When Jason Seward was growing up in Crawfordsville, he camped and hiked, and he liked fishing in nearby Sugar Creek. And at 17, after he started working at Clements Canoes, he got hooked on canoeing. “It’s a good passion of mine now,” Seward says. So much so that in 1999 he and his wife, Maria, a North Dakota transplant, bought Clements Canoes, one of four canoe liveries on Sugar Creek. Today their business, located just outside Shades State Park in tiny Waveland, rents out canoes, kayaks and inner tubes to 16,000 people a year for trips down the scenic river. A warm Saturday in June might draw more than 600 people from Indianapolis, eastern Illinois, or as far away as Chicago, Seward says.
It’s not hard to understand the allure of Sugar Creek, which winds 90 miles through west-central Indiana, from Tipton County north of Indianapolis to its confluence with the Wabash River near Montezuma. “As you’re paddling down, you can just smell the freshness of the country air. You hear frogs croaking and crickets chirping. You’re paddling down through these big sandstone bluffs through the trees. It’s beautiful,” Seward says. Blue herons grace the river with their ungainly beauty, and bald eagles, recently returned to the area, roost and fish. Lucky bird lovers can spot huge eagle aeries, or nests, high in the beech-maple forest.
Fishing birds like bald eagles and blue herons go where the fish are, and Sugar Creek is rich with them. It has more than 70 species of fish, almost all the river’s original complement, and is the best smallmouth fishing stream in the state, says Nathan Mullendore, executive director of Crawfordsville-based Friends of Sugar Creek. The hilly land along the river is still mostly forested, and it shelters rare forest birds like the Cerulean warbler. The forest is rich in white pine, Eastern hemlock and Canada yew, ice-age holdovers that are rare in today’s Indiana.
To protect this ecologically critical river corridor, Indiana has launched the Healthy Rivers INitiative, a partnership between landowners, conservation groups like the Indiana Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and Friends of Sugar Creek, and the State Department of Natural resources and other public agencies. In June 2010 the Healthy Rivers INitiative announced plans to protect 43,000 acres of land along 94 river miles, from Shades State Park in the northeast downstream to Fairbanks Landing Fish and Wildlife Area, on the Wabash River south of Terre Haute. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources will buy land along the corridor, purchase long-term conservation easements on the rest, and work to restore forest and aquatic habitat and protect species that live in and near the river.
"Indiana should treat all of its rivers as well as Sugar Creek," said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. "Cooperation between public agencies, conservation groups and local businesses is keeping Sugar Creek clean and benefitting the local economy."
Such efforts are all the better for the boaters who rent from Clements Canoes. In the spring, when the river is high, experienced kayakers and canoeists can put in near Darlington, by the Boone County line, and enjoy a bit of Class I or Class II rapids on the way down to Crawfordsville—one of the few whitewater experiences available in Indiana, Seward says. Many river lovers choose a two-day paddle from Crawfordsville to Turkey Run, camping overnight in or near Shades. Between Shades and Turkey Run state parks, the terrain is flatter and the river is more “family friendly,” Seward says. “We’re here to help folks enjoy what nature has to offer,” he concludes.