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Paddling Lake Michigan Water Trail: Linking residents, visitors, Lake Michigan

The Sarmiento family were among those who paddled with Wilderness Inquiry last Sunday during the ``Explore the Lake Michigan Water Trail event at Illinois Beach State Park.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

OK, I was looking forward to paddling Lake Michigan last Sunday at Illinois Beach State Park. It has been years since I paddled on Lake Michigan, and it was hotter than a mother.

But there was small-craft advisory in the IBSP area, so the paddling portion of the ‘‘Explore the Lake Michigan Water Trail’’ event was moved to a park lagoon.

It wasn’t quite the same, but it illustrated how much is needed to integrate novice outdoors sorts with the experienced in building something such as the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

Experienced paddlers would not have had any trouble with those conditions. They would have loved it. But it’s another matter when you put a family of five (including a toddler), such as the Sarmientos, into a voyageur canoe on Lake Michigan.

The idea of a Lake Michigan Water Trail has been around for years. But pieces finally are falling into place. Chicago and northwest Indiana were designated a National Recreational Trail nearly a decade ago.

On Sunday, I was at the second event co-sponsored by Openlands and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program. The first was the day before at North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor. There will be a third event Aug. 3 at Waukegan Harbor.

Laura Barghusen, an aquatic ecologist for Openlands, said there have been meetings with local authorities about ways to draw beginners and veterans, locals and visitors to the lakefront. There is a focus on the roughly 10-mile stretch between North Chicago and the Wisconsin state line: North Chicago, Waukegan, Beach Park, Zion and Winthrop Harbor.

It’s notable these events are or will be at North Point, IBSP and Waukegan Harbor. Those are good public-access points. Public access is significantly tougher between North Chicago and Chicago, a topic for another day.

Catherine Buchalski Smith, the outreach and engagement specialist for the IDNR Coastal Management Program, said one aim is to connect with families in the area and to draw groups such as the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts and church groups.

From what I saw last Sunday, families in the area are ready to be connected if the options are available.

Buchalski Smith said another aim is to give those who live there new ways to recreate and ‘‘an increased sense of awareness and affection’’ of Lake Michigan. I like that turn of phrase.

One simple but important aim in the Openlands/Coastal Management partnership in that area is to get the nature center at IBSP open. It was open last Sunday, and people streamed in. The interpreter position was posted this year, and they were unable to get anyone to fill it. It’s important to have those slots filled.

I arrived early enough that I was the only one waiting for a canoe ride at the lagoon. The young people, primarily from Wilderness Inquiry, gave me king’s treatment around the lagoon.

If I was an undergrad or graduate student in zoology, wildlife, fisheries or environmental science, I would check options with Wilderness Inquiry.

I most enjoyed the day because it was about people learning to check out options on the lakefront.

For more about the Lake Michigan Water Trail (and other water trails), go to