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. . . And a Shovel

Illinois—the land of brown-water rafting

Illinois Times

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 has since 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 River 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. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

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Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


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Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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