Mark Bennett: ISU doctoral, undergraduate students testing water along river's 500 miles ISU doctoral, undergraduate students testing water along river's 500 miles
Scientific curiosity shapes Kathryn Mudica's journey down the Wabash River this summer.
Inspiration for her quest comes from a lifelong passion for river adventures, though.
"Water just comes natural to me," she said Tuesday.
Mudica and fellow researcher Katelyn Rusiniak are studying the water quality of the Wabash this summer. They're traveling the fabled river by canoe, kayak, johnboat, and — when shallow waters make it necessary — by foot. Both are Indiana State University students. Mudica will use their findings for part of her dissertation as an earth science doctoral student. Rusiniak will be a senior this fall, and is collecting samples as a summer undergraduate research project.
The duo, assisted by Mudica's significant other Nick Braun, intend to trek the entire length of the Wabash, nearly 500 miles. They're tackling the journey in stages, boating about 50 miles at a time, once a week. Mudica and Rusiniak gather water samples and core samples of the riverbed every five miles. They've already explored the river's origins in western Ohio, paddled from Huntington to Logansport, and boated multiple times from Clinton in Vermillion County to the Darwin Ferry in southern Vigo County.
They intend to finish the final stage, reaching the Wabash's confluence with the Ohio River at the southern tip of Indiana, by August.
Preparation for a day on the river resembles training for an athletic event, Rusiniak said. The 21-year-old tries to eat well and drink lots of water the night before, then awakens at 3:30 a.m. to meet Mudica, drive to that day's launch site and start paddling or motoring.
Rusiniak's goal, "first and foremost, is to finish all 500 miles."
She's teamed with an experienced partner.
Mudica grew up in Elkhart, a northern Indiana city situated along the St. Joseph River. She started kayaking, whitewater rafting and canoeing at age 10 with her dad. Thus, navigating a river is a "natural thing" for her.
Earth science neatly dovetails with Mudica's love for water activities, and indirectly led her to move to Terre Haute, expand her education at ISU, and to now explore the Wabash, at age 54.
She moved from Elkhart in 2008, when unemployment during the "great recession" peaked at nearly 20% there. Mudica had a degree in graphic design, but found that job market limited. A friend told her there were jobs in Terre Haute. Mudica found one at a call center and stayed with it, before eventually deciding to return to college. After considering nursing, she opted instead to study her primary interest — biology — at ISU, and also got a job working in a research lab at the university, analyzing metal contamination in fish.
Mudica earned her bachelor's degree, then a master's, and now serves as a graduate assistant instructor while pursuing her doctorate — on the river, at least partly.
Her aim is for the Wabash research to also educate other folks about the waterway's virtues.
"I just really hope to bring a lot of awareness to water quality," Mudica said. "We've come a long way, but there's a lot more we can do to improve water quality here in Indiana."
She spoke by cellphone Tuesday afternoon while sitting in her kayak, after she and Rusiniak paddled from Peru to Logansport. Their equipment reflects Mudica's background with water travel. She and Rusiniak are supplied with a variety of watercraft, including a whitewater canoe crafted long ago, the johnboat her grandfather used, and a scout boat Braun bought her for the project.
Mudica and Rusiniak also got some expert advice during a stop in the town of Wabash, Indiana, where they and Braun met John and LaNae Abnet — a couple who in 2015 kayaked the length of the Wabash River and then continued on to New Orleans, a 1,600-mile trip.
Equipped with all those resources, Mudica and Rusiniak are sampling the water and riverbed with a specific twist. They're collecting samples every five miles in less accessible locations, some from the heart of the stream and others outside the current. Such a variety could reveal contaminants that may not show up in samples taken continuously from the same spot, such as pulses of mercury or metals that can sink to the bottom.
They'll also collect samples ahead of and after logjams, which tend to filter some contaminants, Mudica explained. They're checking levels of dissolved oxygen — a good indicator of strong aquatic life — and also look for phosphates and nitrates from farm runoff. And, the women are studying the types of freshwater mussels present in varying locations. Places with only the most common mussels may reflect a more polluted area, than another with a variety.
"When you are physically on the river, you see those things," Mudica explained.
Rusiniak got prepared for the 2021 venture last year, when she and Mudica boated several times from Clinton to Darwin Ferry. It was Rusiniak's first experience on a major river. Born in Montana, she and her family moved to St. John, Indiana in her early childhood. Then she enrolled at ISU after high school.
"I had no idea about the Wabash River before I came to Terre Haute," Rusiniak said.
She does now, thanks to the project alongside Mudica.
"I've learned a lot about wildlife. You see a ton of eagles and all sorts of birds out there," Rusiniak said. "I've learned how to paddle and navigate a canoe. I have a better sense of direction now, and not just from the Wabash, but also where to go to get services."
Once they cover the final stage, ending at the expansive point where the Wabash empties into the Ohio, they hope to have a clearer idea of the river's water quality. That aspect of the Wabash should matter to all Hoosiers.
"It's our biggest asset," Mudica said.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.