Paddling the Blackhawk Waterways

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Paddling the Blackhawk Waterways Jack Hughes
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Rock River -- a national treasure


Just a handful of American rivers and streams earn the designation as a National Water Trail. The Rock River, which flows through the heart of the Blackhawk Waterways region, was named a National Water Trail in April 2013.

“Settlers called the Rock River the ‘Hudson of the Midwest,’ and it has wildlife like you cannot believe,” said Debbie Thompson, an avid paddler and a member of the Rock River Trail Initiative, the group that lobbied for the designation. “It gets to be a pretty wide and mighty river.”

The river flows 320 miles from Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin to the Mississippi River near Rock Island, Ill. A young Abraham Lincoln and Chief Black Hawk once traveled this waterway, and you can, too. Council members from each of the 11 counties have met to map out the access points, historic sites and walking/hiking/biking trails. Plans call for signs to be posted along the way, which will make it easier for water trail visitors to get the most of their river experience.

The National Water Trail program, administered by the National Park Service, includes only 11 U.S. waterways. A designation means that the river meets high standards in recreation, conservation efforts, trail maintenance and community support. This also means that the Rock River will be preserved and protected for years to come, so that your children and grandchildren will be able to paddle its peaceful waters and see the same beauty we see today.

In 2014, the Rand McNally map will recognize the Rock River with a blue line, another rare distinction for a waterway that has always been distinctive.


bwcvb-canoe2.jpgGoing with an outfitter for a run down the Rock River is an excellent choice for a family outing. They take care of all the busy work, send you on your way for a river adventure and pick you up!

TJs Bait and Tackle

Located in Oregon, Illinois, is TJs Bait and Tackle, 305 South 1st Street. You may visit their website at or call at (815) 732-4516. Here you will be greeted by TJ, a brightly colored blue and yellow Macaw. The shop offers a wide selection of fishing supplies as well as great opportunities for a trip down the Rock.

They offer a number of packages, which all include a pick up shuttle. Launch times are on Saturday and Sunday beginning at 9 a.m. A two hour trip to Castle Rock State Park is $30.00 and a 4 hour trip to Grand Detour is $45.00. They also offer an overnight camping package for $50.00. TJs has 34 canoes as well as kayaks for rent. For all rental rates please refer to the website or call ahead for reservations.

Fin & Feather Resort

Fin & Feather Resort located on the Mississippi River at 6284 Riverview Rd in rural Thomson, Illinois, offers boat and canoe rental for $10.00 per day with on-site access to the Mississippi River.

Centennial Park


Located in Rock Falls, Illinois, is Centennial Park, 11th St. & Ave D. The Coloma Township Park District in Rock Falls offers the rental of paddle boats and canoes in a unique area of the Centennial Park Lagoon. At their bright red boathouse they have 17 foot canoes, paddle boats and all the necessary safety equipment required by State Law. The boats are open on weekends and holidays beginning Memorial Day Weekend, through Labor Day and there is a fee.

Byron Forest Preserve District

The Byron Forest Preserve District, in Byron, Illinois, offers guided canoe trips on the Rock River. Two options are available including a 2 hour trip and a 3 hour trip. 2 hour trips are $25/canoe and 3 hour trips are $40/canoe. They supply transportation, equipment, and a guide for you so you don't get lost. A minimum of three canoes is required and a maximum of 12 are available. Call Richie at 815-234-8535 x217 to schedule your trip on the Rock River today.

Smaller waters:

bwcvb-canoe4.jpgThe Hennepin Canal is one of northwestern Illinois’ most historic waterways.The canal, originally known as the Illinois and Mississippi Canal, was a project that would reduce the distance from Chicago to Rock Island by 419 miles and was conceived in 1834. Construction finally began in 1892 and the first boat went through in 1907. It was mainly used by small barges hauling coal and grain. An account made by the Sterling-Rock Falls Historical Society said that the peak of the canals’ success was made in 1927 when 30,000 tons of freight moved down her calm waters. From that point on she saw a steady decline in use, as railroads and trucking companies took over the freight industry.

This, however, was a blessing for the Illinois sportsman. The canal is home to 78 miles of canoeing and kayaking opportunities and is snaked by parks and a beautiful walking path. This waterway is perfect for beginners as the waters are very calm, there are no obstructions and wildlife is abundant.

Debbie Thompson, an art teacher from Dixon, Illinois said, “Of all the northern Illinois canoe trips I have taken I saw more wildlife on the Hennepin than any other waterway. Beaver, cranes, muskrat, giant ancient turtles, ducks and geese are among the many creatures I’ve spotted on the canal.”

There is a boat landing south of Rock Falls off Route 40, providing access and many take-out places along the way.

There are many other creeks and small rivers running through the Blackhawk Waterways Region, just waiting to be explored.  Speak to your outfitter about other canoeing or kayaking opportunities and examine local maps to find the trip that’s perfect for you, your family and your skill level. Now, throw on that life jacket, grab those paddles and go!

Regulations/Safety Tips:

bwcvb-canoe5.jpgWith any boating excursion it is always a must to plan ahead. Purchase a detailed map of the area you plan to boat, or download a quality map off of the Internet, and keep it in a water-tight bag for viewing, large zip-locking bags work very well.

Always make sure you are putting your craft in the water at a legal location. A handful of the small waterways run through private farmland, making it a trespassing violation to be on the water. Just be weary of this and watch for signs. Also, watch for electric fences, as some pasture parameters cross the waterway. These will be nearly invisible and will most likely have a yellow plastic connector on them that will catch your eye. They are usually located under bridges.

Be very cautious of Poison Ivy, Stinging Nettle and Wild Parsnip. Carry a First Aid kit with you at all times, and familiarize yourself and your family with what these plants look like. Showing images of each plant to your children is a great way to keep them on the look-out. The Parsnip is especially dangerous as it produces burns on the skin, which can be minor to severe, and very painful. If you come into contact with any of these plants, a good precaution is to take some of the muddy clay from the water’s edge and apply it to the area you think may have been exposed.

Note: All persons and watercraft must stay 50 feet away from the Oregon, Illinois dam. The waters just below the dam can be very unpredictable and dangerous, so be sure you’re in compliance with this regulation.

If you plan on doing any fishing you must have a current Illinois Department of Natural Resources Fishing License. You can purchase a license at a variety of locations, including Wal-Mart, or online by clicking here.

Children age 13 and under are required to wear a life preserver at all times. There must be a life preserver for each individual aboard a craft, and everyone is encouraged to wear them at all times. All personal watercraft must meet license and registration requirements, if providing your own vessel.


Published in: Trip Ideas