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Fabulous Fox River paddle: The goodness of people/possible National Water Trail

Chuck Roberts (left) and Charlie Zine with their kayaks after a 200-mile paddle down the Fox River at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers in Ottawa.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

OTTAWA, Ill. — Charlie Zine and Chuck Roberts were looking for something to eat Friday, but the door on the Dead End Bar and Grill in Fox River Grove was locked.

Wilbur Mehlman saw them, then let them in and got the coffee and grill going. When Mehlman’s wife, Sherry, came, she made ‘‘killer egg and BLTs at 9 in the morning.’’

“They were telling us their story,’’ Wilbur said. “They have more energy than I got.’’

“People don’t have to do that stuff,’’ Zine said. “They could easily have said we don’t open until later,’’

There are two main takeaways from Zine’s and Roberts’ nine-day, 200-mile paddle down the Fox. We met Monday, when Jim Rabb picked them up at the confluence of the Fox and Illinois rivers.

First, people were generally good, such as the Mehlmans or the guy who allowed them to tie up their kayaks in Burlington, Wisconsin, then drove them to a motel.

Second, as a possible National Water Trail, the Fox breaks into three sections.

Let’s start with the trip.

Two friends dropped them off July 15 where the Fox begins at the Halbach Swamp near Colgate, Wisconsin. Paddling began where one side of a bridge was wide enough.

They mostly camped on shore. The first night was by I-94 and a train track, the second by I-43. There was the hotel in Burlington and one night late at Zine’s house in Aurora.

“It was like exploring, we had no idea where were would sleep at night,’’ Zine said.

After the first night of setting up in the dark, they learned to look for camp around 6 p.m. There were 26 deadfalls on the first day. So they immediately knew their general plan to finish in five days was out the window.

“When we went into camp, we were usually in at 7 p.m.,’’ Zine said

Because of intense mosquitoes, they learned to set up camp with zippers shut and went in and stayed in.

“We got real good at setting up camp,’’ Roberts said.

As we rehashed the trip over microbrews at the Lone Buffalo in Ottawa Monday, Roberts burst into a recital of a vulgar limerick, A Girl Named Anheuser.

“I am so grateful he thinks like a boy and still wants to have the adventure,’’ Zine said.

They primarily ate at restaurants or bars along the way, sometimes only once or twice a day.

Those stops often were the biggest adventure. Take the It Ain’t Heaven bar in Mukwonago, Wisconsin.

‘‘When we walked in, everybody stopped talking,’’ Zine said. ‘‘I put the dry box [where they kept valuables] on the bar. Somebody asked what it was. A long-haired guy said, ‘That is where you put your dope.’ That broke the ice.’’

The stops were essential for recharging phones. This was a modern float

“We had to be very careful on the phone, we needed it for navigation,’’ Zine said. “Up north in the marshes, there are all kinds of artificial channels.’’

Because phones were stashed in the dry box, they didn’t take as many pictures as might have been expected.

“The phones made a huge difference,’’ Zine said. “We had a 10-year-old map that got wet, just from us getting in and out of the kayaks.’’

There was plenty of nature: snapping turtles ‘‘this big,’’ two fawns from-here-to-the-wall close, a big buck in the middle of the river, bald eagles, beavers, muskrats, an otter and too many herons to count.

There were three tippages, all by Roberts. The first was on the first night when they paddled too long and into the dark. The second was trying to paddle the Yorkville bypass. (He even lives there.) The third time was at the end, getting out in Ottawa.

“I said to Jim, `Come grab my hands,’ ‘’ Roberts said. “I did the minnow shuffle.’’

Below the Dayton Dam, a much easier portage and experience than they were expecting, they experienced silver and bighead carp up-close-and-personal.

“I paddled out to the rock garden to take a picture of the dam and a bighead hit me,’’ Zine said. “Holy Cow, right there, no delay.’’

“It is like going through a minefield, Charlie was hit four times,’’ said Roberts, who was hit twice.

“Know what we didn’t see below the dam? No jet skis,’’ Zine asked and answered.

The other trip component was for the two-state effort to make the Fox a National Water Trail. Their journey will be posted until is up and running.

Zine broke the Fox into three sections. The first is the Wisconsin part.

‘‘The wildlife is phenomenal, perfect for kayaks and canoes,’’ Zine said. ‘‘Potentially, it is a really good paddleway.’’

The second section is the Chain O’Lakes and Fox River to Algonquin.

“I would recommend no one but the most experienced should do that,’’ he said. “That was white-knuckle stuff. That section I would never send anybody to unless they are a daredevil.’’

You need a sticker. There are difficulties with camping and portage.

‘‘The third section from Algonquin on down is a paddler’s paradise,’’ Zine said.

It could use improved signage, but it is the mix average paddlers look for.

‘‘They don’t want 17 miles of paddling; they want pieces of nature mixed with microbreweries, ice cream shops, coffee shops,’’ Zine said.

OK, some want the Boundary Waters experience. But for ordinary people, the Fox as a National Water Trail would be more accessible and beneficial to local communities.

There is the core of the idea of a National Water Trail.

There are realities in doing a paddle as extensive as theirs.

Roberts is retired, while Zine had only asked for a week off and had to get an extra day.

Zine was left with a nasty toe, a tender spot on his foot and “my heel is raw from rubbing through neoprene booties.’’

``Every night my hands would go to sleep and I couldn’t wake them up,’’ Roberts said.

Sounds like life. There were realities, too.

“The logistics of doing this is difficult,’’ Zine said. “You had to quit thinking about doing the whole thing and think about doing the next leg. I didn’t think we would finish this until yesterday [Sunday].’’

‘‘I knew we would finish,’’ Roberts said.

Charlie Zine and Chuck Roberts in the final yards of their 200-mile paddle the length of the Fox River.<br>Provided/Jim Rabb
Charlie Zine and Chuck Roberts in the final yards of their 200-mile paddle the length of the Fox River.
Provided/Jim Rabb


Draws for the Illinois public-site waterfowl blinds are this weekend: northern Illinois on Saturday and the Illinois River area Sunday. I plan to visit a local draw I have not covered yet.

Nearly 2,000 were at the waterfowl blind draw at Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area in 2017.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times
Nearly 2,000 were at the waterfowl blind draw at Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area in 2017.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Stray cast

Smart outdoors people stop and look around when a mother grouse flops the broken-wing trick. Stupid ones follow the mother grouse.