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Federal Lawsuit Filed to Force Dynegy to Clean Up Toxic Pollution of Vermilion River

Federal Lawsuit Filed to Force Dynegy to Clean Up Toxic Pollution of Vermilion River
Recent Video Documents Continued Coal Ash Contamination of Illinois’ Only National Scenic River

Contact: Jenny Cassel, Earthjustice, jcassel@earthjustice.org or 215.717.4525
Andrew Rehn, Prairie Rivers Network, arehn@prairierivers.org or 217.344.2371 x 208

May 30, 2018 (Urbana, Illinois) — Prairie Rivers Network, represented by Earthjustice, today filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois to force Dynegy to clean up toxic coal ash dumps that are leaching harmful pollution into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois’ only National Scenic River. Newly-released videodocuments the pollution at issue in the lawsuit, which argues that Dynegy is violating the Clean Water Act. The pollution has tainted the river with visible orange, purple, and rust-colored toxic residue.

“Dynegy left a toxic mess on the banks of one of Illinois’ most beautiful rivers, and has done nothing to stop the dangerous, illegal pollution from fouling waters enjoyed by countless families who kayak, tube, canoe, and even swim in the river. Dynegy has left us no choice but to sue,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Cassel, who represents Prairie Rivers Network.

The pollution is leaching from coal ash generated at Dynegy’s now retired coal-fired power plant, the Vermilion Power Station. For decades, the ash left over from burning coal at the plant was dumped irresponsibly into unlined ponds that together run approximately a half-mile along the river. Coal ash contains a slew of dangerous pollutants that are linked to cancer, heart disease, and strokes, as well as lifelong brain damage for children. Sampling from the river found a “toxic soup” including arsenic, barium, boron, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, and sulfate. Concentrations of boron and sulfate – primary indicators of coal ash contamination – were repeatedly found in groundwater at the site above levels deemed safe by Illinois and U.S. EPA.

“We have a rare jewel in our midst. My brothers and I learned how to swim in that river and spent countless hours exploring it. Over the years, my wife and I have introduced our children, grandchildren, and extended family to the river to enjoy the beauty, peace, and excitement of being outdoors. We must work together to see that this coal ash problem is solved safely,” said local resident Mike Camp from nearby Collison, who grew up along the river and in sixty-four years has never lived more than two miles away from it.

American Rivers recently named the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River one of the ten most endangered rivers in the United States due to the coal ash contamination. The Vermilion County Board has twice unanimously passed resolutions asking Dynegy to clean up the mess.

The river and its banks are popular for kayaking, other boating, tubing and hiking, with thousands of visitors each year. The Middle Fork runs through Kickapoo State Park, which gets over one million visitors each year.

“As you travel along the river, one minute you are enjoying spectacular natural beauty and the next you’re looking at unsightly chemicals leaching into the water. It’s jarring. It’s bad for the local community and the wildlife—including several endangered species—associated with the river. Dynegy is jeopardizing the local jobs and the economy that depend on visitors who value the river for recreation. No one wants to swim or boat in toxic soup. Dynegy should use some of the money they made when they ran the plant to clean it up. They’re the ones who chose not to safely dispose of the coal ash,” said Rob Kanter, a naturalist and writer who serves on the Board of Prairie Rivers Network.

Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt is proposing to gut the protections for coal ash pollution nationwide, even as evidence mounts that coal ash dumps such as those at the closed Vermilion power plant are leaching dangerous chemicals into rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Even absent strong federal protections for legacy coal ash sites, however, Dynegy still must comply with environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act.

According to today’s lawsuit filed by Prairie Rivers Network, Dynegy has been discharging without a proper permit and in violation of Illinois environmental and health standards for years. Prairie Rivers Network will ask the court to order Dynegy to “take all actions necessary” to stop the illegal pollution that is being discharged to the Middle Fork, and to pay penalties to the United States Treasury of up to $53,484 per day for each day over the last five years that Dynegy has violated the Clean Water Act.

The Middle Fork and its surrounding area host twenty threatened or endangered species, fifty-seven types of fish, forty-six different mammal species, and two hundred seventy different bird species. The river is home to state-endangered Blue Breast Darter and several species of rare, threatened, and endangered mussels. The American bald eagle, river otter, and wild turkey have returned to the area, sharing their habitat with mink, turtles, Great Blue Heron and other species.


How Many Miles Do You Want to Paddle?

From a short HOP to a 100-MILE MARATHON – you can do it all on the PECATONICA

  • 1/2 mile – Tutty Crossing (kayak launch) to Hancock Marina (concrete ramp)
  • 3 mile – Tutty Crossing (kayak launch) to VFW (concrete ramp)
  • 6 mile – Brewster Landing (concrete ramp) to McConnell Bobtown Landing (EZ Dock)
  • 8 mile – McConnell Bobtown Landing (EZ Dock) to McNeils Damascus Landing (EZ Dock)
  • 12 mile – Browntown, WI (concrete ramp) to Brewster Landing (concrete ramp)
  • 14 mile – Brewster Landing (concrete ramp) to McNeils Damascus Landing (EZ Dock) – stop over – MBL
  • 14 mile – McNeils Damascus Landing (EZ Dock) to Tutty Crossing (kayak launch) -stop over – **WBT
  • 17 mile – McNeils Damascus Landing (EZ Dock) to VFW (concrete ramp) -stop over – **WBT, TC, HM
  • 18 mile – Browntown, WI (concrete ramp) to McConnell Bobtown Landing (EZ Dock) – stop over – BL
  • 22 mile – McConnell Bobtown Landing (EZ Dock) to Tutty Crossing (kayak launch) -stop over – MDL, **WBT
  • 25 mile – McConnell Bobtown Landing (EZ Dock) to VFW (concrete ramp) -stop over – MDL, **WBT, TC, HM
  • 26 mile – Browntown, WI (concrete ramp) to McNeils Damascus Landing (EZ Dock) – stop over – BL, MBL
  • 28 mile – Brewster Landing (concrete ramp) to Tutty Crossing (kayak launch) -stop over – MBL, MDL, **WBT
  • 31 mile – Brewster Landing (concrete ramp) to VFW (concrete ramp) -stop over – MBL, MDL, **WBT, TC, HM
  • 40 mile – Browntown, WI (concrete ramp) to Tutty Crossing (kayak launch) -stop over – BL, MBL, MDL, **WBT
  • 43 mile – Browntown, WI (concrete ramp) to VFW (concrete ramp) -stop over – BL, M

THE ULTIMATE – 100 MILER — Browntown, WI  to MacTown Forest Preserve near Rockton, IL

Rumor has it that an IPC racer wants to do the 100 Mile Challenge in ONE day!

Abbreviations Key:

BL = Brewster’s Landing

MBL = McConnell Bobtown Landing

MDL = McNeils Damascus Landing

WBT = Wes Block Trailhead

TC = Tutty’s Crossing

HM = Hancock Marina

Link to the Google map to show all the locations:


Thank you: Friends of the Pecatonica

For the great job you have been doing for the last decade and more to make the Pecatonica Illinois’s Friendliest Paddle and more! Please share how you accomplished all with IPC in an article for the next newsletter. We have many rivers in our state that could benefit by having a “Friends of ???? River,” so having your guidance on how you achieved your success would be wonderful.

And – for everyone reading this –  enjoy the FPRF Dec Newsletter.

The Fox River Deserves National Recognition

By Greg Taylor  

So, how many of you have ever paddled on a National River Water Trail? Well, there is a fair chance, if you have lived here in Illinois for a while and paddled different rivers to experience all that the Midwest has to offer. You might have!  The Rock, in north central Illinois, flowing from Wisconsin; The Kankakee, southeast of Chicago; and, part of The Ol’ Man, The Big Muddy, “The Mississippi,” down by St. Louis, are the only ones within 200 miles of Chicago. So, what is a National River Water Trail you ask? Well, if you Google it, it’s all there in color and a wealth of info I’ll leave you to have fun discovering. A quick snap shot is that a “Water Trail is a river or section that meets Federal standards for accessibility and positive human use.” I know that can be a loaded statement these days, heck almost any time in human History, but it’s getting better the more everyone realizes that we all need rivers that are for “positive human use” meaning, everyone agrees to its positive use.

Fox River Ecosystem Partnership, aka “FREP,” is currently moving forward to obtain Federal recognition for the Fox through the National Park Service, which is overseen by the Department of the Interior. The Wisconsin side has been mapped and is in the planning stages already; some of its infrastructure is already in place. Now it’s our turn. I’m assuming many of you have paddled some part of the Fox. If you haven’t, you’re missing a gorgeously calm, relaxing, and picturesque river. And it turns out an ancient river. There are dells on the lower Fox like the ones up in Wisconsin with the Ducks river tours – except you don’t have to pay, as you see them free. Only your desire and sense of adventure are needed. I’m sure there are other attributes that exist on the Fox, and that is why – and what – I am writing about and asking for here. I am the Volunteer Coordinator for ground-truthing the Illinois side of the Water Trail Certification. We are in the process of developing the tools that will be used for data submission. Currently, the options are to submit the data and observations through Google Drive, using smart phones or tablets or printing out a paper copy to submit. This is an easy one for anyone to enjoy and experience. Just enter the river, enjoy the paddle down stream, camping if there are areas that are clearly understood as camping spots, stop for lunch, site-see, whatever you find that you can enjoy or think others might find interesting. The more the better. Exit the river and fill out a short checklist and opinion survey, and you have just become part of a National Water Trail Certification process. That’s it. I’m looking into a token of gratitude item, something like a safety whistle with the water trail insignia on it, or something along those lines. We’ll see what I can push for. Stay tuned.

So that’s it. This is a long time coming. I know Ralph Frese started talking about this back in the mid-sixties for basically the same reasons and more than that we are working towards now. One step at a time, and this will come to fruition. Stay tuned, this should be a fun one.

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.

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.


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


llinois’ Only Wild and Scenic River – The Middle Fork of the Vermilion

By Voytek Miezal

Many years ago, Ralph Frese told me about this river. My wife Grace and I joined the group led by Larry and Evelyn Tennysson.

A professor from the local University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana joined us several times and told us about the many places associated with the life of local Indians.

This river is good for paddling in early spring, but we paddled it many times in the summer months as well. One winter we spent the three Christmas Holidays on the river and enjoyed the nights in empty and free campgrounds. In addition to the beautiful river, there are also many very nice ponds and hiking trails.

We have many pictures from our trips and great memories, and give special thanks to Larry and Evelyn Tennyson. And this year, we had a second private celebration day in memory of Ralph Frese. See some pictures from our trips here, and enjoy and plan a trip on this beautiful river.

Photos: https://goo.gl/photos/1z85ajpjRFJGPTCq7


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

Kankakee River – Latest National Waterway

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.


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.


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.