A Day In The Life: Jasper RiverwalkJune 7, 2019
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Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump
Some come from nearby, and others journey from miles away. Some are young; others are old. Some chat with those they see along the way. Others don’t.
All of their seemingly ordinary lives are connected by a seemingly ordinary trail, through seemingly ordinary patches of forest, for a seemingly ordinary reason.
They want to get away.
But the many walkers, joggers, bicyclists and children who play on and around the Jasper Riverwalk are each unique. Spend a day with them, and you begin to understand the Riverwalk is no ordinary path.
It is a walk of life.
Julie Melchior was one of the first to arrive at the local walkway on Monday morning. She hit the asphalt route at 5:45 a.m., when it was just light enough for her to see her hand in front of her face, and when chirping birds and the crashing current of the Patoka River were among the only sounds in the area.
The sun had yet to rise and stain the sky with splotches of pink. The air was chilly at 52 degrees. But there was the Ferdinand woman, 73, dressed in a yellow sweatshirt, cutoff jeans and brown boots.
“I can’t explain it,” she said, as a tiny turtle rested on a nearby log, and the faraway sound of a woodpecker drilling its beak into a tree echoed through the forest. “It’s a magical place.”
She has walked three miles at the Riverwalk fairly regularly for five years, almost always early in the morning. Those walks energize her for the rest of her day, and they are full of meditation and prayer, as well as glimpses of beautiful wild animals, like blue herons and deer so tame “you can almost pet them,” Melchior said.
“It keeps me connected to nature,” she said of the Riverwalk. “And I think one of the bad things about the world right now is that so many people have no connection to the natural world. And when you’re not connected to it, and you don’t see it, and you don’t experience it, it doesn’t mean anything to you.”
As the sky shifted to blue and the rising sun tinted the river from a muddy brown to a path of gold, Daniel Wren of Jasper caught his breath after a morning run. He works at the nearby National Guard Armory, and he visits the Riverwalk about once a week during his allocated physical training workout time. He enjoys the scenery and the safety the trail provides. Wren might have to dodge a fellow pedestrian, but he’s never in danger of being struck by a distracted driver.
“I work in the office, so it’s a pretty sedentary job,” he said. “If I don’t work out, I kind of walk right in to a desk, sit down and start working. And it’s a drag.”
On his jogs, Wren bolts by plaques that share the history of the waterway. They explain that “Patoka” is a Native American word meaning “loggy bottom.” That commerce in Jasper during the mid-1800s was driven by rafts and flatboats that facilitated trade on the river to places like Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans by way of the Mississippi River.
An hour after sunrise, sunlight begins to slice through some of the more heavily wooded sections of the route, and splotches of rays reach the flooded marshes that sit below towering trees. In a city without a skyscraper, gazing up at the canopy that shrouds the path is one of the few ways a person can be reminded of how small they really are.
Some of them are smaller than others. Families with little ones begin to arrive in the mid-morning.
Melissa Day and three of her children — 13-year-old Madelyn and 8-year-old twins Ellory and Edie — flock to a cluster of outdoor exercise equipment after grabbing an early lunch at Azura Grill & Café.
“It’s less of workout equipment and more of our family’s favorite playground equipment,” Madelyn said as the lower half of her body swings back and forth on a leg machine, the world becoming more and more alive with each passing moment.
They affectionately refer to the path as the “Willow Walk,” a name coined in honor of the Days’ pet goldendoodle that often joins them on trips through the sprawling walkway.
On the other side of a treeline, Brent and Jordan Duncan eat bagels with their 2-year-old son, Emmett. When asked about his favorite part of the park, Emmett quickly points to the playground.
Parents or not, many of the trail’s users come to it because they see it as a safe place.
Marissa Rogers, 23, was born with spina bifida and requires a wheelchair to move. Her disability doesn’t stop her from visiting the Riverwalk at least once a week during the summer months, though. While there on Monday afternoon, she and her sister, Allison, walk Rio, a plott hound mix from the Dubois County Humane Society.
The beeps and rumbles of construction vehicles moving at the site of the future Jasper River Centre echo across the river during lunch hour. Representatives with Boxer Girl, the project’s developer, hope the grounds — which also host a new hotel — will one day be a hub in Dubois County.
But the Riverwalk already is a magnet for those living in Southern Indiana. On Monday alone, visitors came from Huntingburg, Loogootee, Boonville, Bedford, Washington, Dubois, Maltersville, Otwell, Vincennes, Whitfield and more towns across the region.
Sandy Nunley of Jasper and Jane Schroeder of Maltersville walk the path together often. Their friendship is strengthened by their shared cancer experiences: Nunley’s husband beat the disease into remission more than a decade ago, and Schroeder fought it and is currently cancer-free, too.
“We talk about everything,” Schroeder said about her time with Nunley at the Riverwalk. “From politics to our kids, grandkids and everything. It’s a nice place to throw things out.”
Walkers who work at nearby businesses like Farbest Foods and Kimball Electronics stop in on their lunch breaks. More families and retired folks pop up on the path as the sun gets higher and higher in the sky, and the trail’s once-chilly atmosphere warms to near 80 degrees.
New wildlife begins to show itself. Namely, a big snake falls from a tree, making a thump as it flops on to the earth, scaring two women who walk the beautiful route together for exercise.
Martin Bedolla stands at the river’s shore near Third Avenue and casts a fishing line into the water where the current is strong. He’s looking for a flathead, catfish, striped bass, white bass or bluegill.
“It comes out of the Patoka Lake,” Bedolla said of the river. “They open the dam and it comes through here. And it just travels through, so you can get pretty much every kind of fish out here.”
Unfortunately, he leaves empty-handed. Back at the playground, Erica and Rachel Barrios, a pair of sisters in their early 20s who live in Otwell, propel their bodies up and down on the park’s swing set.
“It’s surprising to have something so full of nature in a city like this,” Rachel said as a cardinal hopped around the nearby mulch.
When the sun begins to set in the hazy sky, a new emotion is added to the day.
Molly Horst of Vincennes and Blake Meyer of Huntingburg loop the path for more than two hours on a blind date. Neither have walked it before, but Monday, they use it as a middle point to meet at the end of their days.
Just outside the Fairfield Inn & Suites, another couple, Jory and Janie Earl of Bedford, gaze over the Patoka River from the wooden ramp that connects to the bridge parallel to Third Avenue. Both are retired. While planning a vacation, Jory researched online and picked Jasper because it hosts the Riverwalk. He’d read it was part of a romantic getaway.
The two look out across the seemingly ordinary water, and more seemingly ordinary people continue to pass them by.
Now, nearly 20 years old, the Jasper Riverwalk has long served as a haven for those living near and far; the young and the old; the extroverted and the introverted.
And there will be even more tomorrow.
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