Slow and steady, we shimmy our kayaks in pairs down a washed-out gravel slope under the Waverly Road bridge – a make-shift launch on the southern edge of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It’s not an easy departure, but that’s what comes with paddling a remote section of the Little Calumet River that hasn’t seen kayaks in nearly 35 years.
To boost preservation, conservation-minded park leadership deemed the Little Calumet “maintenance-free” for more than a quarter of a century. The once paddle-heavy water trail soon became clogged with log jams and overgrown brush in the mid-80s, catching debris flowing downstream like nets ever since.
But a shift in administration over the past few years has put the Lakeshore back into the hands of recreation-focused leaders. Restoration work over a six-year period by The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and partners Shirley Heinze Land Trust, Save the Dunes, the National Park Service and more, helped to re-establish the east branch of the Little Calumet River in fall 2016.
We push away from the cement walls of the underpass, and our kayaks glide to the center of the slow-moving river. Sunshine peeks through the overlapping beech, oak and hickory canopy overhead. We glide around curvy banks lined with basswood, sassafras and witch hazel, the occasional sound of hollow scraping against our hulls echoing as we pass over gravel-strewn fords and hidden tree trunks.
I glance over to my friend floating alongside. A beaming grin on her face mirrors mine. I take it as an affirmation: this was well worth the effort.
Distance: 3 miles
Time: 1.5 hours
1. From the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center, drive IN-49 south for .3 miles to E. Oak Hill Rd. Turn right.
2. Follow E. Oak Hill Rd. for .9 miles to Waverly Rd. Turn left.
3. Follow Waverly Rd. south for .5 miles, pulling off to park at the Waverly Rd. bridge overpass at Little Calumet River.
4. Launch kayak underneath Waverly Rd. bridge. Turn left to follow Little Calumet River west.
5. Paddle 1 mile and continue under the I-94 overpass.
6. Paddle 1.2 miles and continue under the U.S. 20 overpass.
7. Paddle .8 miles to end at Howe Rd. bridge.
Launch 41.622206, -87.067360; under the Waverly Rd. / Little Calumet River bridge Season Spring and summer for wildlife viewing and blooming season; late summer and autumn for foliage and bird migrations.
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is home to more than 360 different bird species. In the summer, watchers huddle at Cowles Bog to catch a glimpse of flocks wading in the area’s lush, wetland marsh. But in the winter, the only white these birds will find on the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan is snow. The dunes’ location at the southern tip of Lake Michigan serve as the perfect migratory stopover for south-bound birds, including sandhill cranes and a variety of hawks.