. . . And a Shovel
Illinois—the land of brown-water rafting
June 30, 1983
A bit of drollery about Illinois, the land of brown-water canoeing.
I was busy hauling thousands of discarded magazines in preparation for the annual Lincoln Library book sale later that morning, speculating as I worked about the ephemeral nature of both journalism and my own vigor, when one of my co-volunteers turned to me between grunts and asked, “You been to Cozumel?”
Cozumel? Of course. My T-shirt. I was wearing a shirt which endorsed the scuba diving at Palancar Reef. Shamefaced, I had to admit to my companion that I was guilty of a species of false advertising, that it is my brother-in-law who dives, not I, that it was he who gave me the shirt as a gift upon his return from a recent diving expedition, that the only time I enjoy a tete-a-tete with a red snapper is when I wait for L. to finish shopping at Robert’s fish shop.
The encounter also brought to mind one of the unhappier truths about life in central Illinois, indeed about the Midwest in general. While it is true that living in central Illinois is a wilderness experience of a sort, one must venture abroad to experience the real wilderness. And venture we do. I can scarcely muster a quorum of my Mah-Jongg group this time of year, what with members off in Chile rafting on the Rio Bio-Bio or hiking in Sikkim or touring Sri Lanka by bicycle.
Alas, what choice do they have? The nearest ocean beach to Springfield lies several hundred feet underfoot. Scuba diving? Not unless you want to find out what life is like for a tulip bulb. Rock climbing? There is a rock about the size of a car near Rantoul, I am told, one of a few left behind by the last glacier the way a human tourist might discard a soiled Pamper; one could climb it, I suppose, unless someone’s taken it home to his garden.
No, you can search through a thousand pages of Outside magazine and find no reference to Illinois except how to get away from it. There is one escape from this dreariness, however. It is a sport little known outside the Corn Belt and little practiced inside it, but one which nevertheless offers stern tests to those intrepid enough to try it. I speak of course of brownwater rafting.
One does not ordinarily associate boating on Illinois streams with breakneck thrills. Take the Illinois for example. The Illinois is the Chatooga of the brownwater enthusiast. The Illinois River falls so gently in its amble between Joliet and Grafton that it can hardly be said to flow at all—a scant twenty-five feet in the 230 miles below Starved Rock, compared to the 275-feet-in-thirteen-miles drop of the Chatooga.
What our Illinois lacks in velocity it makes up for in versatility. Whitewater streams are one-trick rivers. While any fool can go down one of them, even the best boatsman can’t get up it without a motor. (This is also the substance of my objection to downhill skiing.) But listen to what writer Lawrence Rand discovered when he took a trip down the Illinois for Chicago magazine last year: “The current in the Illinois has never been more than a mile or two an hour and the wind almost always blows upstream, making the river as easy to ascend as descend. “(Emphasis added).
Indeed, most streams in Illinois possess this helpful versatility. (It’s one reason why Illinois legislators are less careful than their counterparts in other states about getting caught up creeks without paddles.) Consider the Sangamon. Each spring boat races are held at Springfield and other places along the river. These are popular affairs in part because taking part requires no special skills. Next to sunburn and delirium tremens, the biggest danger to boaters during the twenty-eight miles between Springfield’s Riverside Park and Petersburg is boredom.
For all that, our streams demand skills which would befuddle whitewater purists. One must take into account their capricious seasonal variability, for one thing. The captain of the Talisman found that out when he sailed that boat up the Sangamon to Springfield in the 1830s, only to have the river fall so precipitously while the city celebrated his arrival that he had to back up all the way to Beardstown. (The Talisman later sank, as, no doubt, did her captain.) Even now, rises of as much as four feet per hour have been recorded at Springfield after Decaturites visit their toilets during Superbowl halftimes. As for the Illinois, well, the problem is not navigating the lower Illinois's main channel in floody springtime but finding it.
However, fluctuations in flood stages are the merest inconvenience compared to silt. No canoeist who has confronted Illinois river mud and survived can face a mere boulder or whirlpool with anything but a contemptuous sneer. The intensive farming of Illinois watersheds has turned our streams into silty stews. Everyone has read how the Cuyahoga River in. Cleveland grew so polluted that it caught fire a few years ago. In season, the Illinois tends to sprout. The Army Corps of Engineers used to budget millions to dredge the Illinois for barge traffic; now the Corps sets aside funds to mow it.
Really. One can do the Colorado in a raft, or shoot the Nolichucky in a kayak, but if one comes to Illinois looking for action one had better bring a mouldboard canoe. The incident was not widely reported, but one of the entrants in this year’s Sangamon River All-Craft Race was not a boat at all but a modified John Deere tractor and plow rig. The vehicle made good time but was waved off the course after ten miles. Instead of leaving a wake it left a furrow. Trailing boats had to get out and portage around it, to the irritation of contestants, who complained to officials that they hadn’t bothered to get drunk by 8 o’clock in the morning just so they could take a walk.
There is a further virtue to brownwater canoeing which is seldom appreciated, seldom even acknowledged by such hormonal types. Boating on an Illinois stream is a boon to reflection. Contemplation comes easy when there is so little to occupy one’s mind. I have spent some of my pleasanter hours afloat under an Illinois summer sky being pushed first upstream and then down by breezes as fitful as commodity prices, listening to the gentle sounds of unseen carp gasping for breath in the shallows near shore.
The mind floats easily above the mundane at such moments and fastens onto the larger questions. To see a Big Mac box caught on a cattail miles from the nearest McDonald’s is to think anew about the interrelatedness of things. And while it took God to make the earth and the rivers that flow on it, it took the Russian grain deal of 1972 to wed them into something so new that its name is not yet recognized in ecology’s catalogs: wearth.
It’s nearly religious. Wet and wild it may not be, but wisdom awaits on the brown water of Illinois. Seek it. All you need is an open mind and a canoe . . . and a shovel. ●