When Tom Denham needs to get away from it all, he doesn’t have to go far. The Winamac, Indiana, grocery store manager just grabs his binoculars and a couple of beers, hops in his 15 horsepower johnboat and heads up the Tippecanoe River.
“I like to run it up the river and go as slow as I can go,” he says. “I watch the birds, watch the otters, watch the hawks.” For three years, he even had golden eagles nesting 200 yards behind his cottage. Watching them soar, he says, “It’s like a piper cub vs. a stealth bomber. Oh, man, they’ve got power.”
Denham feels fortunate to have the Tippy nearby to enjoy, and he’s in a position to share his good fortune. In 1936, his father, Earl Denham, bought an abandoned Boy Scout camp along the river, hired a crew to build a 288-foot suspension bridge across the wide, shallow river, and renovated two abandoned bunkhouses in woods by the river, and rented them out. Today, Denham rents out those same cabins and three others to folks in need of some riverside R and R.
Some come for a weekend; three families rent out cabins the entire season, from April through October; one of them has returned for 19 years straight. They each find their own way to enjoy the river. Some canoe, some kayak and some watch birds, Denham says. Some fish for catfish or smallmouth bass. Some sit around the campfire and drink.
No matter what they do, they agree that there’s something special about the Tippy. And biologists back them up. As it meanders across northern Indiana toward the Wabash, the 225-mile river is clean, serene, and remarkably unspoiled.
Forty-nine of the river’s original 57 mussel species survive, including what may be the largest population of endangered clubshell mussels in the world, says Kent Wamsley, project manager for the Nature Conservancy’s Wabash Rivers Initiative. Since mussels are highly sensitive to degraded water quality, that means the Tippy is a rarity in the Midwest—a biologically healthy river with an intact flood plain, Wamsley says. In fact, for biologists the Tippecanoe is “looked at in the Midwest as the control river,” a benchmark for what a stream in our altered landscape is supposed to be.
To keep it that way, the Nature Conservancy is working hard to protect the Tippecanoe by restoring wetlands, reforesting its banks, and developing new ways to keep sediment, the biggest threat to the Tippy, out of the river.
Tom Denham’s in favor of all of that, whatever it takes to keep the Tippy in top shape. But you’ll probably find him floating in his johnboat, watching turtles jump and herons and osprey fish. “It’s just a beautiful river,” he says.