You find, somewhat unexpectedly, that on a Sunday afternoon you’ve got a few hours to yourself. So you say to yourself: “Self, I should go out and kayak the Sangamon River. I could use a little vacation.”
So you park your little red pickup a few miles downstream at Lake of the Woods park, ride your bike back home and set off downriver.
In a pleasant surprise, you find that the current’s even stronger than you hoped and paddling seems effortless. You feel like you’re gliding through the water at a pretty nice clip as the bow of your kayak slices the water, kicking up a rather impressive wake, you think to yourself.
You like the feeling of slipping the front of the paddle in the water, gliding it back along the port side of the kayak, pulling with your left hand down by the waterline while pushing with your right. Then dipping in the blade on the starboard side and pulling it back with your right hand while pushing with your left. It’s a fluid, circular, rhythmic, motion. You might even find it dance-like, that is, if you were a very good dancer, which unfortunately you’re not.
After a brief afternoon summer rain just before you set out, the air smells clean and cool, fragrant and fresh. The sounds of the birds echo off the trees all around as you marvel at the peace, quiet, and lack of humanity – while being fully aware that just beyond those trees, you’re totally surrounded by it. That’s the beauty of the Sangamon, you think to yourself. A treasured escape from Central Illinois, like a little private hidden vacation getaway.
Up ahead, you paddle by a friend’s place. He’s put in his own boat access to the river and you think, good for him! You wish more people took advantage of their opportunity to live on the river. Here the river is deep and wide, mostly straight with big open views. A little downriver, you spot his little wooded riverside encampment up on a high bank, complete with fire circle and lawn chairs. There’s nobody around for now, but it’s a very nice spot to enjoy the river.
Around the next bend to the right, you see a downed tree extending across the river from the left bank, looking like it may block your passage. But there’s a narrow way through over a slightly submerged log so no worries. And as you clear the narrow passage, you scare up a Barred Owl scouting the bank just beyond the jam. You hadn’t noticed him until he started flying off up and out over the field beyond. Then a bit more ahead you notice a Great Blue Heron lighting from a small sand bar. He’s flying off somewhere just out of sight just downriver as they always do.
Here the river takes a series of S-turns around a little deserted island and then a hard cut to the right. The current speeds up too, so it’s nice paddling. This is one of your favorite areas as the river narrows and winds its way through a thick forest of heavy tree cover. The twists and turns here mean you’re never seeing too far out ahead, never knowing what’s around the next bend. It’s like an exotic jungle cruise through here.
Then you arrive at a place that’s been jammed up by a huge pile of logs for as long as you’ve been paddling the river. Here the river speeds up as it drops over partially submerged logs and the potential for danger heightens your senses. This is an area to be careful as the water flows fast and rough through tight passages and you don’t know if you’ll even make it through. You could pull off to the side and check things out by land first but what they heck, you’ll head on through. This is about as exciting as it gets on the Sangamon. Luckily, you spot a narrow opening as you turn hard to port with a strong backwards stroke and steer your kayak through. Safe passage and no portage necessary! Great!
After that, the river again widens a bit and stretches out a distance in front of you. You relax and paddle leisurely again.
Then up ahead from around a distant bend you see it. The tell-tale black body and white tail feathers of a beautiful Bald Eagle flying upriver. He turns and flies up to perch on a branch hanging low over the river. You can’t see him because he’s partially obscured by other branches. You approach slowly, reverently. But your kayak bumps a submerged stump and it stirs the Eagle. He flies from his perch back downriver and disappears from sight.
In front of you now stretches the Cathedral, as impressive as any man-made cathedral you’ve ever seen. Here the river widens and straightens again. The tall silver maples on both banks stretch up 40 or 50 feet above then gracefully come together in a sanctuary-like pointed arch right over the center of the river. Stained-glass windows are made by the sun peering through the green tree leaves with the bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds behind. You feel small and awed by nature as you paddle through.
As you round a large bend you approach the bright red covered bridge that is the symbol of Lake of the Woods. There are always people visiting the bridge so you sit up a little straighter and paddle a little harder in a show that’s part ego, part pride and part to show those folks on the bank that yes, people do paddle the Sangamon, thankyouverymuch.
The endpoint comes far too soon: a little under two hours from when you parked your pickup right over there. You arrive at the take-out point at Lake of the Woods spillway, searching for a good tree root to clamour up as you lament the fact the Forest Preserve District still hasn’t managed to put in a good kayak launch at such an ideal point along the river.
As you drive off with the kayak in the back of your little red pickup, you ponder your own personal two-hour vacation from reality; on a jungle cruise through treacherous waters populated by owls and eagles and herons; through a Cathedral of nature and under a bright red covered bridge. And all without leaving the Village’s backyard. Interesting.
Anyway, now you head back home to mow the lawn, blow leaves off the deck and get on with your Sunday.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, June 12, 2014 by Scott Hays