Paddling length of the Kankakee River: Making long river trips becomes an annual tradition

Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard, who just completed the Kankakee River, are making long trips on Illinois’ rivers an annual tradition.

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Kim Lockard (right) had a tradition of holding up fingers to mark each day of the trip she and Valerie Meloun made the length of the Kankakee River. Photo provided by Valerie Meloun

Kim Lockard (right) had a tradition of holding up fingers to mark each day of the trip she and Valerie Meloun made the length of the Kankakee River.

Provided by Valerie Meloun

Valerie Meloun drives a truck for J.B. Hunt, so taking vacation to paddle the length of the Illinois and Kankakee rivers with Kim Lockard makes sense.

“I think that is why I like paddling so much, I don’t have to drive,” Meloun said. “Everybody else on vacation wants to drive.”

For their starting point last year on the Kankakee, they launched at the Leo Jasinski Public Access Site, southwest of South Bend.

“You’re in a ditch,” Meloun said. “It is not very kayak friendly, there is no shade. There’s six-feet or higher bank on both sides, no place get out and take a break.’’

They got lucky the first night to find a hidden boat launch to camp near Route 30.

Biggest challenge was a logjam completely blocking the river.

“I got out, crawled over the logjam, then lined my kayak over,” Meloun said.

Then she pulled up Lockard and her kayak so they could continue on. The trip was cut short east of I-65 because of a worsening sinus condition for Lockard, whose friendship goes back to younger days in Elburn.

* * *

Meloun had never been paddling until her then-boyfriend took her on a two-day trip on the Fox River, since then she bought a Wilderness Systems Pungo 120. Lockard found a Wilderness Systems Tsunami 125.

The kayaks and tents at the core of the trip Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made the length of the Kankakee River. Photo provided by Valerie Meloun

The kayaks and tents at the core of the trip Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made the length of the Kankakee River.

Provided by Valerie Meloun

They, friends and a few relatives formed the informal Lady River Rats, who did day trips, garbage cleanups and an annual two-day trip on the Fox.

* * *

This year, high water pushed the completion of the Kankakee trip to June 13.

“The first day we only paddled for three hours and we found a perfect beach with shade and no overgrowth,” Meloun said. “We took that campsite. I’m glad we did.”

At State Line Bridge, they were lucky. The water dropped enough they could lean back and float under. That evening they camped in Aroma Park.

The state-line bridge provided a challenge, but Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made it under without having to portage during their trip the length of the Kankakee River. Photo provided by Valerie Meloun

The State Line Bridge provided a challenge, but Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made it under without having to portage during their trip the length of the Kankakee River.

Provided by Valerie Meloun

“The next day was the fun day,” Meloun said. “Last year, we drove out to Wilmington and Kankakee beforehand to check out the dams.”

They wanted to make sure they could get out safely (the week before two boat anglers died below the Kankakee Dam).

“Just to be on the safe side, we ended up getting out far, far away,” Meloun said.

From Cobb Park, they trekked 1.2 miles through Kankakee’s Riverview Historic District with their kayaks on carts, then relaunched at Jeffers Park.

Next challenge came at Wilmington, where they received permission from the police to get in and out around the dam.

* * *

Over three years of long river trips, they learned much.

They wear belt pack inflatable personal flotation devices when paddling. If going through treacherous water or locks, they do regular PFDs. Daily Meloun checked in with her dad and Lockard with her husband. They rarely made fires.

Experience has taught Meloun to value these apps: RiverLevel, NOAA weather radio, PlantNet and, “of course, Google Maps.”

For camping, they check Google Maps for boat ramps, parks and sandy banks. They use Navisafe lights for night paddling. They have shovels and camping toilet paper.

The gear stuffed into kayaks during the trip Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made the length of the Kankakee River. Photo provided by Valerie Meloun

The gear stuffed into kayaks during the triValerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made the length of the Kankakee River.

Provided by Valerie Meloun

For breakfast, they do Granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit and jerky; for lunch, freeze-dried meals or tuna tacos; for dinner, freeze-dried meals. CamelBaks are for water.

“We used to make coffee mornings, then we started to bring little cans of espresso,” Meloun said. “We have almond milk in little cartons, so we don’t have to drink water all the time.”

* * *

Their biggest challenge on the Kankakee came in the rapids around I-55.

“Big boulders pop up, I could not control where my boat was going and it freaked me out,” Meloun said.

They had planned to stretch the trip out, but Meloun got heat exhaustion, so they camped on a sandy, sunny little island and decided to finish up the next day.

“My friend is hard to get up,” Meloun said. “But I woke her up at 5 a.m. and we left at 7 a.m. We went non-stop for three hours, I wanted to get done.”

They continued to the confluence with the Des Plaines River (headwaters of the Illinois), then to Dresden Lock and Dam, where they locked through. Her dad picked them up in Morris on June 17.

After finishing the length of two rivers, Meloun observed, “Most people on the river are happy to help. I’m unsure if being females helps with that, lol. A couple times on the Illinois we asked property owners if we could camp there and they said as long as they can’t tell we were ever there, then it was fine.”

Next year they plan to do the Rock River and its 23 dams.

A sunrise over the Kankakee River during the trip Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made the length of it. Photo provided by Valerie Meloun

A sunrise over the Kankakee River during the trip Valerie Meloun and Kim Lockard made the length of it.

Provided by Valerie Meloun.

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