Friday, September 4, 2015

Paddling the Des Plaines River

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.

The Des Plaines River Bike Trail runs along or near the river for about 50 miles. While biking the trail the weeks before the annual May race, I often see workers from the forest preserve clearing out fallen trees and branches in preparation for the race. Otherwise the marathon would be dangerous and require a lot of maneuvering, difficult to do against current and when the river is crowded with other watercraft.

The major obstacle to paddlers is the series of dams. Some can be paddled over during higher water levels, as this one could if the water were higher, because V-shaped boat notches are cut out of the concrete dam (near the right shore on this dam south of Route 60). In lower water levels, the spillway (expanse of slanted concrete) and some posts below the spillway could harm boat or boater. And portaging is difficult due to overgrowth on the banks and very steep sides on most banks. Negotiating dams when paddling upriver would be even more difficult, so I always paddle between dams which gives round trips of 10 miles or more. The Lake County Forest Preserve District is gradually removing many of these dams and weirs, most of which had been installed generations ago by farmers who had owned the property abutting the river.

The Annual Des Plaines River Canoe Marathon has been in existence for 58 years and over 1500 entries paddled in 2002 and 2003 combined. Despite the huge number of boats, the start is so well organized (with 10 boats starting every 2 minutes) that all goes off like clockwork. Its distance of 18.5 miles can be daunting to inexperienced paddlers. Below is the staging area upriver of the starting line in Libertyville at the Oak Spring Road canoe launch. Other canoe launch areas in Lake County are Wadsworth Road, Van Patten Woods, Independence Grove, and Route 60. You could also launch from the banks in many of the forest preserve areas. I have photos of the race here.


Though it is crowded, noisy, and exciting on race day, paddling here any other day is a very solitary experience, and the only other sign of life is generally great blue heron and white egrets and occasional people on the shore. 

Prairie State Canoeists is an organization offering many paddling outings

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