Our Pledge To You


A path for Illinois water trails: Inaugural Illinois Water Trails Conference


You know you reached the right place for the inaugural Illinois Water Trails Conference when this is a scene in the parking lot.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

“Buy a trailer of canoes, a trailer of kayaks,’’ Dan Plath said. ‘‘We are out there two or three times a week, anybody we can get on the water. There is a direct correlation in getting people on the water and getting funding.’’

And he means anybody you can get on the water. Plath, who is with the Northwest Indiana Paddling Association, even mentioned that ‘‘ ‘Dancing With the Stars’ dude — anybody who will get out.’’

More people are getting out on the water. That was one reason for the inaugural Illinois Water Trails Conference, which was held Monday at the Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon. It was hosted by the Illinois Paddling Council and the Potawatomie Paddlers Association.

Let’s start with a definition of ‘‘water trail’’ from Sigrid Pilgrim, a director with the Illinois Paddling Council:

 A series of permitted access and egress points that are reasonable paddling distances (about five miles is average).

 Depending on the environment, picnicking and campsites accessible from the water only.

† Safe public parking spaces.

 Support from local entities and private individuals.


 Events to draw people to the waterway.

Pilgrim used a comparison to blood circulation, saying our waterways ‘‘need to be recognized as life-giving arteries.’’

Those arteries rapidly are becoming healthier and drawing more interest.

Openlands has much information available at paddleillinoiswatertrails.org. The list includes the Calumet area, Chicago River, Des Plaines River, DuPage River, Fox River, Kankakee River, Kishwaukee River, Lake Michigan, Nippersink Creek and Salt Creek.

I’ve paddled six of the waterways (Calumet, Chicago, Des Plaines, Fox, Kankakee and Lake Michigan) and waded two more (DuPage and Salt Creek).

The Lake Michigan Water Trail now covers 75 miles from the North Side to New Buffalo, Michigan, including 16 miles of industrial shoreline in Indiana. It is being expanded north to Traverse City, Michigan.

In Illinois, there has been pushback from some North Shore communities. Plath said it would be good if paddlers in those communities work for the Lake Michigan Water Trail.

Plath noted work is needed in coming years on parking and launch fees, parking passes and a launch/parking sticker applicable in all four Lake Michigan states.

Advances keep coming, such as primitive camping sites that should be up next year in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

The Kankakee River became a National Water Trail on June 3, 2016. There are now some no-trace campsites along the Illinois portion, said Bruce Cowhig of the Potawatomie Paddlers Association.


Paddlers work the chute on the Fox River at Yorkville.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Advocates are working to have the Fox River designated a National Water Trail. Karen Miller said the “Fabulous Fox! Water Trail,” which would go through eight counties in two states, has a new logo and more partners, including 10 convention and visitor bureaus along the river. Public meetings on plans should be held in 2019.

In the 50th-anniversary year of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, Illinois has one such designation: 17.1 miles of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, northeast of Danville. I highly recommend it.

But move fast. Prairie Rivers Network executive director Carol Hays gave a presentation on the threat coal ash from a former coal-fired power plant poses to the Middle Fork.

The last words go to Plath, who said: ‘‘Most important is just getting people on water.’’