A Network of Rivers Connects Us

At the Golden Pond Visitor Center at Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes, a huge map hangs on the wall. The map is from around 1830 and depicts nearly all of the Mississippi River flowing through the central United States.

It even depicts our own Sangamon River.

Fascinatingly, most of the towns on the map are dotted along the rivers; the Mississippi and the rivers that seem to endlessly branch from it, such as our own Sangamon. The map graphically displays how a single river – the Mississippi – once connected together the entirety of the central United States.

And that’s the way it was.

It’s also the way it is.

Friday night was the Prairie Rivers Network Annual Dinner, an organization for which my wife Carol serves as Executive Director. The premier environmental event in our area celebrating both rivers and river people, it’s where around 300 river enthusiasts meet and eat to network and share stories.

I met up with Levi, of the Salt Fork River Runners. A true solo canoe devotee and aficionado, Levi is the only person I know who has completed the Missouri River (“MR”) 340 “Death Race”. A 340 mile “endurance marathon” canoe race across the entire state of Missouri: Kansas City to St. Charles. The winners do this race nonstop with no rest and no sleep. Paddlers have a maximum of 88 hours (three days and 16 hours) to complete the race.

In 2016 an all-women team completed the race in just 37 hours of non-stop paddling. Racing solo, Levi completed it in over 55 hours of mostly non-stop paddling. Needless to say, exhaustion, exposure and quite fascinating hallucinations are all part of the program.

Then I talked with Bill with the Land Conservation Foundation, a group working to connects tracts of land on the Sangamon to give people greater access to the river. They are very near to being able to connect a river trail from Monticello down to Allerton Park, a fantastic asset to both communities.

Several people won awards that night, but most notable was the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy’s own Bruce Colravy. Bruce won the 2016 River Steward of the Year Award for his efforts leading our group and in particular, leading programs such as Riverwatch, Annual Mussel Surveys and for volunteering in nearly every other conceivable way in support of our Sangamon River. The award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving River Steward.

Even our daughter Abbey showed up at the dinner after taking the train down from the University of Illinois in Chicago where she is a political science major. She wasn’t there for the dinner though, just to pick up the keys to the extra car.

Then Saturday night was the Annual Dinner of the Illinois Paddling Council, a much more intimate affair with about 30 enthusiastic river rats meeting up for pizza and salad at the historic Warrenville Tavern in Warrenville.

Carol and I were invited as co-plenary speakers for this Annual IPC dinner, our first occasion for involvement with the Council.

There we met Jake, the youthful, energetic manager of Rocktown Adventures in Aurora. Jake operates a canoe and kayak livery, offering float trips on the Fox and Rock Rivers and teaches a wide variety of paddlesport classes.

One of his favorites is “Standing Paddleboard Yoga”. Because, not surprisingly, attempting to do yoga poses while standing on a paddleboard apparently results in spending a lot of time nearly dying in the water. Not from drowning, but from hysterical laughter.

I also met Scott (not me) who, up to 3 years ago, ran a canoe livery on the Sangamon River down near Petersburg. He got out of the business thanks to convoluted liability laws but still takes people down the river voluntarily.

Scott hosts events such as river cleanups on the lower Sangamon and “Canoes and Candlelight” where they paddle until evening, ending with an evening dinner and music at the candlelit New Salem State Historic Site. But most interestingly, Scott helps host the Annual Abraham Lincoln Canoe Race on Memorial Day when people race down the Sangamon River in canoes, many wearing fake beards and stovepipe hats.

For those that don’t know, back in 1830, Abe himself made his own now-historic canoe trek from his home at the Lincoln Homestead State Park south of Decatur, down to New Salem and then on to New Orleans by flatboat.

For our talks, Carol shared the work of Prairie Rivers Network and I shared a slide show with our fellow river rats that featured the work and activities of the USRC. They were seemingly impressed.

In fact our talks seemed to go over very well, and we created new river networks among our organizations, but perhaps more important, new river connections among friends.

And then Sunday had us back home on our own Sangamon River. Leslie and Jerald and their three kids came over on this warm October afternoon, and we paddled upstream and back on a very low and astonishingly clear Sangamon River. There are few things I appreciate more than the opportunity to kill a lazy afternoon on a river with friends.

Like the map from days of yore that hangs on the wall at the Golden Pond Visitor Center, depicting the deep connection between the land and our rivers, rivers still connect us through a vast, sprawling 21st century network, bringing friends together old and new.

All of us united by our caring, concern and enjoyment of rivers everywhere.

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, October 27, 2016 by Scott Hays

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