Login | August 13, 2020

Kankakee river paddling

Pete’s World

Published: July 13, 2020

Now I’ve done adventures in and around the Midwest for many, many years, but it wasn’t until 2014, when I was doing recon for my American Dirt sabbatical, that I became familiar with the Kankakee River. That was the year I discovered one of the most beautiful and diverse rivers east of the Mississippi.
Knick-named the “Everglades of the North,” the Kankakee River and its river basin make up one of Indiana’s largest water drainage systems, taking in water from almost 3,000 square miles of land - from cropland, to pastures, to protected forests. And once into Illinois the Kankakee continues to roll along for another 59 miles, traversing dense forests and relatively undisturbed wetlands until it finally confluences with the Des Plaines River.
Now back in 2014 I was struggling to find a way to connect a mountain bike track in Western Indiana to another track in eastern Illinois without using any paved roads. I was at wits end until I stumbled upon the Kankakee. That’s when l pulled out some maps, followed its sinuous cross-state course over several pages of paper and in a short spate of minutes I had a radical plan to put my bike in a canoe and paddle a section of the river from one track to the other.
Such was my serendipitous discovery of the Kankakee.
Two years after that encounter, in 2016, the full length of the 133-mile Kankakee River was granted National Water Trail designation - one of only 20 rivers nationwide to make up this prestigious National Water Trail System.
The National Park Service describes the National Water Trail System as, “a distinctive national network of exemplary water trails that are cooperatively supported and sustained, designated by the Secretary of the Interior.
And that came as no surprise to me because I had found the Kankakee to be an amazing waterway, an ever-changing river that meanders along farmland and field, past islands and cliffs, and through vast wetlands and scenic state and county parks.
The first European to navigate the Kankakee was French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur De La Salle, who in 1679 was crossing northwestern Indiana in an attempt to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. And what’s really amazing is that the largely rural Kankakee River more than likely appears - in some sections anyway - much like it did when De La Salle first paddled it. Not only that, but the Kankakee is considered one of the cleanest rivers in the Midwest, thereby making it popular with both recreational boaters and fishermen alike.
So for you paddling enthusiasts looking for long weekend water trip, the Kankakee’s definitely a ticket you’ll want to punch.
And to help you in planning your trip, the Northwest Indiana Paddlers Association - http://kankakeeriverwatertrail.org - has divided the Kankakee into four different paddling environments, each offering as its own distinct scenery.
Upper River (Headwaters to the Yellow River, app. 33 miles): Channelized (dredged to improve the quality of the surrounding agricultural fields), farmland section with very little tree cover.
Wooded Channel (Yellow River to the State Line, app. 38.5 miles): Largely channelized, traversing several parks and conservation areas with moderate tree cover.
Ancient Wetland (State Line to Momence, app. 13 miles): River assumes natural course at Illinois line, where it subsequently meanders through some of the best wetland habitat in Illinois.
Grand Waterway - Momence to the Illinois River app. 39.5 miles: Great Urban and suburban scenery, with a long stretch through Kankakee State Park prior to its confluence with the Des Plaines River.
Now in addition to the Northwest Indiana Paddlers Association website, you can also glean some great trip planning info from the Paddle Illinois Water Trails website - https://paddleillinoiswatertrails.org/2015/06/13/kankakee-river-water-trails/. This site’s nice because it can help you fine tune your itinerary by providing you with all the launch sits encompassed within each of the four aforementioned paddling sections.
Finally, I have to say that one of the most scenic stretches of this river lies within Kankakee River State Park, some six miles northwest of Kankakee, Il. There you can bring your own boat or rent one from the several outfitters. Camping opportunities usually abound in this state park, but due to COVID there are some closures, so check the park website - https://www2.illinois.gov/dnr/Parks/Pages/KankakeeRiver.aspx - before you make overnighting plans.