By Don Mueggenborg
It took a while, but the Kankakee has been named a National Waterway.
The process started about 10,000 years ago when the melting glacier broke through the moraines holding it back from Lake Erie (wasn’t called Lake Erie then). A wall of water surged forward, carving out a wide valley and leaving a great wetland.
The wetland attacked many forms of wildlife – called by some the “Everglades of the North.” Through this wetland flowed a river. The natives called it the Aukiki or Theatiki or Kankakee.
The river flowed through Indiana and Illinois. A beautiful stream, clear water.
In the 1600’s and 1700’s, Voyageurs used the river as a highway. LaSalle and Tonti used this river as a main route between Montreal and Mackinaw Island to the Illinois River. A short, flat portage at South Bend the only obstacle, it would have been a national waterway, but we had no nation. Later in Indiana, it would become a hunting favorite for Presidents and dignitaries from Europe. In Illinois, the backwaters housed bank robbers and horse thieves.
Now, another 100 years later, the Kankakee River has been named a National Waterway. Most of the channelized portions in Indiana have been taken over by nature. Wooded banks, beaver, fish, deer and a good river to paddle. In Illinois, where the river was not channelized, there are more bends, and a faster current.
Unlike some major rivers, the Kankakee does not flow through many major urban areas, so it is often tree lined and natural.
I have paddled sections of the Kankakee in Indiana and the length of the river in Illinois.
Fun, scenic with public access points close enough to make a pleasant trip. As the river flows into Illinois, the current increases. Immediately, the river bends and curves.
My favorite section is above Momence. A paddle to the state line and back might take three hours – but if you start at the state line (car shuttle), it is a fast, good trip. The river meanders and bends, and sand bars at the bends will take up ½ the river. Read the river and enjoy.
The most popular section is from Bird Park in Kankakee to Warner Bridge, Kankakee State Park. Canoes, tubers float past. Some river reading will keep your feet dry. Neat island and sandstone cliffs along the way.
You can paddle the whole length of the river in both Indiana and Illinois. There are frequent public access sites.
CAUTION: Some laws you should observe.
Momence – no canoes on the island (access on east side of island)
Kankakee – you cannot portage at the dam (portage at the park a block or so before the dam – river left)
Wilmington – you cannot portage the dam (run the mill race river right and then portage down the hill)
The Kankakee meets the Des Plaines at Dresden, and becomes the Illinois River.
KANKAKEE RIVER MEMORY
Shortly after we started canoe racing, my friend Dave (Peanut Butter) heard about a race on the Kankakee in Indiana. No racing canoes.
We brought our Sawyer Cruiser and immediately saw that we were in a different class than most of the boats. Aluminum canoes with young men in their late teens and early twenties were our competition.
A local “Boys” club had bought a voyageur canoe and were hoping to raise some money to pay off the purchase. The young men were either part of the club or alumni.
A la mans start – run across the parking lot – left us way behind. Shortly after the start, a boat dumped. We helped them and their canoe to shore, paddled downstream, and returned with their paddles. And within twenty minutes or so, we had passed everyone.
We were actually embarrassed, but apparently the spectators were not. At each bridge, spectators asked my wife, our pit crew, if the “old men” had come by yet (we were in our 40s). We would wait around bends for the other canoes so we did not finish too far ahead.
The finish was under a bridge on a rural road. A flat grassy area at the take-out.
1st place was a cash prize – $100. I took it, gave it to Dave, who counted it and gave it to the race sponsor.
BUT – THAT IS NOT THE END OF THE STORY.
Several years later, there was a re-enactment at the Kankakee Marsh County Park.
Things had changed – that rural road and grassy spot was now a nice county spot in the restored wetlands. Way to go, Indiana!
I saw a Park Ranger – a young man. “Years ago, there was a race on the river that ended here. Do they still have the race?” I asked.
The ranger replied. “We only held it one year and two old guys whipped us good!”
Then he added – “You’re one of them!”
And I felt good, not that he recognized me, but that one of the boys was now working as a park ranger to help preserve the river and wetlands, and that the state and county were working to preserve the area for the future.