- Associated Press - Sunday, October 23, 2016

CHESTERTON, Ind. (AP) - While leisurely paddling along the east branch of the Little Calumet River earlier this month, Dan Plath suddenly jumped out of his canoe into the chilly waist-deep water with a chainsaw and began cutting away at a pile of downed tree limbs.

This scene would repeat itself several times along the 4.5-mile stretch of the river from Brummitt Road in Westchester Township west to Wagner Road in Porter.

Paddlers don’t typically carry chainsaws, but this was no ordinary trip.

It marked the first time in 35 years that the east branch of the Little Calumet River - which Plath referred to fondly as the second crowned jewel of the area behind Lake Michigan - is clear enough for paddlers to make their way through.

“It’s probably one of the most beautiful stretches of river in Northwest Indiana,” said Plath, founder and president of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association.

Came, sawed, conquered

Group members have spearheaded an exhaustive effort over the last five weeks of cutting up and clearing away downed trees and other natural debris, in addition to cleaning up the man-made trash that has gathered over the years.

Plath said 1,700 hours have been put into the effort and has included the help of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which provided assistance through the Student Conservation Association.

NIPSCO contributed $5,000 to bring in a professional with a saw, Save the Dunes provided a grant to help build two new public access points on land owned by the Shirley Heinze Land Trust and logistical support was given by the towns of Chesterton and Porter, he said.

“I think it speaks to good conservation,” Kris Krouse, executive director of the Shirley Heinze Land Trust, said of the cooperative effort on the project.

Krouse was along for the trip Oct. 8, in part, to get a water-level view of some of the 321 acres of property the land trust owns along the river. The group is in the process of adding another 55 acres, he said.

“This is the nicest stretch of the river,” he said while gently paddling along.

The ongoing work and acquisition along the river is important from protective, restorative and land management points of view, Krouse said. For example, invasive species are being removed to make way for native plants.

Boatload of fun

As was evident by the good number of paddlers gathered Oct. 8, there is also a big recreational gain made by the project.

“It’s a really beautiful river corridor that will be available to the public,” Krouse said. “We’re excited about that. There’s limited access to waterways in this region.”

Chesterton resident Dave Dunn, 70, said he has been down this stretch of the river many times throughout his life and has had to wind his way over or around the blockages.

“With a kayak, you just rock and roll over it,” he said. “This was always pretty well congested.”

Most of this stretch of the river was clear Sunday, other than an occasional buildup of loose logs and other free-floating tree debris. The river flows gently through heavily wooded areas and alongside large wetlands, which featured some tell-tale signs of beaver and a great blue heron flying overhead.

Rocks and rolling

The pace of the river picks up considerably into small rapids as it flows down and over rocks while passing under Ind. 49.

Plath said his group intends to move some of the rocks around to create a clearer route under the highway. But he encourages anyone with a fiberglass boat - as opposed to plastic or aluminum - and inexperienced paddlers to portage around that small section of the river.

The newly cleared arm of the river varies in depth from as little as 2 inches down to 12 feet, Plath said. Unless the levels are high following a heavy rain, he said, the water is clear enough along the way to see the bottom and passing fish.

The headwaters of the east branch of the river are at Red Mill County Park in LaPorte County, but the waterway is too shallow for paddling until it passes just west of the Indiana Dunes Heron Rookery, also in LaPorte County, Plath said. The river continues for more than 20 miles and spills out into Lake Michigan in the area of the Portage lakefront park.

What’s upstream

Work is needed in either direction of the newly cleared stretch of the river to make it navigable for boats, he said.

Plath hopes to continue the clearing effort to the west, involving the Dunes Learning Center so it can use the waterway as part of its programs. The learning center already can benefit from the work done, he said.

“We would love to get paddling incorporated within their programs at the Dunes Learning Center,” he said.

The newly cleared east branch of the river is part of 200 miles of water trails across Northwest Indiana, Plath said.


Source: The (Northwest Indiana) Times, https://bit.ly/2dimJH9


Information from: The Times, https://www.nwitimes.com

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