"Do you hate snakes?" Dan Ripley asks, as his pontoon boot pulls away from the dock, accessed near a parking lot behind McDonald's in Broad Ripple.
A dock? Behind McDonald's?
It's an overlooked fact that a river even exists in Broad Ripple, let alone flows through and far beyond the city of Indianapolis. But that's one mystery Ripley is intent on revealing.
The inaugural WARMfest (White River Arts & Music Festival), coming up Labor Day weekend, at Broad Ripple Park, will feature more than 100 artists performing across five stages over three days, Indie Vintage Arts & Marketplace (temporarily relocated from Glendale Town Center), live theater and other river-related activities, including riverboat rides.
Ripley, former reggae nightclub owner, current antiques dealer and auctioneer with other projects incubating, has coalesced his lifelong passions into this three-day event. In addition to bringing world-class music to Indianapolis audiences, WARMfest realizes a vision for what the White River could do for the community, what it could become - and how it can be ecologically sustained.
This event is presented under the umbrella of the Carl Fisher Society, an organization Ripley founded that works with other institutions (including Friends of the White River, Friends of Broad Ripple Park, Reconnecting to Our Waterways and others) to realize the goals of promoting environmental stewardship specifically related to the White River.
Long after the last notes sound at WARMfest and the stages are hauled away, Ripley envisions increased engagement with the river in and extending beyond the Broad Ripple Park riverbank: pedestrians picnicking along boardwalks, sightseers in kayaks and canoes, families on bicycles, seniors on riverboats, docks, a marina, a visitors center, lots of live music - even drunken revelers on water taxis.
All in the name of a thread of water that has become largely obscured by a thick wall of impenetrable overgrowth (namely, honeysuckle, grapevine and poison ivy), and in some places rendered hazardous by snags, or submerged natural debris, which can pose hazards to river travelers.
Minks and bald eagles
Ripley's WARMfest vision begins here, in a spot along a cleared section of riverbank he has subtly tricked out into a makeshift marina where he docks his pontoon after a 4.15-mile water commute from his home upstream on the Northeastside. With the permission of the DNR, he installed a metal stairway repurposed from an airport terminal, and reappointed a neighbor's dock that he rescued from the top of a tree.
As we pull out from said dock - no snakes to be seen - I quickly assure Ripley that not only do I not hate snakes, I love them. At a distance, of course.
"There's often one sunning over there," he says, gesturing to a low-hanging tangle of branches and tree roots. "What kind?" I ask, recalling the black water snakes I encountered as a teenager, swimming with friends in Sweetwater Lake - a sighting that would often send me dog-paddling hastily to shore.
"Black rat snakes and garter snakes, mostly," Ripley replies, idling the boat for a moment as we both stare at the still shoreline. He's also sighted minks and bald eagles, he says, clearly animated by the telling - and he fishes for bass, which have recovered so well since the fish kill from a chemical spill 14 years ago that the river is now one of the top sport fishing spots in the state.
If you've strolled through Broad Ripple Park over the years, you may have heard shouts, splashes and the thrum of motorboats through the opaque screen of branch and leaf. But you were unlikely to see the activity that generated the sounds: teeming along the waterway that spans 26 unobstructed navigable miles bordered by dams in Broad Ripple and Noblesville. And that's just the Central Indiana portion.
The mighty White River - dubbed the Wapahani by the Native Americans who once lived along its light-dappled banks - is the largest watershed contained solely within the state. The river flows in two forks across most of Central and Southern Indiana, is punctuated by dams, and has suffered the onslaught of raw sewage and, years ago, that chemical spill that decimated flora as well as fauna.
The major harms to the river, Ripley says, continue to be pollution (including dumping), run-off and development that restricts the flow of the river. And yet, reclaiming the river's former glory as a modern-day iteration of what was once called the Coney Island of the Midwest would not be without its challenges.
Ripley sees his role as "cultivating stewardship" through education and awareness, as well as action - not just when it comes to the river, but in all he does. That includes being a business owner in the village of Broad Ripple.
"I see Broad Ripple Village struggling with its identity," Ripley says. "But to envision Broad Ripple as those few blocks on either side of the canal completely neglects the scale of Broad Ripple. It's much more inclusive of its surroundings than it gets credit for.
"This," he says, gesturing to the river, "is specifically where it was named, and this is specifically where it belongs. It's the reason Broad Ripple's here, and it's the reason Broad Ripple has its name."
Enlivening the White River
The river has been seen variously as a natural resource and, like so many waterways that go through natural flooding cycles, a nuisance; and yet it is beloved by the many who have - and do - live along its shores, water-ski and fish its lengths, or otherwise enjoy its recreational and aesthetic bounty. Ripley has, as a resident along the river, for the past seven years.
Ripley grew up in Morgan County, attended Monrovia High School and spent summers on Lake Tippecanoe. "That's how I developed a passion for being on the water and the outdoors," he says.
All that has been missing when it comes to making Central Indiana a water-lover's paradise is a lack of imagination, and the will to energize the myriad of institutions and agencies that might support that vision. WARMfest began as a means of bringing music to Broad Ripple Park, as part of its concert series; but it also connected the dots for Ripley, who had already been thinking about ways to enliven the White River along Broad Ripple.
"The village doesn't really have access to the river," Ripley clarifies.
Shoreline clearings of invasive species and other debris along the riverbank would not only offer access to pedestrians and bicyclists, but would also afford a view of the river from Broad Ripple itself.
Ignorance of the river's existence, or at least its potential, is typical, Ripley believes, of most people he talks to, even those who have lived here for as long as I have (upwards of 30 years). I've always been aware of the White River, rafting on it in the '80s (turning my white bikini a permanent brown), canoeing on it in the late '90s - but I hadn't thought of it as more than that: a place you enjoyed on rare occasion. And with great caution. (What was that brown stuff, anyway?)
The river is so much more than a source of drinking water, and a site for controlled sewage overflows downriver, where, Ripley assures me, the water is not sourced for drinking.
More than a 100 years ago, in the portion of the river called the Broad Ripple Pool, which is bordered by the Broad Ripple Dam, Carl Fisher and like-minded individuals envisioned a recreational paradise: swimming beaches, an in-ground swimming pool fed from the river, where Broad Ripple Park is now. And while it took years for the vision to become a reality, it did, eventually, until a fire took out the amusement park.
Ripley, well aware of this history, would like to repeat it - with modifications, and sans fire - and return Broad Ripple and the White River to its former splendor as a place where nature lovers, families and revelers of all kinds go to enjoy what the river has to offer.
"Being able to take your boat and go out to dinner or entertainment is significant to my purpose here in Broad Ripple," Ripley says, as the boat pulls back into the dock.
But there's far more to it than that. By envisioning the river as a place to be enjoyed and appreciated, and as a place to be lovingly sustained from an ecological standpoint, the ripple effect could be enormous. As Ripley puts it, "I can cultivate stewardship for the environment as well."
If anyone has earned the right to sit back and put her feet up, it is O'Bannon, but she continues to work as an elder stateswoman and community activist: traveling the state and the globe, figuring out ways to solve global problems with local solutions.