Hopalong Casssidy River Trail to Red White and Blue Bridge (Illinois Rte. 57)
May 19, 2018
Gradient: ~4.3 feet per mile
05555300, Vermillion R. near Leonore; 475 cfs, 4.56 feet deep
05554500, near Pontiac, 160 cfs, 3.47 feet deep
Recommended levels: I would likely not paddle this any shallower. I scraped bottom three times, and it took some water-reading skills to not scrape more.
Put-in: Hopalong Cassidy River Trail, a really attractive and well-maintained gravel parking lot just west of the river and north of County Route 18. Coordinates are: 41°07’15.9″N 88°50’27.2″W
Take-out: I had to modify my take-out plans. Originally I intended on an 8 mile trip ending, going with Mike Svob’s advice in Paddling Illinois, at the Stony Ford bridge. I got to the bridge, ready to do a bike shuttle, only to find a strict mix of private property and a lot of “No Trespassing” signs. I ended up knocking at a neighbor’s door and found that paddlers were using the Stony Ford Sportsmen’s club property as a takeout until a ton of folks got their vehicles stuck and kind of ruined it for anyone. So, I ended up driving down a couple miles to the Red White and Blue Bridge (welcome to small-town Illinois). The take out here is river-right and just upstream of the bridge, on a gravelly side bar. I schlepped the kayak up the immediate side of the bridge–not easy– but there is a dirt road/footpath that can be used. I parked on the side of the highway, and felt pretty safe doing so, given that it seems to be a very low-traffic highway.
Time: About 3h15m
Put in: 2:15 PM
Takeout: 5:30 PM
Wildlife: Vultures, a deer, an eagle on the shuttle, a scarlet tanager (I believe), a heron, hawks, a couple large turtles, one (small) water snake, lots of asian carp jumping about, and a couple horses (!!!) at the end of the trip
I picked this trip out based on Mike Svob’s recommendation in Paddling Illinois, and was not disappointed whatsoever. Finding information for this section is pretty exceptionally difficult, and I had to rely on his awesome but somewhat outdated book: as mentioned before, I had to modify my takeout plans. I was glad I did, as it only took me 3 hours and change to paddle this stretch.
There’s another, way more popular trip downstream on this river that runs Wildcat Rapids and then an old dam, where paddlers died about 15 years ago, prompting a closure of the river to recreational paddling. I’m not really sure how property law works in Illinois or how the DNR can unilaterally close a river to paddling when they don’t own most of the property surrounding the river–but that’s neither here nor there. Given my late start and the time it’s been since I’ve paddled a lot, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable taking on whitewater, especially alone.
This section was exceedingly serene, though, along with some riffles to keep things interesting. Almost immediately after putting in , you pass old bridge pilings, and shortly after the high rock outcroppings and cliffs begin alternating from bank to bank, mostly supporting oak-sycamore-maple forests, with some pretty studdings of woodland phlox and columbine on the rocky outcrops.
Numerous gravel and rocky islands dot the river, and usually signal a riffle train and shallow water coming up. A word of advice: follow the tongues and stay away from the islands. This is what worked for me, at least! Usually. I ended up pinned on a standalone rock, but was able to easily roll off of it quickly. The river as a whole is fairly shallow–I don’t think it was ever deeper than 5 feet or so and usually a bit lower. I scraped just a few times. Interestingly enough, however, the water wasn’t super clear: I’m used to thinking of clear streams and rocky bottoms going hand in hand. I wonder why that isn’t so here.
Mike Svob indicated that the last two miles to the Red White and Blue Bridge weren’t nearly as attractive as the eight miles before–and while the cliffs do fade off after the Sandy Ford Bridge, the river remains a nice paddle. I didn’t see the houses he mentions–the only building I saw was the Sportsmen’s Club just before Sandy Ford. And it’s in this section that I saw horses along the banks–so I wasn’t too torn up about paddling the last two miles.
Two notes of interest about this river.
The first is that this is one of the nicest bike shuttles I’ve ever done. Farm roads, not busy, nice paving…on a windy day it could prove difficult. But the shuttle takes 45-55 minutes and tacks along several really nice farm roads before diving into a tour of Streator, a really pretty small town.
The second’s more related to the hydrology of the river. This is one of two Vermillion Rivers in Illinois. This runs into the Illinois River somewhat near Oglesby, while the other runs right through Danville, Illinois on its way to the mighty Wabash. Confusingly enough, this is in addition to a corresponding Little Vermillion for each Vermillion. Make sense? Good. So why two rivers with the same name just a moderate distance from one another? Turns out, when settlers first came and displaced Native Americans, the two rivers originated from one wetland, flowing in opposite directions. People likely used the wetland and the two streams to go back and forth in canoes, making them one river for their purposes. Just two ways of seeing the same thing, I suppose–they certainly weren’t wrong for calling them one thing, and we certainly aren’t wrong for calling them another.
I would totally paddle this serene, quiet, but often riffly and birdsong-loud river again if I was in the area. I was stoked to get out on water, but would think twice about driving more than an hour to get here.