Are You Trespassing? Know the Rules of Indiana’s Waterways

Indiana Canoe Trips

Due to weather and various things breaking around my house I haven’t been able to get on the water much this summer, so I thought I’d put something together before they give my spot away to someone who has actually paddled a boat recently. Presenting the exciting subject of navigable waterways.

DISCLAMIER: This is not legal advice, merely information presented for your use. If you have questions about accessing a stream or river please consult your local Conservation Officer.

Several years ago a friend and I were paddling Sugar Creek in Boone County when we noticed standard No Trespassing signs, along with small signs on the trees. From our boats we could only make out “Notice Regarding Public Access to Sugar Creek” on the small signs, plus some very small print. Since it was a good time for a break, we stopped to read the small signs, too.

The small print warned that because Sugar Creek has not been designated a navigable waterway, touching the bank or creek bottom is trespassing. It was nice of them to post that in letters so small you have to be within a few feet to read them; then you have to trespass to find out you are trespassing.

Later I did some research to find out what defines a navigable waterway in Indiana, and what access is available – or unavailable – when a stream is not a navigable waterway. If you enjoy reading the Indiana Code and legal precedents, the link is below. Exciting stuff, and confusing as well, because while the courts ruled in 1950 that the test for navigability is whether a waterway was available and susceptible for navigation according to the general rules of river transportation at the time [1816] Indiana was admitted to the Union; they then went on to say that “whether the waters within the State under which the lands lie are navigable or non-navigable, is a federal” question and is “determined according to the law and usage recognized and applied in the federal courts”. (http://www.in.gov/nrc/2390.htm)

Basically, as the very small print said, if you’re on a waterway that isn’t on the Roster of Navigable Waterways, the title to the bed of the river belongs to the adjacent land owners. For waterways on the Roster, the State holds title to the riverbed, and access is granted up to the ordinary high water level. American Whitewater has more info here (https://www.americanwhitewater.org/content/Wiki/access:in). It’s worth reading to the end, especially for fishermen.

Do most property owners know the law, and care if you walk in the stream bed along their property? Probably not, unless they’ve had bad experiences with boaters on their property in the past – please don’t be the one to tip the balance against boaters if you do encounter an upset property owner. Politely get back in your boat and be on your way.

And if you have any doubts, consult the Roster by Waterway, or the Roster by County before you go.

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Doug Mark
Doug Mark is an avid paddling enthusiast who once paddled at least once per month for 36 months in a row and enjoys paddling in all weather. He was once awarded a paddle by Canoe & Kayak magazine for best letter of the month; he doesn't believe that the decision of the judges was swayed at all by three-fourths of the letters submitted coming from prison inmates.

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