Suggested headline: Riding Out the Heat Wave on the Sangamon River
Time goes by more slowly on the Sangamon River. To be more precise, 5 ½ miles takes 6 ½ hours.
So you learn a lot on a float trip. Primarily: relax, take it easy, you’ll get there. And: it’s about the journey, not the destination (in this case, the end of the float trip)
For Saturday’s float trip we had decided to put in at the Hazen Bridge where County Road 2600 crosses the Sangamon River. It’s owned by PACA, the Preservation and Conservation Association of Champaign County and open to the public.
We’d meet up at 9am where we’d take out – at the Lake of the Woods parking area where the lake’s spillway meets the Sangamon River, then ride up to the Hazen together. Given my extensive river knowledge, I guesstimated the time we’d be done at about 1pm (4 hours – I’d done this route solo in two). Actual end time: 3:30. So there ya’ go: the first lesson.
Saturday was Day Three of a forecast mid-90-degree-high “Heat Wave” as they say in the Midwest. Where I grew up in Florida, we call this “April”. I called this the “Ridin’ Out the Heat Wave Float Trip”. Friday night, my Mother-in-Law warned me of the excessive heat expected for Saturday, suggesting I cancel.
Au contrare! The Sangamon is the best place one could possibly be for riding out a heat wave! And yes, this even includes your shades-drawn, air-conditioned living room.
Down on the Sangamon it feels about 10 degrees cooler than anywhere in town, and this particular 5 ½ mile route is gratefully shaded by large sycamores and silver maples stretching out over the river most of the way. With the shade of the trees and a gently wafting southerly breeze, 94 feels downright pleasant!
Of course it helps that this area of the Sangamon at this relatively lower water depth has several spots where trees have fallen across the river, requiring frequent exits from your boat to get out there in the river to push on over, under, around or through.
By the first several hundred yards downriver from the Hazen Bridge, a tree extended across the river right at the water line, so, darn the luck, I had to exit my kayak into the waist-deep river to help folks pass over. Just past that at a sand bar portage around another area of fallen trees, John fell into shallow water while exiting his yak.
20 minutes out and two of us are already soaked. Cool! 90 degrees at 9:45, a breeze and the river’s shade. Just add sopping wet clothing and you feel great!
Not long after this, Claire, age 6 (going on 7) and paddling her own yak, decided she wanted to be in the water too. So after the portage she and her mom went for a shallow swim. Cool!
We paddled on, crossed under the County Road 2500 bridge and came upon a broad very shallow, sandy-bottomed area of the river. At lower levels than this, this sand bar is exposed and requires dragging boats across the sand. At this level there was still several inches of water in most places along with a 2 foot deep meandering channel off to the starboard side (right, for the uninitiated). So most of us hopped out of boats anyway and walked through the shallow sandy river bottom.
Claire was excited to see a Fat Pocketbook mussel scooting along the river bottom, making its trail through the sand. She found an empty mussel shell, opened it and found the beautiful abalone-like, pearlescent colors of the shell inside.
Claire and her Mom then swam down the channel for a while with their life vests on. I hopped in and did a gentle backstroke against the current, staring up at the trees with the beautiful bright blue sky beyond to see that I was staying in the same place.
A few more ins and outs to get past some downed trees and we arrived at my place on the river, where, earlier, I had placed my ice chest out in the middle of the river on a sand bar so an assortment of well iced-down beverages would be waiting for us. We had a break and downed a few drinks while standing around in the ankle-deep water. Claire and her Mom splashed in the shallows, and then: Onward!
A major portage downriver around a new large log jam that just formed this year found us putting our boats back in at a spot I was a little familiar with. The river comes right to the edge of a low spot beside the river where we put the boats back in. Here at the shoreline, just below the water’s edge I knew there is a precipitous drop off.
After a few people safely set out, it was my turn, so I put my boat in the water, then deliberately stepped off the bank into the river just because I was curious and straight down I went, under water and over my head. I treaded water for a bit and went down again and found it be more than about eight feet deep, one of the deepest spots on the river in this area!
We paddled on down the shady river with the gently billowing breeze, past areas of fallen trees that were nonetheless passable enough to make the passing interesting. We were already past my guesstimated end time, but we figured: where else are we trying to get to on this Heat Wave Saturday after we get done on the river? So we stopped on another gravelly beach area where the river narrows for another very cool swim.
A while after that, a tired, hungry and damp bunch of river rats arrived at the covered bridge at Lake of the Woods, our sign that our trip was almost over. At this depth the river makes a nice area of shallow (almost) “white water” just beyond the bridge, for one last thrill ride before taking out near the spillway.
Even though our end time was two and half hours later than I guesstimated, all were satisfied, if a bit hungry from a lack of lunch.
And I was forgiven for making a nearly 3 hour miscalculation of our end time since after all, we agreed that there was no place any of us would rather have spent a 94 degree “heat wave” Saturday than out on (and in) the cool, refreshing Sangamon River.
Appeared as Rivers and Roads, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays, July 18, 2019