Thursday, September 3, 2015

Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon

The Annual Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon has been in existence for 58 years as of 2015.  In 2003 there were over 650 boats participating, down a bit from the 800 entries of 2002. Below is the start area at the Oak Spring Road canoe launch in Libertyville. Many use their own boats, but several outfitters provide rental canoes which they even deliver to the start and pick up at the finish. This race is billed as the largest and longest (18.5 miles) downriver canoe race in Illinois and the oldest continual canoe race in the United States.

This event is organized by the Des Plaines River Association which also works for protection and restoration of the river as well as abatement of water pollution. The originator of the race is Ralph Frese, a Niles resident and longtime owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base, who still occasionally paddled in the race with his wife or came to the event until his death in 2012. Below is the put-in. There's no hurry to launch...

...since your starting time is determined by your registration number, and if you launch early, you simply sit in the river and wait as seen in the photo below.

Despite the huge number of boats, the start is extremely well organized with 10 boats starting every two minutes. Below is the starting line. Ten blue ropes, each with a digit from 0 to 9, hang from the railroad bridge, and ten yellow ropes are visible upriver in the background. Boaters grab the yellow rope with the last digit of their registration number, and when called, they progress to the blue rope with their number. Maneuvering your boat to the rope against the current is occasionally daunting and some boats wind up backwards or sideways, as seen below. Even if you miss your assigned start time, the clock is running based on your assigned start time.

The Des Plaines River is somewhat narrow up in northern Lake County and can be very shallow in low water conditions, but widens and deepens as you progress south to and through Cook County. The Lake County Forest Preserve District owns over 85% of the land abutting the river in Lake County, so most of the scenery is forest and devoid of obvious development. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County controls somewhere near 50% of the land along the river in Cook County.

Here the river is wider. Race results are posted quickly at the finish and are also available both online and in a booklet sent to all participants, but only a small percentage actually are racing for trophies. Repeat participants may be trying to beat their own previous times, but most are just out for a good time in a beautiful setting, and many use this day as a social occasion, paddling or racing against each other or meeting friends at one of the preserves along the river for lunch. We saw numerous coolers in boats and I even saw a canoe with a propane stove, and when I commented about it to the occupants, they used tongs to show us the brats they were cooking as they paddled!

I've done the race four of five times over the years, both in kayak and canoe.

A major obstacle to paddlers is the series of dams or weirs. The race literature says there are six of them on the 19.5 mile course, but in 2002 and 2003 the high water levels allowed for paddling right over most dams, some of which were completely buried by water and others which gave a bit of an interesting ride. The Ryerson Dam was the only dam which all were required to portage around. The forest preserve district has been gradually removing them, since they had been installed generations ago by farmers who were creating pools for their use.

Spectators often line the shores and bike trail bridges and some just sit in their back yards and watch the boats pass. 

The scenery is magnificent and paddlers enjoy views that few ever get to savor since few people travel the river this way. Most of us are simply out for a nice day in the woods, but some competitors are serious paddlers.  These folks are given the lower registration numbers and race from start to finish before the rest of us are on their water impairing their progress.

Though it's a majestic paddle, most are ready for this sign. It is a long paddle for many participants who perhaps have never been on this long a paddle or some who are first-timers. Many I talked to only paddle once a year on this event. The first few miles are always interesting because I see boats going from shore to shore as the two paddlers are either laughing at their own folly or one is screaming at the other for not doing it right! We call the latter of those "divorce boats!"

Shuttle bus service is provided from the finish back to the starting area, but you then have to go pick up your boat at the finish yourself.

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