Paddling the length of the Fox River is no easy feat.
Running from its headwaters near Waukesha, Wis., to its junction with the Illinois River more than 200 miles south in Ottawa, the Fox can, in many ways, present a paddler’s dream: Long stretches of glassy, flat water, with a mostly gentle current running through varied terrain, flowing between towns offering abundant recreational opportunities, with many easy points of entry and egress.
In other ways, the Fox can present even the most seasoned voyageur with challenges. A network of dams and portages can intimidate many paddlers, while well-developed communities that line the river’s banks create traffic, drawing in those who prefer to ply the waters with a little more horsepower.
But it is in such variance that the Fox River finds it strength and its attraction, says Kane County Executive Planner Karen Miller.
And it is an attempt to synergize those seeming contrasts that drives the effort behind the creation of the Fabulous Fox Water Trail, a new venture to chart the Fox River’s entire length in a new way, and offer new opportunities to locals and visitors alike to explore this waterway that lies at the heart of a region that is home to more than 1 million people.
“What’s stunning about this river is how diverse it is,” says Miller.
She says she has personally paddled the river in McHenry County, in the Chain O’Lakes region, as well as the river’s deeper, calmer stretches in northern Kane County, and in LaSalle County, amid the towering bluffs that form the banks near the Fox’s southern end.
“Every place is so different,” she says. “We want to help people experience it from a totally different perspective.”
The history of the Fox River flows from long before the arrival of Europeans in the region. Native peoples built villages and made camps along the Fox’s expanse, using the river as a highway and fishing and hunting grounds.
When Europeans arrived, they found members of the Potawatomi Nation at home on the river, thanks to their canoes, according to the 1888 book titled “Commemorative Biographic and Historical Record of Kane County, Illinois.”
Around the 1830s, however, white settlers began to press into the region, drawn by the river’s abundance of natural resources.
Water from the river, aided by dams, would power mills and other industry, while forests along the river provided building materials and fuel.
By the late 1800s, the now-familiar array of towns and cities had cemented themselves along the river, with populations reaching into the thousands.
And in the decades that have followed, the pace of development has rarely slackened. In McHenry and Lake counties, the Chain O’Lakes became a popular summer tourist destination for visitors from Chicago, before crystallizing into the network of modern communities, pulsing with marinas.
In Kane County, manufacturing in the river towns boomed, before fading, replaced in the most recent decades by sprawling suburban-style development.
Yet, in recent years, the attention of those who call the region home has turned again to the river itself, recognizing the waterway for the regional lifesource it is.
In the last five decades, the Fox River Trail, running from Algonquin to Aurora, and the paths associated with it, which stretch beyond, has offered new generations the chance to bicycle, run or simply stroll the banks and connect with the river and its ecosystem.
Miller says the partnership behind the Fabulous Fox Water Trail would like to create a similar kind of buzz for the river itself, as they ask the National Park Service to officially designate the Fox River as a National Water Trail.
The partnership, which includes representatives of communities along the length of the Fox River from Wisconsin through the Chicago area to Kendall and LaSalle counties, has worked at the project for years, accumulating, sorting and mapping streams of data on the river and its surroundings. That work is reflected in an interactive map on the project’s website, FabulousFoxWaterTrail.org, which provides users with a chart of paddling ports and amenities along the river, such as campgrounds, boat launches and parking lots and recreational opportunities ranging from bird watching to boat rentals.
When the work is completed, the Water Trail project will produce signage and printed information to help would-be paddlers successfully navigate any of the 14 segments into which planners have divided the river trail.
Miller says data to aid that effort is still being collected, and planners will be presenting the project to the public in a series of public open houses in coming weeks and months.
Should the waterway earn the NPS Water Trail designation, Miller says planners believe the project will sharply boost tourism to the region, offering visitors and locals alike information to find just the right spot to dip their oars.
Kim Compton, education coordinator at the McHenry County Conservation District, says, for her, there are few better experiences than launching a kayak on a warm, sunny spring morning from the boat launch at the Hickory Grove Riverfront near Cary, and floating a couple of miles downstream.
“At that time, there’s almost no other traffic on the river, and the route takes you past such beautiful natural areas tucked away there,” Compton says.
She noted that area includes a large heron rookery on the river, which also regularly offers views of a variety of other wildlife and water fowl.
“It’s a very easy stretch of river, with the current gentle enough to go in either direction without working too hard,” Compton says. “It’s great for beginners, and just so relaxing.”
Miller says paddlers in other areas, including Kane and Kendall counties, can also experience similar tranquility, thanks to restoration efforts conducted by cities, forest preserve districts and the state of Illinois all along the river’s course.
In Yorkville in Kendall County, visitors can find Silver Springs State Park, offering an abundance of options for accessing the Fox River and enjoying its natural offerings.
But just upstream, visitors can also find the city of Yorkville’s Marge Cline Whitewater Course. Opened in 2010 by the state of Illinois, the facility offers an 1,100-foot-long “chute,” or bypass of the Glen D. Palmer Dam, without having to portage.
As the water drops 6 feet from the east end of the chute to the west, the facility gives paddlers a chance to play in the river, before either continuing downstream to sites like Silver Springs, or carrying their craft along a concrete path to the beginning of the chute to try again.
The project has been embraced by the Yorkville community and padding community, alike, leading other communities along the Fox River to explore similar plans.
St. Charles in central Kane County is considering plans to remove its dam, and replace it with a new adjustable dam, allowing the city to create a whitewater amenity of its own, which could be used for kayaking or rafting. That proposal is a key component of a larger vision to remake that city’s riverfront.
In the north end of Kane County and southern McHenry County, planners in the villages of Algonquin and Carpentersville in 2015 concluded such a course was not feasible for their region. Instead, they promoted a plan to improve portages, remove the Carpentersville dam and open new access points for motorized boating north of the Algonquin dam, and new paddling sites to the south.
Compton, like Miller, says this diversity of opportunity and access serves as the river’s great strength and its continuing draw, as the heart of the region.
“It’s a heavily used recreational waterway, there’s no question,” Compton says. “But it doesn’t stop it from being such a wonderful, high-quality natural area, too.
“It’s one of our most important assets.”