Pedaling into the past

As Illinois cautiously reopens and summer winds blow through our windows, I suggest a bike ride down the I&M Canal Trail.


Runners jog along the I&M Canal near Morris.


The state of Illinois is cautiously reopening while the perfume of summer blows through our windows. Restless Chicagoans are long overdue an adventure, and they need not travel far to find it. I propose a fun and scenic bike ride down the I&M Canal Trail.

For the last three years, every summer, I have been loading my bike onto the Rock Island District train and riding it to the end of the line. From Joliet, I bike two miles southwest to Rockdale, where begins the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail. It will take me five hours to ride the 60 miles to LaSalle, the trail’s termination.

Opinion bug


Ringlets of blue-white light filter through a dense canopy of trees above, landing on the crushed white-limestone trail and lighting my way ahead. The quintessential prairie terrain is a joy to ride. Through a veil of bobbing fox-tails and cat-tails, the canal is your constant companion. Here, the clear water is suffused in pea-soup colored duckweed; a little further down heart-shaped Calla lilies take over. Further still grows the American Lotus, with its huge yellow flowers. 

I see fauna too; iridescent winged dragonflies and blue heron placidly perched on dead boughs breaching the surface. In the sunny pools where the canal confluences with creeks, half a dozen deer lap up the water where scores of tadpoles wiggle up for a snack. 

It is not nature alone that brings me back here year after year, but an insatiable fascination with this canal’s haunting past. 

In the early 19th century, Illinois farmers had an unusual problem; they had more corn and wheat than they knew what to do with. The fertile land stretching from Chicago to the Mississippi was a land desert. The only way to travel this distance was by portaging. The idea for a canal was first proposed by one of these portagers in 1673, Louis Joliet. More than 150 years later, in 1848, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, and on this little vein of water ran the lifeblood which made Chicago the great artery it is today. Chicagoans can still see the canal’s indelible marks today on names like Lockport and Canal Street.

The canal prospered until the railroads took over in the 1880’s. It lay neglected and forgotten until 1984, when it was designated a National Heritage Corridor. The water was un-damned of fallen trees and the old mule trail cleared of debris. Today, the I&M Canal Trail offers an eerily idyllic trip into the past. 

Commodities and people alike once drifted down this waterway, which gave rise to pop-up communities like Aux Sable, which is still an admirably maintained canal ghost-town today. There is no greater spot en route for a picnic than under the towering sycamores here at Lock 8, which you will discover after gliding over an impressive aqueduct. 

I always take respite at Aux Sable to pay homage to the Irish immigrants whose dexterous hands laid the impressive stonework of the canal walls. What has become of their labor? In 200 years from now, will a man walk down a grassy Lake Shore Drive and be haunted by memories of us? 

“We are time’s subjects,” said The Bard, “and time bids be gone.”

Michael Martin lives in Lincoln Park and works as an options broker in downtown Chicago.

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