Sunday, July 08, 2007

Canoe trips

In the past week I've had the chance to get out on the water twice and work on my everlong quest to canoe the Rock River from one of its sources to the Mississippi River. On Sunday, July 1, I canoed from a boat landing a few miles north of Lyndon to Prophetstown with my friend Brandi. Skies were sunny, temperatures in the 70s, and the wind to our backs. This stretch of river, while lacking the dramatic cliffs and woodsy scenery of Oregon, IL, or north of Janesville, WI, was still very peaceful and serene, with few houses or development along the shoreline.

Brandi said she was impressed at my canoe set up. I installed a rack on my truck the night before. The canoe sets on the rack and leaves the bed open for bikes, paddles, pads and the cooler.

I skipped ahead of my last take out point in Dixon because Mike Svob, in his book, Paddling Illinois, recommends against the stretch from Dixon to Sterling (more on that later).
(Click on the picture below for more.)

I decided to go back to Dixon Saturday and cover some of the stretch I missed. I invited my old drum corps buddy Andy J. to come with me, warning him that this may not be the most scenic stretch of water. Maybe it was due to the actual conditions or Svob's warning, but I consider this my worst day on the water. Andy, whom I've accused of being a pessimist, bolstered my spirits when I complained. He seemed to really enjoy himself on the water and made fun of me: "I thought you were a tough guy with all that hiking you've done." Okay, I'll shut up now.

But the conditions were miserable -- a 20 mile per hour wind in our face so that whenever we stopped we were blown upstream, temps in the 90s with high humidity, lack of shoreline trees for shade, and the heaviest boat traffic, by far, I've ever encountered on the river, producing wake upon wake that left me queasy with motion sickness.
Exhaust fumes from the boats didn't help. High gas prices has not deterred recreational traffic. Jet skis are the worst carbon offenders because they, like lawn mowers and other single stroke engines (including snowmobiles), don't have catalytic converters.
For Andy, though, this was an entirely new experience. This was his first canoe trip and he was caught up in the novelty of the moment. I told him he'd make a good backpacker. The heat and waves seemed to have no effect on him.
(Click on the picture below for more)

We were on the water from noon to 8:30 p.m., and the last hour on the water was by the far the finest. In the few miles leading up to the Sterling dam, the river widens over a mile from shoreline to shoreline. The wind finally died down and boat traffic lessened. The air cooled to the 80s. Fatigue made the peace all the more profound.

The bike ride back to the truck was reverie, but one last hurdle remained. The truck, en route to the river, had acceleration problems and didn't start again when I wanted to move it away from a carnival shanty village in Dixon. Andy and I had to push it to its spot beyond the tents and RVs. When I finished my 11-mile ride to Dixon and tried to start the truck, it wouldn't even turn over. This has happened in the past, and I had to jiggle the shift column to put in park to the finicky satisfaction of the starter. But nothing seemed to work. After 10 minutes of shifting in and out of park and turning the engine, I was on the verge of calling for a tow (mind you, Andy was waiting with the canoe and equipment in Rock Falls), but decided to try to start it in other gears. It turned over with no problem in neutral. Whew! Yet another crisis averted.

After dropping off Andy, the truck once again lost power and I couldn't get it above 45 mph. I took lesser-known country roads all the way back to DeKalb. The truck's going to see a transmission specialist this week. Ouch.
My next trips on the Rock River will be to connect the dots of sections I missed, including Watertown to Jefferson, WI, and the short stretch from beyond the dams in Sterling/Rock Falls to the landing north of Lyndon. I'll cut and paste some maps to the blog to highlight some parts of the overall trip.
The end is coming... and I'm ready. In many ways, this is a dumb quest. The Rock River is not the best for canoeing. It's too wide, too windy (the river flows to the southwest and the prevailing winds most often work against you), and there's too many dams and not enough current, and too much power boat traffic. That said, I've had many wonderful moments on the water, and the experience has helped me gain a greater appreciation for the nature in my home turf, which I've always ran away from for more scenic mountain and desert climes.
Thanks again to Brandi and Andy for joining me this past week and being part of the journey. Your company and extra paddle are appreciated beyond measure.

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