Sangamon Watershed Celebration

I quaffed my third cup of morning joe and ran out of the house for Decatur by 7:30 on a Saturday morning, bound for my Second Annual Sangamon Watershed Celebration. Our planning committee had been working on this for much of the summer: today was the big day.

The temperature gauge on the CRV reported a brisk 18, but the sky was clear and the sun was out and the heat was on, making 18 nearly pleasant. I cued up some Allman Brothers on the CD player as Dickey Betts sang “Walk along the river, sweet lullaby….”

I was one of the lead planners and staffed the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy display table including photos, river maps, macroinvertebrate samples and a microscope and a large, diverse collection of carefully labeled mussel shells. The display included a little box with a mussel shell drilled with several button-sized holes and several polished white mussel buttons.

The morning session featured tables by agricultural, conservation and environmental organizations working throughout the Sangamon Watershed. I set up between the Decatur Audubon Society and the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. Other organizations included the Land Conversation Foundation, the Macon County Conservation District, the Lincoln Heritage Water Trail Association, Prairie Rivers Network and many, many more.

This session was family time. Groups brought river and water-themed activities for wide-eyed, curious young people who attended. They made little sailboats from wine corks at the Forest Preserve table. Out in the middle, kids played a floor sized board game, advancing around spaces filled with the lives of riverine animals. The Macon County Conservation District brought a live salamander, garter snake and red ear turtle, they made Monarch butterflies at the Prairie Rivers Network table and out in the lobby, kids could feel furry animal pelts.

At my table, kids loved peering through our microscope and seeing the larger than life teeny bugs. I pointed out the glistening insides of mussel our shells in pearlescent shades of white, pink, purple and orange. I showed them the aptly-named heelsplitter, monkeyface, pistolgrip and papershell mussels.

I talked to parents about our “free Sangamon River float trips”. They were interested in maps and access points and hearing about our groups’ cleanups and mussel surveys and learning how they might become part of it all. Naturally, I was happy to share.

As our morning session wrapped up, the afternoon session was filled with educational sessions on Lincoln-based cultural history, agricultural conservation efforts and recreational opportunities that abound throughout the Sangamon Watershed.

I learned about local foods in a session named for the Potawatomi word derivation for Sangamon – the place where there is plenty to eat. I listened to a session on Riverwatch, the Citizen Science program that I follow in monitoring the creek that runs through my own backyard. Amanda Pankau of Prairie Rivers Network presented a session titled “Pollinators Love Clean Energy” about integrating wildlife habitat on solar farms.

Another session shared the story of the “Winter of the Deep Snow” which occurred in Central Illinois and elsewhere between December 1830 and 1831. This was the first winter in Illinois for a 20 year old Abraham Lincoln and his family. Dan Monroe of Millikin University told how this weather-related freak event may have had a deep impact on Lincoln’s thinking, his education and his future path to the presidency.

A slideshow session by Candy Knox and Terry Miller shared their story of how – back in 2003 – they and other volunteers reconstructed the ‘Mississippi Broadhorn’ flatboat that Abraham Lincoln and his cousins constructed when he was 21 years old (after the Deep Snow) for a trip from Sangamo Town, down the Mississippi River and on to New Orleans.. The monumental effort depicted in the slide show – using power saws, electric drills and then a huge construction site crane to flip the multi-ton boat over to haul it onto the Sangamon made it nearly impossible to imagine Lincoln building such a craft with only the tools and power of 1831 frontier Illinois. And then Candy reminded us that Lincoln’s flatboat was twice as wide and twice again as long.

I presented a session with two other avid canoeists on “Paddling the Sangamon” from the Upper Sangamon (our area here in Mahomet) through the Middle Sangamon near Decatur and the lower Sangamon around Riverton, Springfield and Petersburg. I shared the beauty of our river and we discussed access and shared maps of our areas to the excitement of nearly a full house. Great to see this level of interest in getting out there!

The evening dinner offered a showing of the wonderful film, “The Sangamon River: A Sense of Place,” which is really about the people as much as the places of the Sangamon. The film begins with area poet John Knoepfle reading his poem “at the Sangamon headwaters” at the drain tile where the Sangamon begins in rural McLean County. The film shares tales of river people near Decatur, Sangamon catfish hoggin’ (catching giant catfish by reaching down into submerged hollow logs and dragging them out by their lower lip), and the stories of the people of the colorful Buckhart Tavern near Springfield. It concludes with the ‘River Rat’ culture among the duck hunters and fisher people of the Sanganois Wildlife Area, a “complex of sloughs, backwater lakes and timbered ponds” where the Sangamon River ends by merging with the Illinois River.

After the movie, filmmaker Charlie Shweighauser offered his thoughts and memories of the river and then encouraged audience members to do the same, which they joyfully did.

Our Sangamon Watershed Celebration turned out to be a wonderful gathering of families, kids and adults sharing river culture, history, education and recreation along with sharing our passion for all things Sangamon River, a river I have come to love.

Fourteen hours later, the time had come to pack up for the drive home. The sky was starry under the darkness of a new moon, the temperature a brisk 23, but I felt warm and fuzzy inside. As I drove, I cued up Santana on the CD player: “You are my river, keep on flowing through me…”

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