A local landowner has donated 1 acre of property along the Wildcat Creek to allow a nonprofit group to build a portage around one of the most dangerous sections of the 84-mile-long waterway that runs through Kokomo.
David Rayl donated the land last week to NICHES (Northern Indiana Citizens Helping Ecosystems Survive) Land Trust, a nonprofit that aims to protect, restore and sustain northern Indiana’s ecosystems.
The land will serve as a portage site around the river’s last low-head dam, located by the Indiana American Water treatment plant, between Indiana 931 and East Carter Street.
The portage trail will be constructed by the Wildcat Creek Guardians, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the river, which received a $5,000 grant in April for the project from the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO).
The Guardians are now working to get the necessary permit to create the portage and plan to construct the project over the winter.
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 creek.
Wildcat Guardian President Rick Parsons said in a previous interview 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.
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.
That’s why earlier this year, the nonprofit installed two signs along the river warning paddlers of the upcoming dam.
Wildcat Guardians Treasurer Mike Bach said the area isn’t a popular spot for canoeing or kayaking, but the portage trail is the only way to ensure the safety of paddlers who do choose to use that portion of the river.
“At first, we weren’t even sure we wanted to do it,” he said in a previous interivew. “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.’”
Gus Nyberg, executive director of NICHES Land Trust, said the partnership between his group and the Wildcat Guardians to build the portage is a "great step forward."
"We’re grateful that the Wildcat Creek Guardians chose to work with us on this project," he said in a release. "We look forward to future projects together to help people get out and enjoy nature safely."