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Paddling the Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak Marathon

By Sigrid Pilgrim

May 17, 2015, will be the 58th year that the Des Plaines River Canoe and Kayak Marathon takes place starting in Libertyville and ending at Dam Number 2 in Prospect Heights in Northern Illinois’ Lake and Cook Counties.

Having participated in this event myself, both as a paddler and volunteer (albeit some years ago), I can honestly state that it is a paddle for everyone: from the biceps strutting, Camelback-energy-drink-sucking, serious competitor, to one couple I once saw stopping along the way to cook their hotdogs on a small portable grill along the bank – the key is that everyone who finishes before the official close of the event around 5 pm gets their desired and well deserved embroidered patch and has a great time along the way.

Thinking about participating? Then – sign up for the event by going to the event’s website: www.canoemarathon.com – and click on the Sign-Me-Up tab. Registration opened March 1, with an early registration discount of a few dollars until April 15. Boat Numbers, and therefore start times, are assigned by the registrar in the order that registrations are completed, with an effort made to accommodate special requests to assign multiple boats to the same heat if you want to paddle with your friends. Once registered, you will get all necessary instruction on what you need to do to participate in the event. But be sure to sign the waiver, and if you have a tandem partner, make certain he/she signs it as well.

On event day, when you get to the start line, drop your boat and gear, and then take your car to the finish line where, thanks to the efforts of the event organizers and a grant from the Forest Preserves of Cook County, you can hop on the free shuttle bus to bring you back to the start line. But plan your timing accordingly.

Starts take place in heats of 8 – every two minutes apart. While awaiting the start of your heat, you listen for the start call “5,4,3,2,1 GO!” Watch out for the wake created by the canoes and kayaks paddled by the serious pros, although these most often insist on having the first start times (they like to get up early).

Along the way on the river, even with hundreds of boats, there are times you may not encounter another paddler and are able to enjoy the beautiful scenery. The Des Plaines River is a natural resource in the greater Chicago metropolitan area and in the spring, wildflowers and blooming shrubs can be seen along the banks; signs of beavers on circled tree trucks are plentiful, and if you are lucky, a heron may guide you down the river as well; maybe you can even spot an occasional deer.

The early part of the course is narrow and winding with little, if any evidence of woody and trashy debris which is usually cleared previously in preparation for the event. Two mandatory portages, the Ryerson Dam and Dam #1 were removed a few years ago; but, depending on water levels, expect to still encounter one or more additional portages. In the upper sections are two small, usually runnable dams near Rte 60, Hollister Dam and Daniel Wright Woods Dam; both are slated for removal.

Along the way, you will also see signs on the bridges that are marked with “miles to go.” You will also meet volunteers from the Paddlers’ Patrol stationed near a few of the more challenging sections ready to render assistance if needed (infrequently). You will also paddle past the cement flood-control walls installed recently near the Executive Airport, past the Forest Preserve’s Trailside Museum, and finally you will reach the long-awaited “sprint” to the Finish Line.

This is where you will be rewarded for your effort: food, drink, music, pick up your t-shirt (preordered), get your embroidered patch, maybe even a medal or trophy (if you have large biceps) and socialize with friends, family and feel really good about yourself for having participated in the 58th Annual Des Plaines Canoe and Kayak Marathon. If you are reluctant to paddle the entire 18.5 mile course, there is a 5.25 mile non-competitive alternative Minithon available as well, starting at Potawatomie Woods in Dundee. Details on www.canoemarathon.com

For a great video of the 2005 event, check out

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2og2PMJ0bLM by Mark Morrall Films

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