A Paddling Vignette

Exploring Central Illinois' Waterways
by Stevie Sigan

Local waterways offer ample opportunities for paddlers.

Ah, summer: floating in with the tide towards the stretch of sand at my grandparents’ house in northern Michigan, tired arms soaking in the setting sun after kayaking the curves of a pristine river. Its waters were a tangle of foliage, requiring more portaging than rowing, but the trouble was well worth the adventure. I strived to impress at my grandfather’s daily enquiry: “How far up the river did you get today?” But half the grandeur was the hours spent outdoors. The Upper Peninsula’s summer is fueled by that magic sun—hot, but not too hot, with Lake Michigan breathing cool between its rays. And while the land held its luster, too—a maze of northern hardwoods and conifers dotted with birch—it was on the water, in a kayak, where I was most at peace.

Paddling enthusiasts will offer a variety of reasons why they love the sport. Russ Fosdyck, resident kayaking enthusiast at Bushwhacker in Peoria, says his passion is fired up by the unmatched upper-body and core-muscle workouts, but that “just being outdoors, away from people, motor boats and loud noises” is reason enough. For Debra Wendt, organizer of meetup.com’s Central Illinois Canoe and Paddling Group, it’s a great way to meet other people who share a similar interest. For Mike Svob, author of the comprehensive guide Paddling Illinois, it’s the scenic beauty: “Many of Illinois’ most attractive locales can be viewed by motorists, bicyclists or hikers, but the most intimate perspective of all is enjoyed by canoeists and kayakers,” he writes. “There is no better way to experience the excitement and diversity of the state’s geology, wildlife and scenery.”

For me, it’s that memory of total tranquility. And so, with my home now in central Illinois, I’ve set out like Quixote for a rendering of that harbored nostalgia, hopeful for what the heart of Illinois’ waterways can offer. After all, “Wherever there is a channel for water, there is a road for the canoe," touted Henry David Thoreau. Here are a few of my finds...

Along the sandy way where water fails As the summer wanes.
—Edgar Lee Masters, 1915

An easy drive due east on Route 24 from Peoria, Evergreen Lake is a 900-acre natural gem teeming with wildlife. Part of Comlara County Park, the lake is maintained by the McLean County Department of Parks, which imposes a 10-horsepower limit on boats. This makes for a calm wake and a uniquely quiet, yet bustling fishing spot. The lake’s sprawling shape lends itself to curious nooks and crannies best explored via kayak. Evergreen proves one of the best parts of kayaking or canoeing is the ability to closely trace shorelines and approach nature more stealthily than in a motorboat.

Boat rentals are available at the bait shop on the water’s edge—but there are only two single kayaks and one tandem kayak available (each is $8/hr or $23/day), so be sure to call ahead to check availability. Be forewarned too, that the kayaks are sit-on-tops—models derivative of surfboards, with no cockpit, and increasingly popular for fishing and scuba diving, due to the easy in and out. These models are perfectly functional, but you will get a bit wetter than in a traditional sit-inside model. Best advice: be prepared to accept a canoe as an alternative if the kayaks are unavailable. Other alternatives include paddleboats ($6/half-hour) and rowboats ($10/hr or $25/ day); or pay a minimal deposit to launch your own watercraft.

Lake highlights: Shore up at the small island across from the bait shop and explore by foot; sneak up close to observe huge grass carp nesting in long reed grass stands; marvel at painted turtles basking in algaeabundant shallows; or bring your fishing pole and try your luck at walleye, big muskie, crappie or bass.

Comlara Park is located at 13001 Recreation Area Dr. in Hudson, Illinois. Rental hours are 8am to 4pm, Monday through Thursday, and 6am to 4pm, Friday through Sunday. Call (309) 434-6770.

Ah… timelessness, a river’s secret weapon.
—Duane Short, 2006

East Peoria’s Spindler Marina is within a stone’s throw of Peoria, near ICC’s East Campus off of Route 116. Maintained by the Fon du Lac Park District, the marina is a public gateway to the Illinois River. Again, kayak rentals are sparse, but if your timing is right, there are two single 15-footers available for rental ($10/four hours; $15/eight hours). There is also one canoe for two available at the same price. Launching your own boat costs four dollars a day, or obtain a $40 permit for a full year’s access.

Though a bit more populated, and thus accompanied by the waft of boat diesel and a scattering of litter better avoided at designated wildlife areas and preserves, this portion of the Illinois still astounds. High river bluffs impress along the five miles of this wide portion of the river valley— the floodwaters enveloping forests and marshes, making for some interesting paddling along the shoreline.

River highlights: Time a three-mile paddle from Spindler to the Peoria Riverfront during one of its many festivals and catch live music from the water; or explore the marshy shoreline, then return your rental to get a closer look on foot. The 1.8-mile boardwalk trail connecting Spindler Marina to Cooper Park North crosses calm, beaver-dammed waters and lush growth inaccessible by kayak—rendered most beautiful as the sun sets gold over the water, blinking through sugar maples.

Carl Spindler Marina & Campground is located at 3701 N. Main Street in East Peoria, Illinois. Rental hours are 9am to 5pm, every day through October 15th. Call (309) 699-3549 for more information.


Additional Paddling Resources

  • Area 52 in Mackinaw offers canoe and kayak rentals for two- to eight-hour trips on the Mackinaw River. (309) 208-1053
  • Bushwhacker in Peoria’s Metro Centre offers a staff of paddling enthusiasts and a wide selection of kayaks. (309) 692-4812, bushwhacker.com
  • Central Illinois Canoe and Paddling Group is a Peoria-based group that schedules day and overnight paddling trips, lessons and treks. meetup.com/Central- Illinois-Canoe-and-paddling-Meetup-Group
  • Illinois Paddling Council is a not-for-profit association of paddlers and paddling organizations with an information-rich website. illinoispaddling.org/clubs
  • Mackinaw Canoe Club of Central Illinois is a regional organization of over 150 amateur paddle-sports enthusiasts that sponsors trips, classes and clinics. rivers-end.org/mcc
  • Outdoor Adventure Center at Illinois State University offers sea kayaks and canoes for rent. (309) 438-8419

It is pleasant to have been to a place the way a river went.
—Henry David Thoreau, 1842

Take Route 24 in the other direction, about 25 miles southwest of Peoria, for another day’s adventure at Banner Marsh Fish & Wildlife Area—a 4,363-acre freshwater marsh boasting grasslands, waters and shrublands home to migrating and local waterfowl and fish—northern pike, largeand smallmouth bass, walleye, crappie, bluegill, sunfish and channel cat. While public boat ramps offer easy access to its waters, there are no on-site rentals available, so bring your own kayak, or borrow a friend’s. There’s no fee to put-in (launch your boat) at Banner.

Along with Great Blue herons, osprey and other wading birds, the site is also a stopping point for the migrating American bald eagle and American white pelican—making it a birder’s paradise. Banner Marsh again demonstrates that the beauty of the kayak is in its silent approach—one with nature, you can get usually close enough to birds to observe them undisturbed.

Marsh highlights: Paddle between looming trees in the pervading floodwaters; float toward the various calls of flurrying waterfowl; race a friend from point to point—the calm waters protected from the Illinois River by a major levee make for smooth, easy paddling.

Banner Marsh Fish and Wildlife Area is located at 19721 N. US 24 in Canton, Illinois. The park is open dawn to dusk every day; rentals not available. Call (309) 647-9184 for more information.