MIDDLEBURY — River? There’s no river running through Middlebury!
Martha Huebert, who lives in Riverbend Apartments, was amazed that a friend of hers — who lives in Middlebury and had driven countless times across the two bridges in town — was so unaware of the Little Elkhart River but people nowadays don’t pay much attention unless a river is as big as the Elkhart or the St. Joseph River.
Still, more than 200 people showed up Saturday, Aug. 16 to attend the fifth annual Riverfest in Middlebury’s Riverbend Park, an event to celebrate the river and learn more about the wildlife that thrive because of it.
While visiting, folks heard Daragh Deegan, an aquatic biologist for the cities of Elkhart and South Bend, who said the Little Elkhart River is one of the cleanest in Indiana and, thus, a valued habitat for brown trout and a large variety of Indiana water life. Through a fish shocking demonstration on the river, he was able to collect and share with children and adults alike what he and Jim Cameron of Middlebury Parks found in the river.
As Deegan described his experiences doing similar shocking operations on other rivers to get a census of the species in the river — the more found, the cleaner the water — he told the crowd that shocking doesn’t bother ducks because their feathers and rubbery feet seem to insulate the birds from the electric current. Muskrats, however, get very angry and feisty — and this comment set off a murmur throughout the audience, especially among young boys who were hoping to see a muskrat shocked.
They had to settle for white suckers, northern hog suckers, brown trout, grass pickerel, a chestnut lamprey and some minnows.
The Little Elkhart River is a cool water stream — water runs into it from the ground — and so it remains pure and at a temperature of 50 to 60 degrees all through the summer, unlike the Elkhart and St. Joseph rivers which reflect the temperatures of the surrounding air.
Those who attended Riverfest also learned this river has a history and that the town of Middlebury would never have been founded without it.
On a history hike lead by Middlebury Park Board president John McKee, visitors walked across a foot bridge in Riverbend Park to find a spillway on the western side of the river. There, 19th century pioneers diverted the river so it would power the town’s oldest business— a mill that is more recently known as “The Popcorn Factory.”
People of the 19th century saw the Little Elkhart River not as a mere creek, but as a valuable asset. The river could not only be used by mills to saw lumber to build the town, but it could grind grain into flour and transport goods to and from the town at a time when highways didn’t exist. The Little Elkhart River was their highway to Elkhart, South Bend and to Lake Michigan.
Later, Dawn Vezina, an education specialist from the Organization for Bat Conservation, put on a talk about the creatures that come out at night. She showed young and old alike a sugar glider, several native Indiana bats, a Jamaican fruit-eating bat, a flying fox, a native Indiana striped skunk and a great horned owl, and explained the way these animals can make their way through the night.
Not only does the great horned owl have big eyes, these eyes are too big to turn in the eye sockets and so the bird has to turn its head—up to 270 degrees—and it can do it because it has twice as many vertebrae in its neck than humans do.
All of this fun came about because Tom Enright, park superintendent for Middlebury, has a love of nature and a strong desire to share this love with the community. He said he always wanted to hold a Riverfest, but it wasn’t until he found Middlebury, with its Riverbend Park right on the Little Elkhart River, that he got his chance.
Riverfest, now in its fifth year, draws people not only from the town but from the Amish community and other communities as well.