Kishwaukee River open to kayaks from Union to Marengo after years-long cleanup

Mike Church removes a tree in the Kishwaukee River on Monday, June 17, 2024, at Siems Memorial Park near Union. Members of the Paddle the Kish group have finished clearing the Kishwaukee River between Union Marengo area so it can be paddled in kayaks.

Kayakers who can now launch into the Kishwaukee River outside Union and paddle to County Line Road in Marengo and beyond have, in part, Pat Lawlor’s retirement to thank for the newly open river trail.

“I sold my business and bought a kayak” to keep busy in retirement, Lawlor said.

It wasn’t too long after that, she said, that Marengo Mayor John Koziol mentioned it would be nice to paddle the river that runs past the town. Before the cleanup started, the section of river was choked with downed trees and snags. Lawlor started gathering other kayakers and volunteers.

The Paddle the Kish in Marengo Facebook page was born in August 2018. Since then, about 100 volunteers have worked weekends and during special work day events, slowly clearing the fallen trees and snags between Siems Memorial Park west of Union to County Line Road in Marengo.

Gary Thrall pulls a kayak through a shallow section of the Kishwaukee River on Monday, June 17, 2024, at Siems Memorial Park near Union. Members of the Paddle the Kish group have finished clearing the Kishwaukee River between the Union and Marengo area so it can be paddled in kayaks.

According to a June 7 post on the City of Marengo Facebook page, the river should now be “safe and easy paddling until the next big storm.” After a storm, more trees might go down and need a crew to come out and move them.

“We go to where we know people have reported logs down,” said Ray Mroczkowski, one of the active volunteers.

It’s about 10 miles as the crow flies, but 14 miles of river for kayakers to paddle. Much of the section is surrounded by farmland or wetlands, and about one-third falls inside McHenry County Conservation District land, Lawlor said.

To legally clear the snags and fallen trees, the Paddle the Kish group needed a few things, Lawlor said, including insurance, chainsaw certification and a study of the river. Fortunately, Marengo Township had a 2005 study that looked at the possibility of recreational kayaking on the river, done as part of previous housing plans that never came to fruition.

What the Kishwaukee in McHenry County offers is a Class A stream with a sand bottom, averaging between 2 to 4 feet in depth, with a few deeper sections where fallen tree caused water to cut deeper into the land, explained Gary Thrall. As the “resident engineer” of the volunteer group, Thrall built the launch at Siems Memorial Park. The group also placed a bench and signage at the park.

The river begins in Woodstock, but doesn’t fully form into a paddle-able stream until just before Siems Park, Thrall said. Once the river hits the Boone County line, it can take kayakers, canoeists and even inner tube riders all the way to the Rock River in Rockford with just a few portages.

In between, those on the river can often see bald eagles, blue heron, beavers, muskrats and even river otters.

“The beaver will see you coming, dive, pass you, and pop up ahead of you” to watch you pass, Thrall said.

During the river clearing, the organization volunteers used their chainsaws sparingly. For downed trees across the river, just enough of the trunk was removed to make for 20 to 50 feet of clearance through the channel, Mroczkowski said. Fallen logs were left in place, too, to ensure habitat for the fish and other critters that nest and lay eggs in and around the snags, he said.

Now that the river is open, however, the next challenge is to keep it that way. Storms – or just natural tree falls on the bank – can close it off again. If kayakers do find a fallen tree, Thrall asks them to take a photo and report the location, with GPS coordinates, via the Facebook page.

Dixie and Mike Church live along the river for half of the year at the Holiday Acres RV Park. They spend the winters in warmer climates where they can also kayak. But as the closest volunteers during the season here, they can quickly get on the river to remove debris.

What will keep the river open going forward will likely be the 1,700 people who follow their page, Lawlor said.

“We need some 20-somethings with as much excitement as us old guys” who will continue to clear the channel, Thrall added.

For those considering a day of paddling the Kishwaukee, the U.S. Geological Survey shows the river’s height and current on a sign at Route 23 and the bridge. On Wednesday, the river was reading 71 CFS, or cubic feet per second – too low to paddle without needing to portage. The recommended flow is 80 to 700 CFS, Lawlor said.

She’s been on the river in higher flows, too, and the twists and turns of the section can be a lot. But, Lawlor said, “It’s the Kish,” and if she ends up in the water, she can usually stand up just fine.

For those who want to learn to kayak, Lawlor suggests learning on a lake first, adding that inexpensive kayaks or rentals are available from outfitters in the area, too.

The best time to get on the Kishwaukee River, in Mroczkowski noted, is late spring to early summer, and Lawlor suggests going right after a rain. They also asked those going out to be smart about it: Kayak with a friend, don’t get on the river of the water is too high or too fast, and to take out whatever they bring in and pick up trash they find along the way.

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