Sunday, August 2, 2015

White Water Paddling on Illinois' Vermillion River, Oglesby

The Vermillion River, near the Ottawa Area, is the best place for river rafting near the Chicago area. We finally made it out to here on a lovely weekend and will likely make this a summer tradition.

A gentler portion of the river towards the Illinois River
Its funny to think that the same town my mother grew up in is becoming our premier destination for outdoor adventures near Chicagoland. Ottawa-Utica-Peru-Oglesby area has long been a favorite for outdoor enthusiasts in Northern Illinois due to the picturesque Fox and Illinois Rivers along with the iconic Starved Rock State Park. The more intrepid locals of the area tend to actually favor Matthiessen state park and the Vermillion River over anything else. We found the area to be an extraordinary example of Midwestern environment.

The Vermillion River is one of Illinois more wild rivers. Although the Mississippi, Illinois, Fox and Des Plains Rivers are much more well known, the Vermillion retains most of its rugged character. Hence, its a favorite for river rafting. One might think that a flat state like Illinois is hardly a destination for rafting. However, this delightful river offers just the right balance of rapids to pleasant floating. It was a great way to spend a simmering summer Saturday. We were able to easily rent a boat from Vermillion River Rafting.

Here's the map of our paddle-

As you can see, the river is full of twists and curves. I could brake it down into about three sections. The first third is mostly moving water without significant rapids. Its cliffy and magnificent. The second third continues with sharp cliffs that make the river seem like a deep Southwestern-like canyon. Here's where most of the rapids are, including Wildcat Falls. Wildcat can actually swell to a surprisingly good Class III rapids in the spring and after heavy rains. Even in a dry summer, it can be an adventurous and tricky section to navigate. None the less, it adds a thrilling challenge to the trip. The second two rapids are also thrilling but not quite as technical. The final third is a relaxed float which is best taken as slowly as your day allows.

The weather looked a little menacing at first but the day
Cliffs dominate the scenery in the first half of the paddle
An interesting overhang and a blind corner

Almost looks Southwestern to me
As it was just the two of us, we were somewhat jostled by the stronger rapids. I think a perfect group size would be 3-4 which would be enough weight to keep the boat running steady but not too much to drag through the shallower sections. Nevertheless, we had a great time although occasionally embarrassing ourselves as we went completely backwards through some of the easier sections. Paddling as a couple through rapids could be considered a "couples skill building" activity.
Our bow-woman on alert for danger

Magnificent scenery though the first half
Looking back on Wildcat Falls which ultimately soaked our boat!

One of the many swimming holes we enjoyed

The final float down
Getting soaked wasn't exactly a bad thing on a hot summer day. We pulled over a few times to bail out the boat but there were so many nice landings that it made for a full day paddle.

The dam and the concrete factory were the only visages of civilization we had on the whole trip. There were a few presumably abandoned railroad bridges but that added to the allure of the trip. After getting through the three main rapids, we enjoyed a pleasant float all the way back to the landing.

I imagine this will be a trip we do many times. Perhaps we'll rent funyaks next time?

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Eagle Watching and Winter Hiking at Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

Starved Rock is the closest thing that Illinois has to a National Park (other than the Lincoln Home). Receiving 2 million visitors annually, the number seems greatly over-estimated when walking on empty trails in the winter. Bald Eagles are plentiful during this season.

Starved Rock has many narrow canyons which can be hiked
Bald Eagles were very common
It was only a matter of time before I visited the most famous park of my new state. I doubt that Starved Rock State Park is a "new find" for anyone reading this but visiting it in the winter was a different experience all together. For the non-Chicagoans/non-Midwesterners, Starved Rock is an area of large sandstone cliffs and deep canyons which contrasts the commonly held view of the Midwest being entirely flat and uninspiring. We are fortunate to be a little over an hour and a half away.

Nearly every Illinois Tourism brochure has three common pictures in it- Lincoln related points of interest, Chicago scenes and Starved Rock. The dozen or so waterfalls are beautiful in themselves, not just "pretty... for the Midwest". In the winter, they freeze and become a legitimate ice climbing destination. The reasons for making it down here were numerous.

WI4 Ice at Starved Rock
Our hike began where most hikes begin which was the trail up the actual Starved Rock of Starved Rock State Park. This is almost always a crowded hike but the rock is large enough to support the crowds. What I didn't realize before visiting is that although it is the tallest and most famous feature in the park, it is not the only great lookout. After getting a great view of a dozen bald eagles, we actually enjoyed Lover's Leap, Eagle Cliff and Beehive Overlook just as well. All of these were within a 3 mile round trip hike from the main parking area.

The above pictured Wildcat Canyon and French Canyon were the highlight of our little jaunt. There are dozens of canyons with varying degrees of magnificence throughout the park but those two are the most photographed. A few of them could be seen from the road such as Kankaskia and Ottawa Canyon. I didn't realize the park is some 20 miles long. St Louis Canyon and Aurora Canyon were not seen by us on this hike but they consistently make for photography favorites during any season.
Lovers Leap as viewed from Starved Rock

Expansive view of the Illinois River from Eagle Cliff
We happened to go right in the middle of prime Bald Eagle watching season- a yearly event where the eagles roost on Plum Island in the winter and enjoy the abundant fishing below the dam. Again, this is well known to most outdoorsy Illinoisans but to us this was an extra surprise. The Bald Eagles were as abundant as pigeons are on Lake Michigan- a nice change of avian species. We were quite close to a few eagles who seemed unperturbed by the flocks of photographers clamoring for a money shot. Having traveled much across other Bald Eagle territories in the Rockies and Maine, I'd say this was the closest I've been to them before.

Winter was a fine time to visit Starved Rock. The trails were well marked and cut and I just needed microspikes for the few hills we encountered. There's enough hills and stairs to make it a pretty legitimate hike as well. Its possible to hike a good 14-16 miles without seeing the same thing twice; a good summertime goal. But whether on snowshoes, winter boots or crampons, I think this park is beyond just the "its beautiful... for the Midwest" type of place.
Walking along the Illinois River

Some single pitch ice climbing- easy to top rope
I'd like to return in the Spring when the waterfalls are really flowing. I'm sure it's actually pretty any time of year though!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!