My buddy Matt and I were supposed to be partners again for this year’s 61st running of the Des Plaines Canoe and Kayak Marathon. Sadly, in the 10 days before the marathon was supposed to happen record rainfall occurred within the Des Plaines River’s watershed, causing the river to leave its banks. There are a few low bridges on the marathon route, not a problem for canoeists or SUP’ers on a typical day, but those bridges plus the swifter-than-normal current spell danger for anybody on the river.
As it happens, just to our West they didn’t get nearly the amount of rain as we did. The Nippersink was running just above average for this time of year, both current and depth, according to the USGS gauge outside Spring Grove.
The marathon is an 18.5 mile course, the best we can manage on the Nippersink from Keystone Landing to the Canoe Base will be a little under 14 miles. Earlier in the week we’d see some of the nicest weather of the spring to date… Sadly we won’t get that nice weather. The forecast is for highs in the upper 40s or low 50s, overcast skies, and occasional showers. Given the choice between this an no paddling, we choose paddling. Our wives think we’re crazy.
The marathon was supposed to be the first real use of a canoe I brought back to life over the winter, a Bell Canoe Works NorthStar in Blackgold layup. Compared to the Nip’, the Des Plaines is a snooze – the Nippersink is a somewhat wild creek which has oodles upon oodles of switchbacks, oxbows, and in the first section from Keystone Landing to Pioneer Landing, about a dozen or so riffles. One really just has to pay attention a lot more and your mind can’t wander as much.
I pick Matt up at the Canoe Base and we make the 10 minute drive to Keystone. After a few minutes of outfitting the canoe we’re ready to go.
There’s a little bit of current right at the landing, so once the canoe is in the water someone needs to hang on because it’ll break loose and float away. After ensuring all our items are safely stowed, we shove off just after 8AM.
It’s a lively paddle. The river is moving at a decent clip and we see a fair number of birds, including some sandhill cranes who have recently reappeared after wintering further south. At one point when passing under a bridge, the wind gets focused and tears my hat from my head. The rim is foam so it floats, and after pulling a U-turn and passing back under the bridge, my now dampened hat has been recovered and we turn around again and keep going.
A few minutes later we can’t see it yet, but there’s the unmistakable sound of moving water up ahead. As we round another bend in the river we see our first riffle of the day in front of us. We don’t have much time to strategize our route through the riffle and other than a generic “to the right of the center” we’re committed.
We make it nearly all the way cleanly through the riffle until we hit a big rock dead on, which causes the boat to dish me and Matt into the deeper water immediately following the rapid. The GoPro, mounted on a pole at the back of the canoe and taking frames in time lapse mode, catches all the action including the “oh crap!” moment when we know we’re going swimming.
Surprisingly, the water actually feels warm… it probably IS warmer than the air, due to the rains & today’s high will only top out at 50. Matt and I are both dressed head to toe in synthetics and layers, so other than the initial shock of getting wet neither of us are too cold at the moment. I nearly didn’t take the red fleece, but man am I glad I did! We pull off to the side where the current isn’t quite as strong and we’re able to stand on the bed enough to dump most of the water out of the canoe.
Back on our way, eventually rain starts to fall and so raingear is donned. It gives an added benefit of being another layer to help stay warm. After the first capsize the GoPro stayed put, however the tape I used apparently didn’t like getting wet because when we capsized again, this time within sight of Pioneer Landing, the GoPro nearly let completely loose. We’ll take a 30 minute break at Pioneer to shelter within the bathroom for a little while to dry out, warm up, and have a snack. Also, we question our sanity for being out on a day like this….
On our way back to get going again we run into a couple groups including a guy soloing in an aluminum with his dog. We apologize to the groups for being all spread out on the landing (didn’t really expect others to be as crazy as us) and get out of their way.
All in all we’ll capsize a 3rd time on the trip, not too long before Lyle C. Thomas park outside of Spring Grove. We were finally getting into a rhythm, even seeing clothing get dry patches, and enjoying the fact we were apparently paddling through a town unbeknownst to anyone as the river is very deep in its banks around here. Suddenly from out of nowhere, church bells ring out and shock us from our canoe-induced stupor. I still don’t know how or why, but it was at the exact moment the bells rang out when the canoe rolled the third time. We were at a confluence of sorts around an island, but we didn’t hit anything and there wasn’t a rapid. The boat just…. turtled on us.
We get out at Thomas park and warm up for a little bit and eat another snack. Only 4 miles to go. The sun’s out now and we take advantage of that to try to dry off some.
The remaining mileage goes quickly as we do not encounter any deadfall or objects blocking the channel, and the end is reached about an hour later. My “new” canoe is now properly broken in, with several white scratches adorning it’s recently epoxied bottom. More time is needed with this boat to get used to how it handles differently than my Spirit II.
We vow to re-attack the Nippersink some time in the future, maybe not with a Kevlar/fiberglass wilderness tripping boat but maybe in an Alumacraft which will take the blows from rocks or scraping a shallow gravelly bottom. The creek would collect a toll for our run today, namely a half dollar sized chunk of gelcoat from the bow stem. Nothing a few layers of epoxy and some saran wrap can’t fix.
A hot shower at home never felt so good!