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A water trail forged more than a decade ago continues to inspire the local paddlers who organize the annual Trail Creek Fun Float in Michigan City.

The fun float, which begins 9 a.m. today and kicks off the paddling season, is an approximate 5-mile loop from Washington Park to Friendship Gardens.

Dan Plath, founder and former president of the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, said the event was born from a rescue mission in 2007. Local residents and officials met the year prior to discuss how to clean up the polluted Trail Creek, which resulted in the publication of a comprehensive watershed management plan.

Plath, then an employee of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said the plan was sound, but the public had no way to enjoy the creek, which was jammed with logs and debris. So he and other volunteers worked with local officials to clear the river's logjams, allowing it to be traversed by kayak, canoe and paddleboard. In celebration, they organized the first Trail Creek Fun Float.

Plath said after the cleaning they realized there was a pent-up demand in the community for paddling events. In 2009, he founded the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, and the organization has scored some significant victories in its almost 10-year history.

In 2011, a 75-mile water trail along the Lake Michigan shoreline from Chicago to New Buffalo, Michigan, was designated as a National Water Trail by the National Park Service. An 133-mile stretch of the Kankakee River from northeastern Illinois to northwestern Indiana was designated a National Water Trail in 2016.

The group also has organized dozens of paddling events throughout Northwest Indiana, introducing the sport to a whole new generation of outdoor enthusiasts.

Adding new water trails

Natalie Johnson, a board member for the NWIPA and executive director of Save the Dunes, said she was introduced to paddling 10 years ago while attending college in Missouri. She said the day she moved to Northwest Indiana, she participated in the Trail Creek Fun Float, which has remained her favorite event of the year.

“Trail Creek is absolutely gorgeous,” she said.

“As you wind down the river path, it eventually goes into a wooded area. To watch it change from the marinas to the boats, and suddenly this wilderness, its an amazing transition. It's gorgeous, and a really peaceful experience, especially for people paddling for the first time.”

The group also continues its tradition of forging new water trails in Northwest Indiana. For three years, experienced paddlers, including Plath, have volunteered their time to remove debris from an approximately 8-mile stretch of the east branch of the Little Calumet River, an arduous and ecologically sensitive project.

Record floods on the Little Calumet and Kankakee rivers caused new headaches for the volunteers, who began work last week to clear newly created logjams on the Little Calumet's east branch, Plath said.

He said the Kankakee River is cleaned up by the Kankakee River Basin Commission.

Plath said the NWIPA would continue its work allowing full access to the east branch of the Little Calumet River moving forward. He said the organization also was working with other groups to build launch sites that were accessible for disabled paddlers, and promoting a mindset of paddler safety.

The perfect spots to go kayaking in Northwest Indiana

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Lake County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Steve covers Lake County courts and social justice issues for The Times. The UW-Milwaukee graduate joined The Times in 2016 after reporting on criminal justice in New Mexico and Wisconsin.