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Dam Removal on the Lower Des Plaines – A History

By Don Mueggenborg

Lower Des Plaines

Thinking about Wally (story on my bucket list) brought back some memories.

The Des Plaines is – or is on its way – to being dam free. Story about the removal of the first two dams on the lower Des Plaines.

Dam in Lemont. I have seen pictures of people paddling and swimming above a dam in Lemont. Just before WW II, they wanted to put a pipeline across the river someplace above the dam. There were objections and an injunction was issued, but could not be served on a Sunday. The dam was removed with the idea that it would be rebuilt by the WPA or CCC (depression-era government employment programs).

However, the timing was bad. WW II started, WPA and CCC were ended, and the dam never was rebuilt.

Dam in Lockport. Two men drowned while paddling downstream of 135th Street. They were found below the dam in Lockport. The dam was owned by Material Service and, of course, a lawsuit was filed.

Enter Wally and his friends. They were in the area, coming up to paddle from the Peoria area. When they got to the dam, they were stopped by a security guard and sheriff’s police and told to paddle back upstream. If they got out of their canoes, they would be trespassing. Finally they were escorted off the property.

Wally called Ralph Frese who asked me to paddle with him and some lawyers to look over the site.

The lawyers asked if I would be an expert witness and would I say that they drowned going over the unmarked dam. When I said “probably” drowned going over the dam, they did not call me.

Later I met with people from Material Service who said they would remove the dam when the lawsuit was dropped.   They cleared a place to portage the dam more easily after the meeting.

Eventually the lawsuit was dropped and the dam removed. However, the easy takeout below the dam was suddenly off limits, as the Sanitary district put up “no parking” signs.

The effect of the dam removal. Faster water upstream and more water below the dam at “fishnet rapids.” It made it a better place to paddle, but the “no parking” signs made it a longer trip. Takeout at Lockport Prairie Forest Preserve or in Joliet.

Plan Ahead – Trips for the Summer

Don Mueggenborg

Now is the time to begin thinking about summer and where you are going to canoe. Here are some of my favorite trips. For more specific directions, contact me through the newsletter.


Great Circle Route – 6 (or is it 7) rivers in one trip.

Channahon, IL. Here is a chance to paddle several bodies of water in one trip.

Take I-55 or Rt. 47 to Rt. 6.   Rt. 6 to Canal St., south to Bridge St.

  • Park by the bike route where the road goes over the I&M Canal (south of the main park – Bridge St.)
  • Put in the DuPage River, paddle out to the Des Plaines (careful of the barges), cross over to Grant Creek.
  • At the bridge, portage over to the slough, paddle across the slough to the Kankakee River.
  • The Kankakee joins the Des Plaines to form the Illinois. Cross over, steep portage to the I&M canal, and return to the parking lot.   (Alternative – paddle upstream (west side of river) until you come to the shelter – portage to the canal.)

The IPC cruised this route several years ago. Might be a good trip to do again as a group – IPC and friends. Invite other clubs.

Probably about four hours.


Des Plaines River Expedition

This is a little longer trip – take it in stages. It can be done in 3 or 4 long days or more – but you could conquer it in stages. You might even use a car/bike shuttle in several stages. If there were campgrounds along the way, it would be perfect; however, most of the area along the river is urban (although you don’t know it most of the time you are on the river) and there are no campgrounds.

A bike trail runs along much of the river, from Oak Spring Road on the north to Dam # One on the south. (Check it out, there may be an open spot that I missed in that area.)

There is also a bike trail from Columbia Woods in Willow Springs (“River Through History” historical re-enactment held in September), past Lemont, to Isle a la Cache (135th Street, Romeoville – museum of Voyageur and Indian History).

A portion of the river from Oak Spring Road to Dam # 2 is the site of the Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon (held on May 23 this year – canoemarathon.com).

The river from Harlem Ave. portage site downstream is the route traveled first by Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette. Although the river has been channelized, you can find remnants of the original river, including Goose Lake and the islands at Isle a la Cache.

You start at Russell Road at the state line and end the trip at Ruby Street in Joliet. (The Des Plaines River continues, but is really the Ship and Sanitary Canal.)


Cross Illinois by Canoe

Even more ambitious. You can paddle across Illinois by canoe with just one auto portage necessary. (If you can find where Bureau Creek enters the Illinois, you might make it without a mechanical portage.)

  • Start at the state line on the Kankakee River
  • Kankakee River to the Illinois
  • Illinois to the Hennepin Canal (some nice campsites on the canal)
  • Hennepin (Illinois-Mississippi Canal) to the Green River to the Rock (portage the dam by entering the I&M canal and back to the river) to the Mississippi (paddle upstream) to Sunset Park

We found campsites at:

  • Werner Bridge, Kanakee State Park (Day 1 for us)
  • Stratton State Park, Morris (Day 2)
  • Wyanet on the Hennepin Canal (Day 3 – we had to do a car shuttle to make this work)
  • Geneseo on the canal (Day 4)

We did it in 5 days – we paddled steadily.

Linda White, Former IPC president

By Don Mueggenborg

Linda White, former IPC president and champion marathon racer, died October 13, 2016.

Linda was IPC president from 1983 to 1984. She was IPC treasurer from 1985 to 1991.

When Linda took over as president, the Illinois paddling Council was going through one of its transition periods. She helped the transition go smoothly. She was a voice of reason as president and board member.

She seemed to always have a smile on her face and a laugh. She was a very upbeat person. After her health prevented her from racing, she often showed up at races just to say hi and encourage people.

Linda and her husband Doug showed up at the St Charles Canoe Club practice one day with an aluminum canoe. They would paddle by themselves until they were noticed by a couple paddlers who gave them pointers. Before you knew it, they were an active part of the paddling community.

They became champion racers. She often raced with her husband Doug, but also with others in Women’s or Mixed. Many a race I battled Linda and Ed Hahn, when Doug was racing C-1. Whoever she paddled with, they were usually the best on the water. Linda was probably the best woman paddler in Illinois for several years. She won mixed couples racing in 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, and1989; she won women’s in 1984 and 1990. Linda was also one of the smartest paddlers I knew.

On a personal note:

It always amazed me how such a small woman could be such a good paddler. I have paddled with many people over the years, and with some of the best, you can feel the boat move when they make a stroke. When I raced with Linda, you hardly knew she was there, but we always finished first in our class, if not first in the race. I was glad to know her as a friend.

My Bucket List for 2017

By Don Mueggenborg

I have paddled most of the rivers in Illinois, but am missing a few. So – my goal is to paddle one or two that I have missed. Want to join me? I would love to have some company.

Calumet and Thorne Creek

I paddled on the Calumet about 40 years ago, maybe longer than that. The section we paddled was interesting, but urban. Improvements have been made and a boat launch added.


We drove over the river a couple weeks ago and I realized that I never followed up after Wally (can’t remember last name) gave me directions on where I could paddle and some warnings about where I should not paddle. (Seems some of the property owners have had poor experiences with some people who use canoes to do their littering – note I did not dignify them by calling them paddlers).

Southern Rivers

I have not paddled the Cache and Muddy Rivers, but that might be another year away.


Mr. Canoe

Ralph FreseAt the beginning of the film, Mr. Canoe, we hear the voice of Ralph Frese over images of re-enactors dressed in traditional Voyageur explorer outfits, paddling in replica Native American birch bark canoes:

“The canoe is the only trail that take us through nature without leaving a trace of our passing.”

The statement is both iconic and ironic in respect to Mr. Frese, as he left much more than a trace after his passing. Indeed, his legacy left an indelible impression on all who truly knew him.

In November of 2012, Octane Rich Media (www.octanerichmedia.com) began filming a documentary about Mr. Frese, the Chicagoland Canoe Base that he founded, and his intriguing band of devout followers. Less than a few weeks after endeavoring to tell the tale of Ralph Frese, he passed away. The filmmakers began a four year odyssey to interview the people whose lives he touched and influenced, including the adventurers and explorers inspired by Ralph Frese to undertake the longest, most arduous canoe journeys in over three hundred years: The twentieth century re-enactments of the Joliet Marquette and the LaSalle Expeditions, traversing waters from Montreal, through the Great Lakes, and through the heart of the country via the mighty Mississippi.

James Forni, the Director and Executive Producer, and Joshua Jones, the Director of Photography and Editor of the film, combed through archive materials, films, radio and television interviews spanning a half century to craft the complex portrait of one of Chicago’s most interesting and influential citizens. A key piece of the archive involved carefully restoring the 16mm film from the 1973 Joliet Marquette Expedition. We learn that Ralph was both inspiration to fellow paddlers and a superb craftsmen, one of the last blacksmiths in Chicago, an ardent historian, and passionate environmentalist. While the title of Mr. Canoe was originally and rightfully the sobriquet attributed to Ralph Frese, it also became evident that the name belonged to his proteges as they have carried forth his traditions, like the portages they shared with Ralph over the decades.

One of the central stories explored in the film is the LaSalle Expedition – referred to as LaSalle Expedition II. Inspired by the bicentennial celebration, it was the only historical re-enactment traversing both Canada and the United States in 1976. A crew of roughly twenty men canoed and portaged 3,300 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico in 34-foot canoes and handmade clothing, with little modern equipment, in a Tricentennial re-enactment of LaSalle’s 1676 Expedition through the United States. We discover that the nine-month expedition was funded by a group of donors who raised a significant amount of money for the challenging and resource-draining trip, long before the advent of crowd funding.

The crew was supported by a team of dozens of on-land coordinators as they touched the lives of thousands, making stops along the rivers at towns and major cities to give educational presentations, sing French Voyageur songs, and spread a message of conservation, while teaching the public about the American Midwest’s often forgotten, or ignored, French history. While the crew had support along the way, the voyage occurred purely due to the perseverance of the re-enactors, paddling down Americas’s rivers and streams, hauling canoes across a frozen South Bend, Indiana, during one of the worst winters of the 20th century. The feat and journey to an outsider, which all of the men on the voyage once were, seems ludicrous. Who possibly could have convinced two dozen men to put their lives on hold for months to attempt something so difficult, dangerous, and seemingly impossible? A canoe maker from Chicago named Ralph Frese.

A generation after the expedition, the cast of unique characters speak about their memories of the trip with

remarkable vividness and insight into how our country views its history and environment. To the uninitiated, the extensive historic celebrations shown in the film at Fort De Chartres in Illinois, and the Feast of the Hunter’s Moon on the Wabash River in Indiana, will be a revelation.

The story of Ralph references how once a boy, who loved nature and happened to take an interest in boats, became an undisputed authority on all things canoes, including their astonishing place in the history of North America, both before and after the arrival of European settlers. A third generation blacksmith, Ralph eventually converted part of his father’s blacksmith shop into a place to build and forge canoes. With the deeply felt belief that a canoe is the finest way to experience the wilderness, Frese pursued re-creating Indian birchbark canoes and the canoes of the French Voyageurs. In many ways an entirely self-educated man, Frese cultivated an archive of French Voyageur artifacts, a library of information about canoes and their history, and fed an obsession with the Midwest’s under-represented French influence. We discover through the film that though he was argumentative, meticulous, and in his later years a bit of a curmudgeon, he was always an instigator and with a well-earned reputation for getting people to do what they would never do otherwise, things they would have never thought themselves capable of doing.

Many of the endearing scenes surround the witnessing of the many tributes to him: from Alderman Tim Cullerton’s official posthumous dedication of the Honorary Ralph Frese Way on the property of the Chicagoland Canoe Base, to the thousands of people who showed up to participate in the Des Plaines River Marathon, a race he created, the year after his passing, and the donation of his unique, historical archives to the newly founded Chicago Maritime Museum in Chicago’s Bridgeport community.

Mr. Canoe is, finally, a study in pursuing your passion and a glimpse into how the delight of a life-long obsession can inspire others from different walks of life to follow a dream. The Mr. Canoe documentary feature film is set to release in the spring of 2017 from production company Octane Rich Media and its recently formed film studio: Octango Films. Details on festival screenings and DVDs will become available next year.

The filmmakers are soliciting Ralph Frese memories and materials.  Click here to learn how to contribute.

Ralph Frese
Ralph Frese at Chicagoland Canoe Base, November 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
From Left to Right: Reid Lewis, Rich Green, Bill Derrah filmed at the Fort Des Chartres Rendezvous 2014 for the upcoming feature documentary Mr. Canoe
Photo from the 1976 LaSalle Expedition II
Illustration: Engraving of Pipe Smoking Voyageur from the feature documentary Mr. Canoe
Bill Derrah and Rich Gross, featured interview subjects from Mr. Canoe
The Feast of the Hunter’s Moon Celebration, 2014

Mr. Canoe – Your Contributions Needed

Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012
Chicagoland Canoe Base, 2012

The filmmakers for the upcoming documentary, Mr. Canoe, set to release in 2017, are seeking submissions from any paddler with memories of, photos, or correspondence with the late Mr. Ralph Frese – the subject of the film. If you have any previous contact with Ralph Frese and would like to share your memories, you may send an email to Sigrid H. Pilgrim at spconsult@comcast.net.

Materials may be sent to the film makers at the following address. Contents will be scanned, photographed, and returned, provided you include a return address. Deadline for submission is December 1, 2016. Any material used in the final film will receive mention in the credits. You will receive a release letter to verify that you are the sole owner of the material and can grant the usage of it in the film.


Octane Rich Media

C/O Mr. Canoe Documentary

500 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 600

Chicago IL 60611


For additional information about the film, click on this link.

Illinois’s Friendliest Paddle: Pecatonica River

By Don Mueggenborg

I just took a trip on the most crooked river in Illinois.   I hardly believed the bends and switchbacks.

This is November, I really didn’t paddle the river, I checked out the map on the internet.

Over the years, I have paddled and raced the Pec – I think I paddled all of it from the state line, through Freeport to the city of Pecatonica, to the Two Rivers landing.   Not at one time, but in stretches.

What do you find on the Pec?

First of all, you can see the work of a dedicated group of people who have built some pretty good canoe landings. Bobtown Landing and Damascus Landing, to name a couple.

Not too many years ago, one of the paddlers from the area ran into a problem with rules and regulations. You had to get permission ahead of time to use the park boat landing.  When he tried to take out after paddling, he found out about the law.  He and his friends decided to change things.

They asked for IPC input to convince the local authorities that this was not a good thing. (They also served on the IPC board)

Then they went ahead and started improving the landing sites on the river. They have been successful beyond their dreams.

They hold an annual race on the Pec also.

Second, you find a peaceful winding river. Not many road crossings, not many buildings, just miles of stream to paddle and enjoy.  Of course there is the wildlife – birds, deer.

Just the place for a get-away.

Use your maps, and you can paddle downstream and bike back to your vehicle over a trail or country roads.

If you encounter locals, they will be friendly.

Illinois’s Friendliest Paddle (video): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GqfjnQk-U4


  • Trip #1 – 6.2 miles – Brewster Landing to McConnell Bobtown Landing
  • Trip #2 – 7.9 miles – McConnell Bobtown Landing to McNeil’s Damascus Landing
  • Trip #3 – 8 miles – McNeil’s Damascus Landing to Wes Block Trail Head
  • Trip #4 – 6.2 miles – Wes Block Trail Head to Tutty’s Crossing in Freeport
  • Trip #5 – 1/2 mile or 3 mile – Tutty’s Crossing to Hancock Ave Boat Ramp or VFW
  • Trip #6 – 16 miles – Hancock Ave Boat Ramp to Ridott Fishing Park
  • Trip #7 – 7 miles – Ridott Fishing Park to Atten’s Landing
  • Trip #8 – 7 miles – Atten’s Landing to Pecatonica Village Park


Congratulations To The Friends Of The Pecatonica Foundation

For Winning the American Canoe Association’s Green Paddle for Waterway Conservation Award

green paddle

There once was a creek in Freeport

Yellow was its name

And paddlers needed to report

When launching a canoe in the same

A written permit was needed

To put in a river just knee deep

So for help they came asking

And dozens of letters were tasking

The City Officials for permits

When one of them finally said “That’s it –

no more written requests to go paddling.”

And even a launch site was opened.

Which was more than the paddlers had hopened!  (it had to rhyme)

And the rest is history!

This was the beginning of the involvement of Joe Ginger, Lee Butler, Roger Schamberger, and the many friends who eventually formed www.paddlethepec.com  and the Friends of the Pecatonica Foundation (http://pecriver.org/) to help restore, appreciate and celebrate, a nearby river – the Pecatonica.

Their efforts over the past decade are deservedly recognized by the American Canoe Association with their Green Paddle for Waterway Conservation Award.


Check out the Friendliest Paddle in Illinois here, and join the Friends on one of the many trips they offer.
























New IDNR Regulations on Boat Liveries

Below is information that DNR has decided to use as the standard for boating safety:

“The operators of boat rental services shall offer abbreviated Department and National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) approved operating and safety instruction specific to the type of watercraft being rented to the renter and all potential operators”

Therefore it is NASBLA approved and specific to the type of watercraft.  The website for that education is http://rentalboatsafety.com/, and is on our site at http://www.dnr.illinois.gov/boating/Documents/Boat%20Rental%20Services.pdf  We also have the American Canoe Association link on our website as well that people can visit.

Canoe/Kayak Rentals

The specific information pertaining to canoes and kayaks can be found here:  http://rentalboatsafety.com/canoe-kayak.php – the page that has the instructional videos and the test pertinent to canoe and kayak renters.

While there seems to be a conflict with the wording on the page “Approved abbreviated course for watercraft rental purposes”  (rentalboatsafety.com) that references compliance with the Illinois Boating Safety Certificate requirements (checking this out shows that it pertains to motor boats only), this Admin Rule does include renters of canoes and kayaks, too.

The idea behind the legislation is to reduce canoe/kayak accidents involving rental operations where often the renter has no paddling experience at all. It is supposed to work as follows:

  • when a person calls up a canoe/kayak rental place to rent a boat – the livery or rental business needs to tell the potential renter to go to the website, watch the videos/take the test/print out the certificate and then bring that with him/her to rent the boat
  • same day walk-ups can be instructed on site by watching the videos or taking the test

Book Review: Hard Rivers – The LaSalle II Expedition, Author: Craig P. Howard

By Sigrid Pilgrim

Some of you may remember the reenactment of the Marquette & Joliet Expedition by Ralph Frese, which in turn lead to La Salle: Expedition II, a reenactment of the 1681-82 voyage of La Salle from Montreal to the Gulf of Mexico for which Ralph also built the six canoes.

I just received a copy of the book that Craig Howard wrote about LaSalle II and it is such fascinating reading that I could not put it down. Although I am not quite through (it’s over 300 pages) since Amazon just delivered it two days ago, I would urge anyone interested in not only  history, but also learning more about Ralph, and most importantly, the incredible journey that the crew of seven adults and sixteen teenage boys accomplished, to read this book. Reading about the three-year preparation in the selection of the crew, the interpersonal relationships among the expedition members, and the hardships encountered during this 3,300 mile journey, have left me almost unable to put the book down.

I learned of the book by chance, after PaddlingLife.net published the summary of this year’s Des Plaines Marathon event. The book’s author, Craig Howard, saw the item and subsequently contacted the editor, who forwarded me his note. I asked Craig how he was able to write this book and here is his response:

“Like the expedition itself, it was a team effort. Many people pitched in to tell their stories. My job was to stitch together their stories, to let them tell it as it was, and to keep the heck out of their way. Many things deserve to be remembered, and this expedition is one of those. Shakespeare’s Marc Antony spoke the truth of it in Julius Caesar: ‘The good (that men do) is oft interred with their bones.’  Expedition II falls into this category.”  

Postscript: A second book on the LaSalle II Expedition has been written by Lorraine Boissoneault, who will talk about it in a presentation October 20, at the Evanston History Center. See details here (scroll down 1/2 page)