks, timing is a problem as high water might only lasts a few hours in some cases.  Even the Big Pine can only be counted on for a day or two of prime fun after a heavy rainfall before the waters have moved downstream and on toward the Gulf of Mexico.  Once the creek subsides, the small but dedicated group of Hoosier paddlers resume their nomadic lifestyle, searching for the perfect wave somewhere outside Indiana.

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