Most people say the island's first name is Thunder or Thunder Echo, and if you had ever been on the island in the Wabash River during a storm you would agree. Not only did thunder echo from the bluffs along the downstream side of the island and the eastern riverbank, they seemed to amplify it.
There has been discussion as to what the true name of the island is since the first maps of the area were made. Some claim it should be called by one of its Shawnee names, like Myaalakeekwa, which means 'catfish'. Others say it should be Putnam Island after one of the early families in the area. The name Rock Island or Rocky Island was bounced around for awhile, but as there is a far more famous one in Illinois, and there was still some discussion about whether or not the island was in that state or ours, that name fell by the wayside. The dispute got to the point where in one topographical map of the county the island is simply called Island. To most of the locals the entire debate was proof that some people don't have enough to do to keep themselves busy to worry about such a thing. But, the argument raged between a few long time residents and the Knox County parks department who owned and maintained a day use park on the island.
And so began our story.
Due to the wish to be proper and avoid taking sides, the community group had sent the invitations for a day of picnicking and games without stating the name of the island at all, only that one was to park in the lot off Ninth Street and use the footpath and boardwalk through the marsh and cross to the park on the island in the river on the old walking bridge.
The picnic was to be a buffet affair of items that the organizing committee brought, with hot dogs and hamburgers cooked on a couple of permanently mounted charcoal grills next to the larger of the two shelters on the central part of the island. Since we had reserved the shelter, we ignored the forecast for a chance of rain and planned on having a good time with our food and games.
In addition to the shelters which were built in the seventies with a donation from a veteran's group there is the foundation of a long forgotten building on the bluff at the south end of the island that was rumored to have been a lighthouse at one time. And a decrepit cabin nearby that was still used by fishermen who ignored the 'no admittance after dark' sign, and the occasional group of young people who sought out privacy for reasons of their own. To the north of the shelters the upstream end of the island gradually sloped into a long sand bar that changed shape and depth with the seasons. Far out where the sandbar usually ended was a pole with a solar powered light on it that matched its twin on the southern end of the island. Neither light now worked reliably, the Coast Guard had declared them obsolete, and the two states argued back and forth about who owned them since they were in the river instead of on the island. So there they stood as convenient places to tie up a boat while fishing and serving nicely as a nesting place for birds instead of an aid for navigation.
The Wabash is known as a river of many moods. Because of the size of its basin and the valley it runs through, a storm many miles away can raise the water level around Vincennes significantly in a matter of minutes a day later. If you add a couple of wayward sand bars and the occasional log jam in one of the downstream hairpin bends the river is famous for, plus a nice local shower just for fun, things can get very interesting in short order.
Although we didn't know it, a series of rainstorms that had moved across in an almost straight line from Springfield in Illinois to Fort Wayne, Indiana over the last two days had saturated the northern half of the river's drainage area while our weather had been beautiful.
To say the events of the Saturday of our story were a 'perfect storm' would perhaps be a bit too cliché for comfort, however, if there could be a better example of a worst case, I'm not sure what it would be.
Our group was made up of people who ranged from young married couples with small children up to a few retirees. We gathered under the banner of the Friends of Old Vincennes and had several major work projects each year where we'd go out and paint the fences at the Fort or whatever, and a monthly service day to pick up trash along the historic trail or something like that which only took a couple of hours.
This weekend's outing was our Spring Social. The idea was that more people will turn up to eat than to pick up trash, so we'd get them out there, and after everybody had had a good time and was full of food and drink, then we'd pass out the schedule for service projects for the summer and get them to commit to coming out and helping with most of them. I took a quick headcount of adults and teenagers just before we started eating, and came up with about twenty-five, and maybe half again that many children.
Say what you will about bribery. It works.
Most of our group left when it first started raining about three that afternoon. We'd had lunch and played some of the games and several had gone fishing. So when the rain came, they called it a day and went home.
But some of the others stuck it out in hopes that the clouds had listened to the forecast and would move on before dark. And as the Vice President of the Friends, I agreed to stay on until everybody else had left.
When the river came up, it did so in something less than a flash flood but more suddenly than one would expect. In less than twenty minutes or so those of us that had by then given up and were packing to go were cut off from the mainland by a couple of feet of muddy water.
"The bridge is under water on both ends," Glen explained after he got back under the shelter from taking a look down the hill, "and you can't see the path." He flipped water off his head and face, "and that rain is really cold."
"We can still make it," William said. "Tell you what, I'll go and call you when I get to the cars, then I'll come back and walk everybody over."
We all exchanged looks and I shrugged, "OK, try it."
"I'll meet you back at the bridge," he said and headed down the path.
In moments he was wading through ankle deep water that was knee deep on him just before he got to the footbridge and he had to struggle against the current to get onto the bridge. He caught his breath and hurried across, but the other side was just as bad and he fell once on his way along the path on the other side, then he scampered up the hill to where we'd all parked.
In a moment my phone rang.
"Yeah, I made it, but the current is too strong and it's getting dark. I don't think you guys should try it."
After William said he'd go see if he could get a boat to come get us and he'd let me know what was going on I hung up and noticed that my phone's battery was under half. It was then that I thought to myself that it was going to be a long night.
I had no idea.
"How's your phones look?" I asked the others and showed them my battery indicator.
"I usually don't have any signal out here unless I go up on the hill," Glenn answered, "but I've got... eh, three quarters of a charge."
His daughter Alison frowned, "Mine's dead. I was on it all day."
"I know," her dad said softly.
The others were in about the same shape. While most people could get signal, it was, at best, weak, and if they'd used their phones at all out there it drained the battery more quickly than it did elsewhere.
"Think we should call the rescue squad? I think Sam's on tonight," Rob asked me.
"Let's see what William comes up with before we panic," I answered, then thought about it. "But let your brother know where we are and that he's plan B just in case."
It wasn't another hour before the river was up to the smaller shelter and it was still rising.
"I think we should move up to the old cabin," Rob said.
"The roof leaks," I stated the obvious, "but it's on higher ground."
The others looked at each other, "Well, let's go," Glen said, "I'll carry the food."
At least we wouldn't starve if we had to spend the night on the island. We had the food and drink that had been intended for supper. While some of it had to be cooked or at least warmed up and lighting a charcoal grill now was probably impossible now, there was plenty that was ready to eat.
We hustled through the wet undergrowth and into the old partially dugout log cabin with its ancient tin over plywood roof that just amplified the sound of the rain.
In the dark, we made ourselves as comfortable as we could by using trash bags and a poncho to cover the window hole and the worst of the leaks in the roof using a couple of key chain flashlights that had been intended as prizes for the games earlier in the day, and, of course, cell phone light, which probably wasn't the best of ideas.
The rain never stopped. It eased up a little for awhile, but then it would catch a second wind and then pour down as hard as ever. One by one, our cell phone batteries died. Before long we were sitting in the almost total darkness without any artificial light or sound.
"You didn't bring a radio?" Somebody asked me for the third time.
"Yeah, I did, but it's in the car."
"Lot of good that does us here."
"Sorry. Next time I'll make sure I carry it over."
"With a good lantern."
That brought up a discussion about things that we wished we had with us that ranged from the ridiculous to the practical.
It killed about fifteen minutes where we'd otherwise be listening to the drone of the rain on what was left of the roof.
But then the discussion played out, and we were left once more with the rain.
"I've got an idea. Let me go see if I can get to it," I said just before midnight.
"Something to do, just hang on, if the shelter is still above water it'll be OK. I'll be back in a minute."
The trail was dark and I had to be careful so as not to either fall or get off it. The river was right up to the path in one section and I had to wade through ankle deep water to get to the shelter.
The logs that marked the perimeter of the picnic shelter was sitting in water and you could hear the current swirling around the trees in the dark, but it looked like it had receded just a little sometime before I came down.
The plastic box I had put some odds and ends in was right where I'd left it. On a table in the middle of the shelter. unfortunately, it did not contain a lantern or a radio. But it did have a few other things that might make the rest of the night more entertaining.
On a whim I felt through the tote box until I found one of the things I knew was down in the bottom with the parts for the corn hole beanbag toss.
My spare charcoal lighter was in there and still worked as well.
Then I waited until the rain let up a little and went out to the grill and put my idea into play by lighting the fuse on a small firework set display that should light up the night quite well.
As its fuse sputtered and spurted in the rain I grabbed the box and walked back up the hill as the fountains and Roman candles from the thing lit up the trail for me for what the piece promised would be a very exciting two minutes.
It was either a Very Quick two minutes or it didn't like working in the rain.
"We thought somebody had launched a flare on the river."
"No, sorry, just something I wasn't supposed to bring."
"Are there any more?"
We finished off the food and took turns launching fireworks out the door into the rain.
Besides being entertaining we knew that some of them could be seen from the shore and would let anybody sitting out there that we were here and still OK.
And some of the rockets generated enough light that we could see the river was still far too high to even think about trying to get to the bridge.
We kept two of the Roman Candles and a few bottle rockets for signaling rescuers later, and hoped that it wouldn't come to that and arranged a grand finale of assorted fireworks. After that we settled into the quiet and dark again. We tried using sparklers for light, but they were too bright and put out too many fumes to use inside the building.
It was now one thirty in the morning.
We were all cold, many of us were at least damp if not soaking wet, and every single one of us was just about as miserable as we could remember being.
"The water has dropped a little bit."
We all looked out the door and down the path at where I'd waded through the water on the trail.
I stared at it for a long minute, then agreed, "those rocks were in the water it when I came back, now they're high and dry... well, at least above water."
It was enough good news for us to cheer and carry on like the Coast Guard had arrived.
About half an hour later I looked back down the path and the rocks were once again sitting in several inches of the river, I didn't mention it to the others, but I vowed to check back later and see if it was still rising.
Now it was three in the morning.
Some of us had taken short naps, or tried to. Others sat and rested, or sulked, listening for anything that might be a rescue party.
I think I slept for about twenty minutes. Waking with a start and going to check the water level on the path.
Now it was four in the morning, and I noticed that there was moisture inside the crystal of my watch.
"Is it still working?"
I glanced at it, and read the time as "four twelve, A. M."
"How long until sunrise?"
"An hour and a half, maybe."
"Do you think they'll come get us?"
"Yeah. They will. The weather's let up enough."
I waited until I could see where the eastern horizon was before I went outside to take a look.
Yes, I could see the line of the horizon, well, I could see the clouds highlighting where the eastern horizon was supposed to be. But that was all. I couldn't tell where the river ended and the bank where the cars were began. But now and then, through the drizzle and haze, I thought I saw lights on the road above where the parking lot should have been.
In a few minutes there was no doubt.
"They're out there, come see. There's a fire truck over there."
Somebody was saying something on a loudspeaker from the parking area, but we couldn't make out what it was.
"Get one of the skyrockets, we'll answer them anyway," I said.
Our answer arced gracefully over the river and exploded in a shower of multi colored sparkles.
And as soon as the echo of the artificial thunder died down we saw the rescue truck's light bar fire up and heard its siren blare for a few seconds.
We answered with another rocket.
But then all we could do was sit and wait.
Several of us had tears in our eyes as we began to gather up whatever we were planning on taking with us. By some unstated understanding we knew that we couldn't take everything, but that somebody would come back to get whatever we left once the river let them.
"I just want to go home," was the general consensus.
In a few minutes I went down to the shelter and looked out toward the parking area.
I could see a lot of activity, and what looked like an ambulance, but no boat. My first thought was that the river was still too bad to try to launch one, then I realized that the better spot to launch anything larger than a kayak was further down. I checked the boxes and containers and shrugged, I didn't care if I ever saw most of it again or not at this point. I too, just wanted to go home.
Leaving the stuff where it was I walked around to where I could see out further on the river.
And there it was, coming this way. A large boat with several firemen on board.
"They're coming!" I shouted up at the shelter. Then I repeated it and pointed when somebody looked out.
"It's a boat!"
"Come on, the fire department is here."
"Oh, thank God."
"Hang on, we can only take a couple at a time, how many of you are there?" A rescuer said as he jumped to shore with a medical bag.
"Nine, the others got out before it got bad."
"OK, we'll make three trips. Who's first?"
I was the last one of our party still on the island. I stood in the shelter next to the paramedic that had come over with the rescue party to check everybody out and waited for the boat to make its final run back from the parking area.
"Long night." I said. "Long, wet, night."
"But everybody got through it. Something to tell your grandkids about."
"That it is."
"So, who had the bottle rockets?" The medic asked me with a grin.
"Yeah. OK. But it was a nice touch."
The boat ride across the river didn't seem like it took long enough given everything that had led up to it. But once I started my car, which had mercifully remained just above the high water mark, I had to sit and calm myself down in order to drive home.
Two days later Glenn and some of the others went out and brought back the rest of our stuff. They said the county had closed the bridge to the island because of flood damage, but they let them go out and clean up the mess.
I thanked them and said they could keep the rest of the fireworks. Then we discussed next year's picnic, and assigned somebody to watch the weather forecast the day before.
[NOTE: The island in this story is fiction. All characters are FICTIONAL. Overall this Piece Is A FICTIONAL STORY, enjoy it as such.
Thank You the Author. ]
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