It is unfortunate we live in a sometimes disgruntled world, with so many people caring only of themselves. So I always enjoy learning of good deeds done by good people.
We are fortunate living where we do because of the abundance of generous, caring individuals who call our area home. It’s been proven many times that those who possess a devout love of the great outdoors show respect, not only for our natural resources, but to others as well.
It was just last week I learned of an effort made by Greentown’s Garry Hill and his friend Jeff Mathews to help a family they did not even know. Hill is one of the original founders of the Wildcat Canoe Club and one of our area’s staunchest conservationists. His deep-rooted love of paddling our states many rivers and streams is legendary. With Hill’s permission, I would like to share his recent letter with readers of this column.
Our rivers and creeks provide us with many memorable experiences. From the beautiful days of spring, summer and fall to the wildly lovely days of winter. From a sunrise filled with fire as we chase bass and catfish to the blaze of sunset as we end a paddle-to-dinner. From the laughter that follows a buddy’s “flip and swim” to the high-fives of a brilliant move in fast water. Then there are the days, those encounters, you wish you could forget.
Jeff Mathews, a retired police officer, called me last week to relate the story of a missing person that might have possibly fallen into our Wildcat’s south fork near Lafayette. The lady never returned home. Her car was found at the Monitor public access site. There were tracks in the snow leading to the creek, but no tracks leading back.
Lafayette police, Tippecanoe County Deputies and DNR Conservation officers searched the creek for a full week, with no success. Mathews joined his comrades during the week, fully realizing the high flow was causing great difficulty for search attempts.
Mathews knew lower-flow levels and clearer water could improve the chances of finding the lady but the official search was suspended before the water went down. He also felt the search had not reached far enough downstream to cover all possibilities.
Jeff ended his phone conversation by saying, “I’m going to make a run from Monitor to Wildcat Park as soon as the creek gets down. Wanna go?”
Several days later we met at Wildcat Park, transferred my gear to his truck and headed towards Monitor. The air was filled with blowing snow. A black pickup was the only vehicle in Wildcat Park. We noticed a man slowly walking through the woods near the creek. A strange place and time to go hiking, we thought.
We launched our solo canoes from the same slick, snow-covered bank where the lady’s last tracks were found. We slowly drifted downstream searching under every log and brush pile. We looked for a shoe, hat, foot, hand, clothing and anything else. Every tiny sparkle below the surface became the reflection of a wedding ring or so we thought.
Mathews concentrated his search on river-left and I scoured everything on river-right. Anything mid-stream was viewed by both. We talked about the hundreds of snagging locations we passed, yet we also knew objects can get caught in the flow and drift for miles.
Approaching a lovely and lonely island more than two miles downstream from Monitor, Mathews headed toward the tiny channel to inspect a logjam. “Hey Garry, come back up here!” he yelled. We spent the next several minutes confirming his discovery. After contacting various police agencies, and changing cold, wet socks, we speculated on various ways life can end.
We later learned the lady’s name was Kerry, she was 43 years old from Lafayette.
Mathews and I spent several hours on that little island directing the arriving officers.
We finally got back to our canoes and drifted away. Our talk was solemn and quiet. “I think it’s much better we found her rather than a couple of kids fishing in the spring,” Mathews said, as we paddled downstream.
We arrived at Wildcat Park and quickly loaded our canoes and gear to head home. I knew the ride back to Greentown was going to seem much longer than normal. Then I noticed that same black pickup truck. Tire tracks in the snow proved the vehicle had not moved. That man had been wondering the creek banks all day long.
I realized I did not want to meet that man. I did not want to know why he was so intently watching the waters flowing from the south fork. I punched the accelerator a bit harder than any other time when leaving that takeout site. I hit the highway and never looked back. I did not feel like talking to anyone and remained that way all night long.
Let me end this with a tribute to the lady we never knew and where we found her. That little island is just upstream and within sight of Tippecanoe County road 100 north bridge, about 2.5 miles downstream from [State Road] 26. When you paddle the south fork you will recognize it easily. From now on that location will be known as Kerry’s Island!
For both Hill and Mathews, this was one of those encounters they would like to forget. Yet they still devoted an entire day to help provide closure to a family in doubt. This is just another example of good deeds done by people with a passion for our great outdoors.
• John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.