The Illinois River and the maze of creeks and streams flowing into it make for a diverse playground in our watershed. There is no substitute for getting out on the water to gain a true appreciation for our wonderful waters. Their amazing beauty is the reason we are so invested in preserving, protecting, and restoring this natural treasure. Through our series of Paddler’s Posts, we’ll highlight some of our favorite river trips and share yours as well!
It’s a bit chilly for a mid-August morning. Fifty-seven degrees and overcast with a light fog suspended over lush wooded hills, the sky is just beginning to illuminate when we slide our boats into the swollen Illinois River at Chambers Hollow, just east of Siloam Springs. To the delight of local paddlers, parts of northwestern Arkansas have received fifteen to twenty inches of rain over the past few weeks, so we’re ready for a wild 12-mile float to the Oklahoma state line. As Kevin steps into his solo canoe, he loses his footing on shore and plunges into an unseasonable depth of golden-green murk, a color indicating heavy rainfall and overland runoff. He emerges with a chuckle, saying, “Well, that was unexpected! Good start to my day.”
We maneuver lazily down the river among fallen tree limbs and misplaced debris. It has never been more apparent that everything that gets washed away during a rain event—litter, loose sediment, oil, lawn fertilizer, and so on—ends up in our local waterways. Anything that doesn’t infiltrate into the ground gets washed downhill and downstream, which makes stormwater perhaps the most pervasive source of water pollution. We notice cuts in the vertical streambank about eight feet above our heads where the river sliced by just a couple of weeks ago. The power of water has always amazed me, and I think that’s why I’m so drawn to it.
We pass craggy limestone bluffs that line the riverbank, revealing a “Buffalo-esque” side of the Illinois River that most folks don’t know about and even fewer get the chance to see. The morning chatter of songbirds fills the crisp air as a Great Blue Heron drifts just inches above the water a few hundred yards ahead. Through the haze, I make out the silhouettes of two fishermen slumping patiently on the shore. We exchange friendly waves and well wishes and carry on.
We soon coast beneath the bridge at Highway 16, just south of Siloam Springs. This is the halfway point in the float, although we don’t know it at the time. However, when we spot the old Fischer Ford Bridge only 25 minutes later, we realize how quickly the river has been carrying us along. We’ve just hit our seven-mile marker, and Kevin and I are familiar with the five miles that lie ahead.
This next five mile stretch from Fischer Ford Bridge to the Highway 59 Bridge is the only commercially outfitted float trip that takes place on the Arkansas portion of the Illinois River, and we have both taken that trip before. A couple hundred yards beyond the Fischer Ford Bridge are the thrilling rapids that will soon be enhanced and showcased in the City of Siloam Springs’ new “whitewater park,” thanks to a generous donation from the Walton Family Foundation.
The rumble of whitewater reverberates from the metal bridge, and I instantly know that I have never heard it this loud. The roar gets more and more daunting as we draw near, and at last, I see the churn. Boat bouncing over standing waves, I belt out a “WOO-HOOOOOO!” and delight in the exhilaration.
Finally reaching less turbulent waters, I relax in knowing that remainder of the float is lazy and obstacle-free. For the next five miles, Kevin and I use our paddles mainly to straighten our crafts when the current carries them astray. Without effort, we rapidly reach our next landmark: the log home on a cliff high above a major bend in the river. This means we have approximately 2 river miles remaining before we reach the Arkansas 59 Bridge at the state line, and it isn’t too much longer before we meander within earshot of the vehicular traffic of the highway.
We complete the 12-mile expedition in less than 5 hours. This experience is breathtaking, and it’s right here in our own backyard. Get out there in it, and see it for yourself!
Do you have any stories or photos of your Illinois River adventures? Share with us in the comments below!