The Elkhart River was named by the Indians for one of the river's islands which they thought resembled an elk's heart. The river rises from the lake country of northern Noble and southern Lagrange Counties. It begins as two branches which join and flow in a generally northwestern direction before entering the St. Joseph River at the City of Elkhart. The river is fairly shallow and quite slow-moving as it flows through the scenic farm and woodland of northern Indiana. The upper reaches of the Elkhart River are bordered on either side by marshland which comprises the largest single unit of remaining wetland in the state. There is little current so plan on continuous paddling for the entire float.
Also of interest is the large Amish population in the area. Their unique lifestyle has been preserved as they have pursued a very basic agricultural existence while shunning the luxuries and conveniences most of us enjoy.
Of note to the canoeist are the many log jams and heavy aquatic vegetation present in the upper reaches of the river. This makes navigation difficult and in high water the jams become potential traps. Also, be watchful for wire fencing which may be strung across the stream to contain livestock. Supplies or medical assistance may be obtained in either Goshen or Elkhart but it is recommended that food and water be carried.
As might be expected from the description of the river, a great variety of waterfowl can be observed on the Elkhart along with the many mammal species common to the state. Game fish species present include northern pike, smallmouth bass, rock bass, and others. There are many state-owned and operated recreational facilities in the area including Chain O'Lakes State Park, Tri-County State Fish & Wildlife Area, and the Gene Stratton Porter Memorial Woods, Edna Spurgeon Nature Preserve and the Lloyd Bender Preserve are held by private organizations but are open to the public.
State Road 13 to Waterford Mills
Put in at the State Road 13 bridge, 1/2 mile south of Millersburg. There is room to park one or two vehicles on the road shoulder and use of the southwest corner of the bridge is recommended. This is a trip of about 12 miles and should take about five hours to float. An old canal greets canoeists on their right about 1 1/2 hours downstream. The canal was originally built in conjunction with a dam for the generation of hydroelectric power. Today the dam is gone but the canal offers a 30-minute short cut as it returns to the river. To take the canal, bear to your right. About 1 1/4 miles after the canal rejoins the river you will come to a small dam which can be portaged on the right. You can take out further downstream at Waterford Mills where County Road 40 crosses. The southwest corner provides the best exit. To reach this site by auto take County Line Road west from Millersburg to State Road 15, then turn north and continue to Waterford Mills where you will turn west on "Bridge Road." The bridge is about 1/4 mile west of town.
Waterford Mills to Oxbow Park
Another five hour float will take you from Waterford Mills to Oxbow Park. The park provides for group canoe camping and is operated by the Elkhart County Park and Recreation Department. Prior approval to camp must be obtained from the Elkhart County Park and Recreation Department, 113 N. 3rd St., Goshen, IN 46526. At the upper end of the Goshen Pond you will be faced with a choice of two channels. The river is on your left and a canal is on the right, so bear left. Portage the dam on the right side. After passing through Goshen and traveling about four miles north of the city, watch for a park on your left. Entrance to the park by car is from U.S. 33, about midway between Goshen and Elkhart. To reach the park by car from Waterford Mills, take State Road 15 to Goshen. Pick up U.S. 33 west in town and proceed to the park entrance (on your right).
Oxbow Park to Island Park
It is a short three-hour float from Oxbow Park to Island Park in Elkhart. The park is an island at the confluence of the Elkhart and St. Joseph Rivers and makes an excellent access site. There is a dam about 1/2 mile before the confluence which must be negotiated. Portage on the left. To reach the park take U.S. 33 into Elkhart and turn right on Sycamore Street which will take you into the park.
Studebaker Park, located upstream of Island Park is also available for canoe access, picnicking and restroom facilities. For further information on conditions and camping sites contact the Elkhart County Park Department, the Elkhart Park Department, or the Goshen Park Department.
Another float in the area is a float of about 6 miles which is available in Chain O' Lakes State Park. Canoes may be rented for use in the park and in early spring the entire chain can be floated, which adds considerable length to the trip. Also available are facilities for boating, camping, fishing, picnicking, horseback-riding and swimming.