I
grew up in Palos Park, SW of Chicago, known to some for its toboggan
slides on glacial moraines facing the Sag Canal and the Des Plaines
River. I spent many hours in the black oak forests and the prairies,
but my boating experience was one turn around a local swamp in a
metal cement mixing basin. I thought little of canoeing, and never
dreamt of “white water” in Illinois. Doesn’t seem real
probable, does it?

Years
later I read that there was one well-known “big name” rapid
in north central Illinois, “Wildcat” on the Vermillion. A
picture showed a young couple gripping their Grumman’s gunwales as
they dropped down into a wave train. So last June, driving my son
Paul to Chicago, I took the Corsica along, in case I might get to
Boat the Big One.

Driving
north on Friday, we saw lots of extra water in the Wabash, but not in
every stream. On Saturday I visited the Chicagoland Canoe Base,
founded by Ralph Frese, canoe builder, river conservationist, and
collector of native and antique water craft destined for a Chicago
Maritime Museum sometime in the future. I bought Clement paddles and
PFDs at the Canoe base 22 years ago; all are in occasional service.
The Base has a good selection of white water gear, it’s better on sea
kayaking, but they are strongest on fast “glass” cruising
and free style canoes. Their very wide selection of guidebooks
included a very detailed guide on north central Illinois rivers
clustered around I-80, an hour and some west of where I had grown
up.

So
early on a stunning, fair, fresh Sunday I drove west on I-80,
doubting there’d be enough water to cover rapids on the Vermillion.
Exiting near LaSalle, I drove south across the Illinois River and
past Starved Rock State Park, down to the bridge in Lowell.

Surprise!
The Vermillion was really cooking, covering the Limestone bedrock
flats with waves of silty water. An outfitter just downstream was
filling rafts in hopes of customers, and soon some private boaters
showed. Though not claiming to be experts, these folks knew the
river well and were glad to have me along.

Why
are there rapids in central Illinois, one of the flatter areas you’ll
find? Because the much larger Illinois river has cut down faster
through layers of uplifted sandstone, slate and limestone than its
smaller tributaries, which must catch up with increased gradients as
they near their mouths.

Average
gradients are still not large, no more than 10 ft. per mile on the
white water section of the Vermillion, and no more than 20 ft. per
mile on the much smaller Little Vermillion which is run in rainier
periods. The “Big” Vermillion is runnable in season for
over 65 miles, and often has wilderness character as it winds and
riffles under cliffs and forested bluffs.

Once
on the water, I found some broad, roomy surfing waves opposite the
outfitter’s raft ramp. While enjoying these, I failed to notice that
my “host” boats, in tandems, were paddling quickly
downstream. I saw it was not possible to catch them; experienced
midwestern tandem paddlers often cruise too fast for porky kayaks. I
was not sorry to be on my own.

The
change in geology and ecology was delightful: sedimentary cliffs of
limestone, sandstone and shale; the astounding dark black soil of
northern Illinois growing an almost entirely different selection of
trees, wildflowers and weeds from what we have in Georgia. Cliffs
seemed to exceed 100 ft, and one was deeply undercut by the river at
the outside of a bend. There was almost no sign of surrounding homes
and farms. Once out of sight of Lowell, the rapids reverted to the
gravel bar/ riffle variety, but there were still occasional little
surfing waves.

The
river looped back from north to south, passing below a bluff said to
be 150 ft. high. Then, about 3 miles from the put-in, the river
turned west into a jam-up of huge limestone boulders. This was the
pie`ce de resistance, the resistant formation creating Wildcat Rapid.

I
knew what to expect from the guidebook, which was ridiculously
detailed, with two diagrams showing every rock numbered and every
microcurrent tongue. Possibly this would be helpful to novices at
lower water, but watching one of the tandems taking a rerun, I could
see the river dropped down maybe six feet total, sloping through an
upper back wave and a lower mild wash hole, and then running out into
haystacks. So I ran it without getting out to scout. I would rate it
a super class 2. It looked very dramatic and was great fun, and I
shot off most of my pictures watching the tandems. As I left, I saw
some local kayakers walking in from somewhere to play.

The
rapids eased off again, though I found a good wave train around the
next bend which could be surfed. There would be only one more
“significant” rapid, “Cement Dam Rapid” about 2
miles below Wildcat, opposite the Marquette Cement Company. From
written descriptions, I expected a substantial dam opposite an old,
dumpy cement plant. But before I could see a thing or hear the
rapid, I heard this loud, steady hum; and then this huge factory
loomed on the left bank, like a 30s painting, a massive testament to
the mechanical age, seemingly autonomous with no human face visible.
Cowering beneath this horror I found a low concrete dam, its drop
mostly submerged by the high water, and with a weak, vertical
hydraulic over most of its length.

Scouting
from the right bank, I could see the “approved” route,
where the dam was broken out near the right side. At this level
there was a great hole for spins, but the guidebook said there was
trash and rebar just below. No place to have to flip and roll. So I
ran at the left edge of the gap, lining up by sighting along the
small downstream haystacks.

After
this the scenery improved again, but the rapids eased off, and then I
hit the backwater of the Illinois River just before the take out at
the Oglesby Bridge. ‘Twas early afternoon, and my car had been
shuttled already, so I left, driving generally SE, to investigate an
anomaly of river naming.

You
see, the Vermillion originates in Ford County and flows NW toward the
Illinois. And the Vermillion flows SE from Ford County past Danville
into the Wabash. Seems careless to use the same name — well, we
have two Chattoogas — but for two rivers from the same county
flowing in opposite directions? And there is the Little Vermillion
entering the Illinois River from the north, almost opposite the “Big”
Vermillion.

The
Vermillion traveling SE is customarily called the Middle Fork of the
Vermillion, having also the North and Salt Forks. The Middle Fork is
the only Illinois river in the Wild and Scenic River system; hence my
curiosity. It looked low but negotiable from the bridge at Kickapoo
State Park. There was a canoe livery, but the teen staff said they
had run their last shuttle. One suggested that I paddle 1.5 miles
downstream to a county bridge, portage east over a road, and paddle
back through the network of abandoned strip mines, now reforested and
used as park lakes. Why not? It looked good on the map….

Silty
water coursed over gravel bars and circled back against the base of
forested shale bluffs. The shale was soft and turned to mud under my
fingernails. I found patches of conglomerate containing chunks of
coal. Perhaps these formations were laid down recently from glacial
outwash. This short section had wilderness character except where it
passed under I-74.

Taking
out at the next bridge, I carried over a blacktop road and put in on
a lake ringed by dense forest and carpeted with water weeds. The
water was clear but very warm. Nothing indicated this was an
abandoned strip mine. I paddled over the weeds without difficulty,
but found the exit at the opposite end was too shallow and led
nowhere useful. So I paddled back and started carrying the boat
north on the little park road. This provided some amusement for the
locals.

The
next lake also looked like a dead end, but after a little over a
quarter mile I came to a third lake which seemed to front the south
border of I-74. Hanging in the clear depths of this lake were clouds
of gelatinous organisms. (Later I read that these colonies are an
indication of the cleanliness of the water!)

I
came to a long culvert under I-74, and once through, found the maze
of lakes continuing, but there were occasional fisher persons in
powerboats, and a few signs indicating the way back to the livery. I
located it after only a few wrong turns and one stop to ask
directions. These strip mines had become very beautiful lakes, but
the very warm water left me feeling poached and ready to hit the
road.

Illinois
has a lot of great river scenery, and just a little white water.
Question: how many states can you name which have no white water, not
even a few class 2s? Assume the rapids must be created by rock
formations, boulders, or gravel bars, not by dams, floods, or
logjams, and leave out very small creeks which can be run only a few
days a year.

by Gary
DeBacher
From The Eddy Line, September 1996