In Memoriam: Ethan Runnels 

Editors note: on Easter Sunday, April 12, Ethan Runnels' body was found in the White River.

On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 2009, my dear friend Ethan Runnels fell into the White River and was swept away to his death. He was 25 years old.

For some time, I've wanted to write about Ethan and what he was teaching me.

I was going to write about Ethan's wilderness school that he was developing with Matt Shull -- the Eehsipana Urban and Wilderness Survival School -- how every Sunday afternoon for months we've been attending classes in primitive skills. How we learned to build fires without matches, track animals by their footprints, use nettles as cordage, build a debris hut from sticks and leaves.

Matt and Ethan guided us -- from junior high kids on up to people like me in their 50s -- as we learned the skills that connect people to a time before technology, when nature was something to be respected and feared and loved, not merely an inconvenience to be tolerated. Why was I doing this? As apocalyptically as I sometimes feel about the future of this planet, I was not taking this class because I thought I'd end up in the woods needing to build a deadfall to trap a squirrel for dinner.

Mostly, I went to this class because Ethan and Matt are young men teaching me, their elder, how to do things. See, I grew up in an era when listening to elders was very uncool, and so I did not learn from my elders. So I appreciated the reverse-mentorship of this context, where young men are schooling men their fathers' age in the lost art of loving the Earth.

But I can't write that story now - because Ethan is gone. The classes will continue, the school will take its shape, but feelings are too raw to see the next step.

So this is the story I have to write.

This tragic float

On Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 2009, my dear friend Ethan Runnels fell into the White River and was swept away to his death. He was 25 years old.

At around 6:15 that evening, my wife Patricia and I began to hear sirens in our Rocky Ripple neighborhood. Over the next 15 minutes, about 20 rescue vehicles arrived - fire trucks, ambulances, police.

We were outside by then, and one neighbor passed by in a hurry and told us a canoe had gone over, one person was OK but Ethan was missing.

Ethan had recently returned from a multimonth class in wilderness survival. Surely, we thought, if anyone could survive a spill in the river it would be him. Still, we were concerned, and grabbed some blankets and towels and went into the woods behind Butler University. We encountered others searching for Ethan: Jeff, Nate, Edward, James, Robert and Adam. We traipsed through the tangled bank of the east side of the White River, while rescue teams rode the river in a boat with flashlights. Our theory was that Ethan had made his way out of the water and -- nearly hypothermic -- crawled into the woods and covered himself with leaves, something he learned in wilderness survival class.

Overhead, a helicopter searched with lights and an infrared, heat-sensing gun.

For the next handful of hours, this impromptu rescue crew -- soon joined by Joshua and Matt -- searched both sides of the river from about 50th Street southwest to Michigan Road and beyond. It was a long and terrifying night -- and the farther down river we searched, the more futile it became. The river widens around Michigan Road, and the current was steady and powerful. A person could be swept away and never be found. When we finally gave up our search before midnight, the clouds broke and the constellation Orion appeared. An owl called overhead.

Later, with the help of Sara, Ethan's canoe companion that night, we pieced together the events. The two had floated from 106th Street to the equivalent of 50th Street. If you've never floated the river, this is not particularly as bad a time of year to float as it may first appear. The river was high -- but not as high as it had been earlier in the week.

It's a swift trip down river. Trying to dock on the shore, the two found their canoe snarled by a fallen tree, and efforts to free themselves caused the canoe to capsize. To fully understand what happened next requires understanding that the water was extremely cold -- and how quickly hypothermia can confuse the brain. Sara quickly realized she was losing logic, and that realization ignited the necessity to reach the shore. It was a struggle, she told us, but surely the water aerobics course she was taking helped. Ethan, a mediocre swimmer and weighed down by boots, did not act quickly enough.

Sara is also a member of our primitive skills class. In fact, just a handful of weeks before this tragic float, in what some might consider an unbearable irony, Ethan and Matt had held a class that focused on hypothermia. Sara credits Ethan for her recognizing the signs of hypothermia.

She believes Ethan's survival teachings saved her life.

His body has still not been found.

One-match fire

As I searched that night for Ethan I thought of many things. I remembered my first significant conversation with Ethan, a couple of years ago at a party. He was dressed similar to what you see in this photo -- including what you can't see: bare feet. We had a fine conversation about families and nature and his upcoming wilderness survival school trip.

When he returned from his trip, the primitive skills class began. Each week, along with Matt, Ethan led us with gentle guidance and a lot of humor. Some of us -- well, me -- couldn't get that coal to burn from the firebow drill. Ethan would hover over me, making suggestions, poking fun at my clumsy efforts. Only occasionally would he have me step aside so he could demonstrate.

Two weeks before he died, the class took a field trip to the juncture where Williams Creek spills into the White River. It was a beautiful, crisp day. Our task was to build a "one-match" fire: get your tinder bundle together and your teepee of sticks and you have one match -- one chance -- to light your fire. I watched as Ethan took ALL the wooden matches out of the box and put them into his pocket.

Then he placed one single match into the box.

When he shook the box, that one match made a lonely sound.

He handed that box with great ceremony to us, one at a time.

For those of us who failed to light our fire the first time, there would magically appear one more match, secretly fished from his pocket and placed in the box. A spark of laughter in his eye. This was Ethan: serious in teaching us about nature, and completely playful in the process.

I got my fire going with one match and then I found a magnificent sycamore tree -- really four trees that had sprung decades ago from the same fallen sycamore stump. I leaned against one, and looked up, transfixed by the trunks and branches angling in different directions into the blue sky. It was beautiful and I called for Ethan, who was nearby. I wanted to share this amazing spot with him.

He too leaned his back against one of the trees and looked up. Only silence passed between us: the silence of appreciation of the regenerative power and beauty of the Earth. That silent exchange is what I will always remember.

So what else can I tell you?

That I wish I wasn't writing this story.

That I wish he had not worn boots that day.

That I wish he'd been wearing the life jacket he had in the canoe.

That I wish we'd found him shivering under a pile of leaves.

That anything can happen at anytime to anyone.

That I am glad Sara did not die.

That my heart goes out to his parents and sister -- and all the family and friends who knew him.

That there is usually one more match in the box, handed to you by some beneficent entity, whether you call it God or just dumb luck.

That Ethan didn't get the extra match that day.

And so he leaves us, with new lessons learned, new things to build and all the love that he gave.

For more on Eehsipana Urban and Wilderness Survival School as well as to inquire about donations:

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About The Author

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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