Sunday, September 21, 2014

Des Plaines Days

We left Chicago excited about paddling the Shipping and Sanitary Canal, located about 20 miles south of Downtown Chicago.  However, after talking with some locals, calling multiple people who called other people who then called us again, and talking with the U.S Coast Guard, who just happened to be boating past, we quickly realized this was not going to be feasible.  There were several barriers (literally) preventing us from being able to paddle the canal.  First, the canal is constructed from huge limestone walls that at times are 10+ feet above the water level, preventing quick access out of the canal.  Second, the Army Corps of Engineers built several electric barriers to prevent the spread of invasive carp traveling through the Canal into Lake Michigan.  You can’t safely travel through the barrier in boats smaller than 20 feet (our canoes are about 17 feet) and we learned our only option was to portage 2 miles around the barriers if we were going to paddle the Canal.  I’m glad the Army Corps is taking steps to prevent the spread of Asian Carp.  However, I was disappointed to learn they didn’t think about paddlers in smaller boats coming from Chicago that may need to travel around the barriers.    
With electric barriers and limestone walls preventing us from paddling down the Canal we decided our next best option was to launch from the Des Plaines River paralleling the Shipping and Sanitary Canal.  When we arrived, we were happy to find a nice place to launch our boats on the edge of a prairie preserve.  A man approached us who was there with a group picking up trash in the area.  He told us there is a group of volunteers maintaining the small picnic spaces in the area along the edge of the preserve by the water.  He said his hope for the area was to provide a nice spot where anyone could come down and enjoy the water.   
The group before we launch for our first day on the Des Plaines River
During our days on the Des Plaines we experienced the contrast between beautiful natural spaces and industry on the Des Plaines.  We had stretches of paddling where we were overwhelmed with the beauty of the River.  Egrets, Kingfishers, Cormorants and Blue Herons were frequent visitors on the river bank and large stretches of the river included beautiful prairie, forests, and wetlands.  We enjoyed running (a term used to describe paddling through rapids) the multiple rapid sets that we unexpectedly found ourselves encountering.  Dispersed among the stretches of seemingly pristine landscape we paddled among power plants, railroads, and other industrial buildings. 
Randomly as we paddled we would be reminded of our proximity to the Shipping and Sanitary Canal when the wall of limestone would creep into view on the left side of the river bank.  Sometimes we could see a barge peaking over the top of the wall.  Once, we approached the wall and noticed we could climb up the rocks on the bank to look over and see into the Canal.  When we arrived at the top, we were surprised to find we were standing just upstream from the Lockport Lock and Dam.  I felt strange looking into the concrete walled space of the Lock and Dam after being on the Des Plaines.  I can remember feeling like I was looking into a prison for water, lacking any plant life and beauty.  I was thankful to return back to the Des Plaines and paddle among the trees and birds.       
The Lockport Lock and Dam from on top of the Canal

- By Liz Just

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