The Lake Michigan Water Trail – a paddling route around the shorelines of all four states of this wonderful Great Lake – has been in development for at least a half-dozen years. You may have heard about it, and wondered where we are in the effort. The vision — an official, cohesive water trail continuous around the entire lake, with access and exit points every five miles, with camping along some shores, world-class scenery and off-trail amenities – is majestic and inspiring.
The foundation for achieving this vision was laid in June, 2011, when the US Department of Interior designated the Lake Michigan shoreline from New Buffalo Michigan, across the entire Indiana coast, and the complete City of Chicago lakefront as a National Recreational Trail (NRT). The powerhouse behind this 75-miles of trail designation was the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association (NWIPA). NWIPA leadership solicited letters of support for the trail designation, negotiated with Indiana landowners and the Chicago Park District, and jumped the hurdles required to get this first portion of the trail approved.
It was a big job, but their work will make our job – getting national recreational trail designation extended up the Illinois coast to Wisconsin, and beyond – easier. The Illinois Paddling Council recently learned that to extend the Lake Michigan trail the 40 miles from Leone Beach in Chicago north through Illinois Beach State Park will not require a separate application for trail designation. We can piggy back on the work done by the Indiana paddlers. What’s needed? Local enthusiasm by paddler groups and other stakeholders. This means letters of support from the local landowners (read: lakeside Park Districts) saying they support extension of the trail designation, and from IPC paddlers and friends.
Once the Illinois and Indiana NRTs are established, the IPC and NWIPA can lead the application for National Water Trail designation for the full circle, 4-state Lake Michigan shoreline. And while we are working on completing the trail on the Illinois shore, Michigan paddlers will be doing the same on the east coast of the Lake.
What is a National Recreational Trail? These trails are designated by the US Secretary of Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture as exemplary trails of local and regional significance. The National Recreation Trails Program supports designated trails with an array of benefits, including promotion, technical assistance, networking, and access to funding. The aim is to promote the use and care of existing trails and stimulate the development of new trails.
These goals match the IPC’s top priorities – to develop water trails and improve access to Illinois Waterways. That’s what we do, and that’s why this project is important to us. The IPC has been instrumental in seeking National Water Trail designation for the Kankakee River, and has supported public access and trail development on rivers throughout northeast Illinois. Now it’s time to add Lake Michigan to this network of water trails.
The Lake Michigan NRT extension on the Illinois shore will provide communities with all that water trails often bring: social and economic opportunities; recreational and health benefits, and opportunities for stewardship, both on the Lake and on the shore. The remaining 40 miles of Illinois Shore is made up of five suburban communities in Cook County (Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, and Glencoe) and nine coastal towns in Lake County (Highland Park, Highwood/Ft. Sheridan, Lake Forest, Lake Bluff, North Chicago, Waukegan, Zion and Winthrop Harbor). The coastal terrain is sandy dunes, which transition to ravines and bluffs, through the industrial shores and working harbor at Waukegan, ending at the sandy shores and campgrounds at Illinois Beach State Park. Working with 14 or more landowners can be complicated, but so far, local governments have been excited about this project. In fact, the IPC, partnering with the Illinois Shore Committee for the Lake Michigan Trail Network, has already had these successes:
- Safety: The Illinois Lake Michigan coast, while the most populated of the Great Lakes, did not have a real-time, near shore weather data buoy. Maritime forecasts had to depend on in-lake data from buoys in Milwaukee and Indiana. With the support of our Illinois Shore Committee, Purdue University was able to fund and deploy a near shore weather buoy off Winnetka last summer. The buoy comes back on-line for the summer this month.
- Access: The 14 coastal communities on the North Shore have varying levels of public access. Wealthier communities offer many beachfront amenities, for a price. But in Lake County, there are beaches closed for lack of resources or because of contamination. The Illinois Shore Committee is advocating for the re-opening of Foss Park Beach in North Chicago, and partnered with the Waukegan Port District to place a new, free canoe launch – with parking – in Waukegan Harbor. The Harbor, long contaminated by toxins, has been cleaned up, is now safe for human contact, and paddling is newly encouraged.
- Special needs: The Waukegan Port District, with funding partners, will install a handicap-accessible canoe and kayak launch at the new canoe landing in Waukegan Harbor. This will be the first assisted launch on the Illinois shore of Lake Michigan.
Next steps for Lake Michigan trail progress in Illinois include an interactive, crowd-sourced map of the proposed trail extension, where paddlers can share their experiences as they tour this part of the coastline, and an extensive letter-of-support campaign.