People gathered from all around:  Champaign, Urbana, Mahomet, Dewey; from the Sierra Club, from the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy, and from the Izaak Walton League.  Some were friends and some family, and some destined to become new friends. Some were young and some were old. Some came by mini-van, some by convertible, some by old pick-up truck, and one by folding bike with an inflatable kayak strapped on the back. Seventeen people in all met on a muggy Saturday morning in July at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve to float down the Sangamon River to Lake of the Woods.

We set out down the quarter mile path to the launch point at the confluence of Wildcat Slough and the Sangamon River: three canoes, nine kayaks, and one inflatable kayak with a folding bicycle strapped to the front.

Crowded together like the beginning of a marathon, old and new friends engaged in conversation: “I’m thinking of buying a new kayak, what should I get?” “Oh, really? How was paddling the Middle Fork?” “How is your garden growing?”  “Have you ever made it to Canoe-copia?” “Yes, I was thinking about raising chickens in my backyard, too.” And the inevitable, “Boy, they sure got the forecast wrong again.”

Paddlers stretched out on the river as it narrowed under a canopy of Silver Maples and Sycamores. And not far ahead, a half-submerged Ash tree blocked the river from bank to bank. Some paddlers portaged  around, others pulled up beside the tree and climbed over, and one went in the water to help out.   And we set out again.

We continued to stretch out, rolling down the river. Look at the huge Great Blue Heron nests of sticks and twigs, perched impossibly high in the sycamores! Inevitably, another log jam, this one massive and impassable, cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of nature and humanity. Branches, spare tires, logs, bottles, entire trees, beer cans, a refrigerator, and over there emerges the prow of some unfortunate swamped rowboat.

One after another, Great Blue Herons guided us down the river, flying ahead to the next tree just before the next bend as we approached.  Another huge tree blocks the river ahead, no good portage here. Some people clamored over the tree, some did the Sangamon limbo under it, and some went over the tree while they pushed their boats under it.  And one of us, trying to get back in his canoe after climbing over the tree, went right over and into the river.  No harm done. Back in the boat and we’re off again. As the pace lingered, three of us paddled ahead, two of them will continue on to the end and we won’t see them again. Goodbye, friends.

Not long after crossing under the historic Hazen Bridge, we pass by a USRC’ers home and he picks up Jack, his border collie mix–an excellent kayak rider, turns out. A few of us take the opportunity to cut it short and catch a ride back to the Forest Preserve. Hello, new friend; goodbye, new friends!

Along the way, we notice how people enjoy the river: there’s a river raft, further down, a tree house perched above, later, a tire swing tied to a Silver Maple hangs out over the water. We traverse over, limbo under and squeeze by a few more fallen trees and logs. We step out and drag our boats across a few unnoticed sand and gravel bars. Later we pass a beautiful rocky waterfall! Actually, it’s the outflow of the North sewage treatment plant. Drinkable water, they say. You first, I say.

We spot a few cars driving beside the river as we near the Lake of the Woods covered bridge. Our take out spot is just ahead on the left at the spillway. Getting out of the river here can be an adventure in itself. One of us was going to be permanently stuck in the mud, and it took three guys holding hands (I won’t tell if you don’t) to get another one of us out of the canoe and up the steep, muddy, bank.

People came from all around to experience the river. And they experienced its strengths and its limitations; its impressive tree cover, its wildlife and its litter; its logjams, its portages, and its sand and gravel bars.  We have new river memories, new stories to tell and pictures to share. And all met new friends.

And for many of us, the best new friend was the river itself. Hello, new friend!

Mahomet Citizen, July 27, 2011

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