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Paddling in Central Illinois

By Karen M. Kyle             May 9, 2016

Banner Marsh at Sunset
Banner Marsh at Sunset

Central Illinois is an area of mostly flat prairies, flattened ages ago by the glaciers and now part of the corn belt of America.  Some rolling hills and bluffs remain near the Illinois and Mississippi River Valleys, but in general, paddlers’ choices are primarily flatwater rivers, lakes, and marshes.  When the creeks are up, especially in the spring, there are some spots with more playful water for those interested in that sort of thing.

One of my favorite rivers in this area is the Middle Fork of the South Vermilion.  This is a beautiful, fun little river, near Danville, Illinois, with a nice current, local outfitters, and good camping.  The Middle Fork is Illinois’ first State Scenic River, designated as such in 1986.  In 1989, the Middle Fork was also designated as a National Scenic River. It is the first river in Illinois to be included in the National Wild Scenic Rivers System. The traditional trip is Kinney’s Ford to Kickapoo State Park.  Two feet on the Oakwood gauge means a nice water level.  It can be done lower though.  The outfitter at Kickapoo State Park is quite helpful if one has questions about water levels.  The DNR closes the river at four feet.

There are several beautiful, small, crystal clear lakes and ponds near the Middle Fork which also make for a nice paddle.

Close by, the Salt Fork of the South Vermilion is also nice and has decent water levels much later into the year than the Middle Fork.  It is less crowded, as there are no outfitters (except at the point where it joins with the Middle Fork).  The Salt Fork near St. Joseph is the gauge typically used to assess this section. It should be noted, though, that the water level, and not the cfs, is generally used to assess paddling this section, as the gauge is in a hole and thus the cfs often reads very low when the river is at a nice level for paddling.  It is usually paddled at levels under five feet and above three feet.

Central Illinois has a number of seasonal creeks which can offer more splashy water and the thrill of navigating narrow channels and avoiding deadfall.  I find creeks to be my favorite type of paddle, as the experience itself is constantly changing, even on the same creek.  Rather than listing them here, those creeks are best paddled initially with locals who know the proper water levels and when to go.  Joining local clubs can aid in getting experience in these trickier waters.

One of the most popular rivers in central Illinois is the Mackinaw River.  Very centrally located, this is a favorite river for the central Illinois-based Mackinaw Canoe Club.  Further west is the Spoon River – of Spoon River Anthology fame.  This is a narrow, intimate river especially beautiful during the peak fall foliage period, if the water levels are right.  Be aware the take-outs on the Spoon and Mackinaw can be uphill, challenging, and muddy at times.  Both of those frequently paddled rivers could benefit from improved put-ins and parking. Facilities are currently nonexistent.  These are both narrow rivers, which for most of the paddling season are slow, friendly rivers. Being narrow, however, they can easily become dangerous at high water levels and especially at flood. The Mackinaw River is usually paddled when the Congerville gauge is around two feet.  Over three feet, it can become pushy and it is not recommended at levels above four feet.  In 2015, two individuals died in separate incidents (one kayaking and one with an inner tube) when they attempted the river at flood.
The Sangamon River near New Salem is where Abraham Lincoln canoed as a young man.  The Lincoln Heritage Water Trail Association hosts Abe’s River Race typically around Memorial Day every year on that river.  In the fall, they also host a Canoe and Candlelight event, with a canoe and kayak trip followed by a candlelight exploration of New Salem.

The Hennepin Canal is also paddled.  It is popular with fisherman, and as a canal, can be paddled both directions. Paddling through the tubes or culverts is a nice photo op.  The locks, no longer in use, must be portaged, so trips are planned with the locations of the locks a consideration.  There is a nice bike trail along the side of the canal. This is very flat water suitable for beginners.

The bigger rivers in Illinois include, of course, the Illinois River itself and the Mississippi.  Every August, several small towns host the HLC paddle – (Henry-Lacon-Chillicothe) – a big event with numerous kayakers paddling that 17-mile main stretch on the Illinois.  Flying carp, although funny at first, are a serious problem on the river.  Noise startles and contributes to the carp jumping, so they are often seen during the HLC paddle.

Popular places to paddle on the Illinois River are the backwaters near Chillicothe, Hennepin, and other towns.  Flocks of pelicans are commonly seen in the backwaters.  It can feel remote and marsh-like, and is quite pretty.  It is easy to get turned around in the backwaters, though, so a GPS is helpful.  The backwaters are closed to paddling during waterfowl hunting season.  When the Illinois River is especially high, the land that is normally in the backwaters turns into wetlands and paddlers can enjoy “paddling the trees,” an especially fun type of paddle that usually happens in late spring.

The Mississippi River also has many popular paddles in the backwaters. Yearly – also in August – is the perennial Floatzilla event.  That is the quest to break the world’s record with the largest joined raft of kayak, canoes, and other floating modes of transport.  About 1,400 paddlers attended last year.  Although ending in Iowa, the paddle starts in Illinois, as the Mississippi straddles both states.

Surprisingly, the center of Illinois also has whitewater.  That is on the North Vermilion River near Matthiessen State Park.  That section of the river was closed for a number of years after a death.  Some changes were made to the river and the dam area, and it reopened a few years ago.  Wildcat Rapids is a class II-III drop suitable only with whitewater boats or rafts, or the inflatable self- bailing kayaks.  There is an outfitter, but no guides.  They will rent you helmets, a raft or inflatable kayak, and other equipment, but then you are pretty much on your own without much direction.  Rafts do tip over not uncommonly, and there are large rocks.  A helmet is mandatory.  There was a rockfall a number of years ago that changed the character of the drop at Wildcat Rapids.  The chute is no longer as described in Svob’s Paddling Illinois book, and scouting is recommended.  If you paddle that stretch, don’t miss the chance, shortly before the takeout, to sneak up a side creek and see the gorgeous waterfalls of Matthiessen State Park from the bottom.  You may have to park your kayak or raft and walk a little up the creek, but it is worth it.

Last but not least are the marshes and lakes of central Illinois.  Banner Marsh is one of my favorite paddles.  A solo paddle at sunset is beautiful and peaceful.  The marsh is a favorite spot of fisherman also.  There are numerous places to explore in the marsh, and the biggest problem for those new to the marsh is not getting lost.  A water trail was recently established in the east section.  The Main Section is much larger and more confusing, and plans are for a trail to be established there also.  Banner Marsh closes to paddling when waterfowl hunting season starts in mid-October.

Emiquon is a reclaimed wetland near where the Spoon River empties into the Illlinois.  There are abundant waterfowl there and it is a great photography spot for bird photographers.  Formerly to paddle there, one would fill out a free registration ticket at the nearby Dickson Mounds State Museum.  The museum, which has numerous Native American artifacts, was closed because of the Illinois budget crisis.  When the museum was closed, the tickets were available at the put-in near a drop box.  The State recently announced the museum will reopen on July 2, so I assume the tickets will be available there again also.

Evergreen Lake is a favorite paddle for those who live near Bloomington.  It has abundant birds and wildlife.  There is a $20 daily fee to paddle the lake for nonresidents. Locals typically buy a season pass.

Other popular lakes include Lake Springfield, Clinton Lake, and further south, Lake Shelbyville.

Paddling clubs – typically the best source of information – include the Mackinaw Canoe Club.  That is the oldest established club in the area and an ACA club member.  Other clubs include the Champaign Ski and Adventure club.  That club does frequent kayaking, along (obviously) with other sports.  The Central Illinois Canoe and Paddling Meetup (a meetup which I took over organizer duties of a few years ago) is another club also doing local trips, with attempts to dispense some general paddling information.  Team Dirt Clod is a whitewater club based mostly out of Springfield.

I love kayaking of all types and enjoy exploring new waters.  For anyone who wants to explore the waters of central Illinois, I hope my little summary of some of the more popular stretches helps.  Please be aware that any river levels quoted are for guidance only, as conditions can vary, the gauges themselves can change, and they are not a guarantee of safety.  It is always safest to paddle in groups, talk with locals for the most up-to-date information, and wear your PFD.

Here are links to the Mackinaw Canoe Club website and Facebook page:



Illinois Backwaters at Flood
Illinois Backwaters at Flood
Early Spring Paddle on the Mackinaw

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