Paddlers on the Wildcat Creek will soon be able to avoid one of the most dangerous sections of the 84-mile-long waterway that runs through Kokomo.
The Wildcat Guardians, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the river, last month received a $5,000 grant from the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO). The money will fund the construction of a portage trail around the low-head dam located by the Indiana American Water treatment plant between Ind. 931 and East Carter Street.
Once the project is complete, a gravel path will allow paddlers to pull out of the river before the dam and then put back on the creek downstream past the structure. At the same time, the trail will be the first permanent portage installed on the river.
Wildcat Guardian President Rick Parsons said the low-head dam in Kokomo is the last of its kind along the river, which once had many of the structures before they were eventually removed.
But the dam near the water treatment plant likely isn’t going anywhere, he said, since Indiana American Water pulls around 50 percent of the city’s drinking water from the Wildcat.
“From what we’ve been told, they’re not likely to have it removed because they depend on the dam to allow them to pull drinking water from the river,” Parsons said. “We’re all kind of responsible for that, because we’re drinking half our water from that source.”
“But as our charter states, we try to protect the Wildcat, and this dam is a very important safety issue,” he said.
That’s because low-head dams are extremely dangerous to paddlers and swimmers. Just last year, an Indianapolis woman drowned near a dam in Columbus after entering the river to rescue her dog.
Indiana's Department of Homeland Security said dams have caused at least 24 deaths in the state since 1997.
“They can be extremely dangerous because of the current they create,” Parsons said. “People who don’t paddle the creek a lot don’t realize how dangerous a river current can be. Even though it’s not too deep there, that’s not going to save you when the current pulls you in and swirls you around.”
Wildcat Guardians Treasurer Mike Bach said that’s something his group doesn’t want to see happen at the low-head dam in Kokomo. That’s why just last month, the nonprofit installed two signs along the river warning paddlers of the upcoming dam.
And even though the area isn’t a popular spot for canoeing or kayaking, a portage is the only way to ensure the safety of paddlers who do choose to use that portion of the river, Bach said.
“At first, we weren’t even sure we wanted to do it,” he said. “This project had so many hurdles to it. It’s such an inaccessible site. Was it even worth it? But we figured if it saves one life, it’s worth it. We said, ‘Well, duh, we’ve got to do it.’”
Parsons said they are currently in talks with the landowner and are hopeful the property on which the path will be located will be deeded to them at no cost.
He said they plan to hire a surveyor and contractors to help build the trail, which will be paved with gravel. The group aims to start the project sometime next year in late fall or winter.
Parsons said building the path will be an intense undertaking, since it will be located on what is now a steep incline filled with trees and thick undergrowth. But once it’s complete, the portage will be a permanent addition to the river that provides a long-term solution to the low-head dam.
“It’s going to take some extraordinary means to get rid of some of that vegetation and put the gravel in to make it easy for people to get out and get back in,” he said. “But it’s going to make life so much easier when people get in and out, and that’s not even considering the safety aspect.”