Wabash County provides experiences for the everyday adventurer

By: INPUT

Now that spring is officially here and summer is right around the corner, many folks are happy to be spending more time exploring outdoors. As the sun shines brighter, the grass turns greener and the temperatures warm up, so too, does the opportunity for outdoor adventures around northeast Indiana. There are plenty of options to unplug and spend a day in nature, enjoying everything from running, hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, rock climbing, fishing, boating, and camping.  Some communities, like Wabash, which is just 45 minutes southwest of Fort Wayne, offer all of these activities in one place.

Whether it’s seasonal events encouraging exercise and exploration like Wabash Run the River or Dam to Dam Bike Ride local businesses like White Rock Recreation or Alley Cat Outfitters providing a fun escape into nature, or the scenic paths along the Wabash River Trail, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.

The Wabash River Trail

Not only can a day or even a few hours spent in nature be good for the soul, but it can also be beneficial for a community’s economy. In Wabash County, outdoor recreation is leveraged as an economic driver, providing jobs to local folks, and attracting visitors and even future residents to the area.

Amy Ford is a Wabash County resident and native. Her family left Carmel, moved back to the area, and purchased local land in 2001. Although it’s considered a small town, Ford was attracted to the big impact she could make, on a personal level. She is also a small business owner and has a frame shop in downtown Wabash, called Borders & Beyond Gallery. She’s an active part of the community, enjoying the arts scene as well as outdoor recreation.

“We have always been an extremely active family and all of our vacations were centered around outdoor activities,” she says. “Kids spend plenty of time indoors at school and in front of screens.”

One of her family’s favorite outdoor activities is cycling, for which Wabash County has a great system of pathways. Her son-in-law, Luke Kalbfell, is also the owner of Alley Cat Outfitters, an outdoor store just off the Wabash River Trail.

“This shop has all I would need for outdoor activity,” Ford says.

The avid cyclist was also instrumental in building The Wabash River Trail, an idea that came to her while riding on Old Lagro Road. On the six-mile segment, vehicle traffic from Lagro to Wabash can be very fast-moving, according to Ford. What wasn’t so fast-paced however, was the economic state of the town.

“Lagro was in dire need of a boost, and I knew a trail could have that potential to start investment,” she says. “That thought paid off, and Lagro is very different today than it was in 2016. It is astonishing what a little thing like a trail can do for a community. There were many people that helped and supported the effort for this trail.”

Other local annual events Ford and her family look forward to include the Dam to Dam Century Ride cycling event in the fall, and the Wabash River Trail Run the River event in June. She considers the beauty of the Wabash River to be a true gem in the local community, providing a picturesque backdrop for canoeing and kayaking. It’s a gem that she and other small business owners and stakeholders in Wabash know can attract even more residents and dollars to the area, too.

Runners on the Wabash River Trail during the Run the River Half Marathon.

“These days, with many people being able to do remote work, outdoor recreation is a real plus for any community,” she says. “Gone are the days of just building factories for people to work. You need so much more to acquire and retain talent. People are much more aware of the quality of life. You absolutely have to have several amenities to keep families. Outdoor activity, along with housing, schools, safety, arts and culture are the key aspects of what attracts people to your community.”

For husband-and-wife Candie and Aaron McCoart, owners of White Rock Recreation, a river outfitter, ice cream shop, mobile pizza oven, and recreation center, the duo hopes to put Wabash on the map as a must-visit destination.

Candie McCoart and her husband are both Wabash natives who moved away after high school. Around 2008, they returned to the area, and last year, the previous owner of White Rock approached the couple about buying the local business.

“Aaron is an avid outdoor enthusiast, and I like ice cream,” she laughs. “We decided to take a shot at running White Rock. We jumped full-speed into it last year. This is our second season operating it.”

White Rock Recreation provides a white glove, full-service shuttle and all the equipment required for paddling the river, a fitness court, a wood-fired pizza brick oven, ice cream shop, and hosts many events right on the trailhead of the Wabash River Trail.

White Rock Recreation

“People are up for any fun experiences,” McCoart says. “At White Rock, we drive you out to the drop-off point on our island in Lagro. We pull the boats up for them, help them get in and out of the water, and we make it really easy to have a fun day on the river. They float the river at their own leisure.”

White Rock Recreation also hosts corporate outings, Boy Scout days, wedding parties, school and church groups, college classes, and more.

“It’s a bonding experience, and there’s also no tech involved,” McCoart says. “It’s a super chill and immersive experience on the river. It’s very relaxing.”

There are different options, ranging from affordable two to six-hour experiences on the river, that can help “soothe the soul” from the busy day-to-day hustle, says McCoart. It’s an affordable event for the whole family. Children ages 5-10 are allowed to canoe with an adult, and those ages 12 and up are allowed to kayak on their own. There are also river tubes to float on the water, which can range from six inches to eight feet deep, depending on nature and weather conditions.

The McCoarts enjoy owning a small business in Wabash and acting as a point of gathering for the community.

“We see people like track teams coming to celebrate the end-of-the-year, we see church groups, and we provide a really easy place for people to come together and celebrate. It’s honestly my favorite thing, hands-down. I love seeing families, corporate people, and every walk of life floating down the river, and getting ice cream.”

The business is also providing employment opportunities in the local economy, including giving 10-14 high school kids their own jobs, some of them, their very first jobs ever.

“We’ve always thought that with our state parks, the river, and the bike trail, that these are wonderful amenities for our county that bring traffic in,” McCoart says.

Kayakers make their way down the Wabash River.

Stephanie Rogers returned to Wabash County about five years ago. She loves the community and does not miss her former two-hour commute to work in a big city. She is the experiences manager for Visit Wabash County. Each day, she shares the people, places, and things that make the community vibrant with visitors and residents alike.

“We have really leaned into our outdoor community here in Wabash County,” Rogers says. “We coordinate four outdoor adventure events to not only support our local community but also to attract others to experience Wabash in a different way.”

The Wabash River Run Club provides a free local community of residents and runners to come together, socialize, and train in the outdoor fresh air. The Wabash Run the River Half Marathon, 5k and 10k event on June 8 also provides a way to invite local residents and travelers to see a different side of the area, at a different pace.

“We’re seeing people from several different states coming into Wabash County, and they’ll be able to experience our community,” Rogers says. “Hopefully, they’ll come in, spend the night, and get to feel the overall presence and welcoming environment that we are in. It’s been really neat to see who’s registering for that program. We’ve had people coming in all the way from Alaska.”

The Dam to Dam Bike Ride has been going on for the last 15 years, and has become a cherished tradition for many, says Rogers.

“It starts in our downtown, and it’s a bike tour of our county, which is really unique because they get to see all of these beautiful landmarks,” she says. “It takes people into our different communities, not only Wabash, but into Roann, North Manchester, and Lagro. They get to see some of our beautiful scenery. We see anywhere between 600 and 800 cyclists come in for that ride, from several different states.”

The Dam to Dam Bike Ride

Another free program from the Visit Wabash Outdoor Adventure Series is Liking for Biking. It’s an inclusive, hodge-podge of riders with different ages, skills, and investments in cycling.

“People are invited to come out, get 60 minutes of fresh air, meet other cyclists, and reach for whatever their health and wellness goals may be. That program is open to all levels, and happens on each Saturday starting in May.”

Not only can these activities prove to be beneficial for one’s mental and physical health, but they can also prove valuable to the local economy’s health and vitality.

“Whenever people are coming into town for these experiences, they’re taking advantage of our hotel and Airbnbs, our dining and retail businesses, too. It’s stimulating the local economy,” Rogers says. “We’re leaning into those people who are seeking those experiences and we’re hoping they can lead to maybe even relocating or exploring our town as a possible place to live.”

Wabash is the focus of our Partner City series underwritten by Visit Wabash County. This series captures the story of talent, creativity, investment, innovation, and emerging assets shaping the future of Wabash County, about an hour Southwest of Fort Wayne.