Scott Elzey is an unusual guy. This story of his airboat might be out of season (I wrote it this past summer when the river’s water level was high), but it is so unconventional (how many people do you know own an airboat?) I had to share.
As a child, I heard the story of Sacagawea, the famous Indian maiden who accompanied those famous explorers, Lewis and Clark, on their western explorations. I had always tried to imagine what the trip would have been like two centuries ago when she sat in a canoe floating up and down various rivers. To amuse herself during the long days, did she watch the sky for fascinating bird life? As the group had expertly propelled their canoe past austere cliffs and bluffs of grass, had she relished the quiet and peaceful journey with little noise to intrude?
A small inkling of what it would have been like for Sacagawea occurred to me as I floated on a river on a recent summer evening. I scanned the sky for life and spied a bird with long legs and a skinny body. A blue heron? Possibly. Trees with roots barely keeping them upright dotted the river’s edge as we drifted past. Had Sacagawea seen similar trees, I wondered, and feared at being caught under one of the monoliths as it suddenly loosened and fell?
To be honest, the similarities between me and Sacagawea ended there. I was floating on a river, but it was to the east of the Mississippi, specifically the Wabash River in Wells County. The possibility that Sacagawea ever traversed that waterway is slim. Second, the boat we rode in was not made of beech wood but aluminum. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the air around me was not filled with the soft slap of canoe paddles but the ratchety thunder from the boat’s 65-horse power gasoline engine. The boat’s pilot and I wore mouse ears for protection. Thankfully that nice engine enabled us to travel at 30 miles per hour.
I was on an airboat owned by Scott Elzey of Ossian.
Sacagawea and I shared another similarity — we both traveled on boats with paddles. By state law Elzey is required to carry a paddle, fire extinguisher, life preservers for each occupant, and title paper and proof of insurance for the airboat. It’s good to know if we ran out of gas we could row ourselves back to the easement Elzey had created along the river’s edge behind his property for the airboat to enter the water.
Elzey and his family live on a farm that borders the Wabash River. Elzey had learned much about the outdoors from growing up in Wells County and shadowing his grandfathers who were outdoorsmen. Desiring to share that same love of the outdoors with his family, Elzey bought aluminum, custom-built mosquito airboat in 2006. “I had been on the Everglades in an airboat and really enjoyed it,” he said. “I wanted to recreate that same experience here.”
Typically, Elzey’s season to navigate the Wabash in his airboat begins in June after spring rains raise the water level high enough for him to float over rocks. By mid-July, the rainfall has lessened to the point that Elzey cannot navigate the river. This year’s number of heavy rains has enabled him to extend his airboat excursions through late summer.
As we skimmed the water’s surface, we spied other humans also enjoying the stream. Three boys, possibly middle school age, climbed among the rocks and brush scattered along the edge. Did they feel like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as they explored, I wondered. The night before Elzey offered to take me and my husband for rides on his airboat, he had spotted a bald eagle. On past trips he has seen a golden eagle, ducks, blue heron, fox, and coyotes. “I think it is amazing what wildlife we have in Wells County,” he said.
We motored about one mile in towards the east, then turned around and went as far as the Uniondale Bridge at the other. Elzey showed me an area on the river he may have discovered called ‘Boiling Springs’. “I had read historical documents about church picnics that were held along the river in the 1920s at this place about the size of a kitchen table,” he said. “The area spouted forth hot, not boiling, water.”
The area is scarcely as big as the geyser Old Faithful, but it’s possible the water trickles set apart by rocks next to the river’s edge could be someone’s attempt to mark the area for easy future reference.
Whether the area was the place of long-ago memories or not, riding Scott Elzey’s airboat certainly created a memorable experience for my husband and me. It doesn’t say so in the history books, but I’m sure Sacagawea never had it this good!
Reprinted with permission of Ossian Sun Riser
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