Chesterton Tribune



Little Cal River a jewel of the National Lakeshore if folks could just get to it

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Dunelanders in the know call it a “lost jewel,” an “undiscovered resource.”

That’s because the nine mile-stretch of the East Branch of the Little Calumet River which traverses Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is, for the most part, inaccessible. A hiker or angler would have a hard time finding a place to park the car, just to be in a position to get to the river. A paddler would have an even harder time finding a place from which to conveniently put a kayak in.

Seventeen years ago, the National Park Service (NPS) briefly explored the recreational opportunities offered by the Little Cal within the boundaries of the National Lakeshore, with an eye to the preparation of a use management plan which might have improved accessibility. NPS abandoned that effort, however, after running into “obstacles,” as Assistant Superintendent Gary Traynham calls them.

But the climate is different now and NPS has begun the management-planning process all over again, in fact has reached the stage at which it’s seeking public input as part of an environmental assessment of the possible recreational uses to which the river might be put.

On Tuesday night, NPS held a public meeting at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center, for the specific purpose of soliciting and gathering comments.

The consensus of the 50 or so folks who attended: the East Branch is awfully darn pretty, offers fabulous fishing and paddling opportunities--hiking and biking ones as well--but is just way too hard to get to.

Notably absent from the meeting: any suggestion from the public that recreational uses of the Little Cal are in any way inappropriate or environmentally harmful; or any suggestion that paddling, angling, hiking, or biking are in any way incompatible uses.

Begin with the actual “reaches” of the Little Cal’s East Branch which traverse the National Lakeshore. NPS has divided them into four, three of them contiguous:

* Reach 2, which includes Chellberg Farm, Bailly Homestead, and Mnoke Prairie to the east and a slice of Burns Harbor to the west.

* Reach 3, which includes the bulk of Burns Harbor, the Ameriplex property in Portage, and Burns Ditch.

* And Reach 4, which includes the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk site.

Reach 1 is known as the Old Heron Rookery and is located on the far east side of the National Lakeshore in Pine Township.

Almost no matter what the proposed recreational use, though--except perhaps for hiking, overland--long stretches of each reach are, for all practical purposes, wholly inaccessible.


Gene Weibl, a member of the Burns Harbor Redevelopment Commission who is currently looking at ways of promoting eco-tourism in town, calls the Little Cal an “undiscovered resource” of the National Lakeshore. Undiscovered, he told the Chesterton Tribune, because you’d almost have to be lost yourself to find it.

And people who do know of its beauty and promise can’t get to it. A case in point: there is actually an anglers’ public parking lot in Burns Harbor west of Ind. 149 and south of--and overlooking--the Little Cal, Weibl said. But a person would be risking life and limb attempting to climb down the steep bank, even using the ropes which have been secured to trees as hand-holds. “If you try to get down to the river, there’s a good chance you would die.”

Dan Plath of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association looks at access in two ways: kayakers need places to put in their craft safely and conveniently. But even staging areas won’t do them much good once, in the river, they hit one of the numerous log jams and snags blocking their way.

“Addressing the severe log jams that exist, using ecologically responsible techniques, will improve the river resource for both anglers and paddlers alike,” Plath said. “Currently the river is being choked with log jams in an ever increasing number. With the die-off of ash trees along the river as a result of the emerald ash borer, better management of the river will result in better water quality through decreased erosion and sedimentation in areas where severe log jams are negatively impacting the resource.”

Jim, a manger at Bass Pro Shop in the Ameriplex--which caters to many potential recreational users of the Little Cal--made much the same point. “We’re heavily into conservation at Bass Pro,” he said. “Any time you’re talking about better access and conservation, we’re interested.”


The public had other suggestions to make as well.

One gentleman urged NPS to return the Old Heron Rookery reach to its former “sinuosity,” although Gina Darnell, an urban forester, made the point from the floor that it would be hard to re-create the Little Cal’s meanders because the water levels are lower and the banks have been “scoured out.” Darnell also made note of the fact that the Old Heron Rookery is the only reach of the four which is actually a regulated drain, suggesting the need for cooperation between NPS and the Porter County Drainage Board.

Two people, meanwhile, urged NPS to create primitive camps for kayakers and other paddlers accessible only by water.

Two others want to see safe places made to lower boats into the water in Reach 4, at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk site.

And in general, folks agreed on the need for a lot more parking and staging areas, so that anglers and paddlers can much more easily access the water.

The Little Cal “is the jewel of the park system that nobody knows is there,” Weibl said. “And I think we need to find a responsible way of making it accessible.”


Persons can also provide comments on line at

A draft report should be completed by October or November.


Posted 6/16/2014





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