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Kayaking The Illinois River

This adventure down the Illinois River was just a small part of the expedition my friend, Nate Wilson, went on to document a watershed from start to finish. By beginning high up in the watershed of Rough and Ready Creek and following it to the ocean, the project hopes to draw a clear connection between the proposed nickel strip mining there, and the impacts that it would have downstream. The water that flows through the southern Kalmiopsis helps bring life to rare and endangered plants, wildlife, and many people along its journey to the ocean.

Our Illinois River kayak adventure began with a long and bumpy ride down the Illinois River Road to the put-in at Miami Bar. Spirits and energy were high as we all bounded out of the car and unloaded our gear from the truck and then reloaded it into our kayaks. Our trusty shuttle driver, “Bearfoot” Brad Camden, spent most of the drive telling us stories about his time living in far corners of the Kalmiopsis and of past summer days spent swimming in the clean, blue water at Miami Bar.

Eventually, we waved farewell to Bearfoot Brad and began our own journey down the crystal clear, blue waters. Soon, we were floating past huge cedar and pine trees as they reached high into the sky. We all floated in silence to take in the beauty that surrounded us. I could see my fellow paddlers’ shadows at the bottom of the river and Merganser ducks hiding along the river’s edge. Something that Brad had said earlier came to mind. “When I ask my grandchildren to color me a picture, I want them to paint the water and sky blue, and the trees green.”

“When I ask my grandchildren to color me a picture, I want them to paint the water and sky blue, and the trees green.”– Bearfoot Brad

Soon, the gradient steepened, and we became busy with paddling our heavy boats through rock gardens and big waves. As an adrenaline-filled calm and happiness set in, I knew that those feelings were all that would matter for the next few days as we paddled down the beautiful, blue water of the Illinois River. After every rapid we hooted and hollered about how it was the best day ever and wondered if each other had seen how big our lines were through the rapids. Somehow, it always just came back to how magnificent the valley was, a sentiment frequently confirmed by sights like seeing a bear quench its thirst down at the river’s edge as we floated by.

Pine Flat on the Illinois River
Pine Flat on the Illinois River

The warm sun shined down on us as we pulled into our first camp at Pine Flat. With the boats unloaded, our wet paddling gear hung out to dry, we all took small hikes in separate directions to take in all that the empty river corridor had to offer. I scrambled along the rocky shore, back upstream to take in the small ferns as they poked their way through the rocky ground, each hoping for sunshine and to not be washed away by the next high water event. The hillside in the distance was a nice reminder of fires past, with the new growth starting to swallow up the ghostly white, dead snags that poked up from the ground. The day ended with a warm meal, stories of the past, and a hopeful longing for future trips down rivers near and far.

The next morning, as the sun slowly began to peak over the hills, a small fire crackled near our dew covered sleeping bags. Coffee was made, and the day started with chat about all the big rapids just downstream. The four of us moved quickly and we were on the water in no time. The river began to get a bit steeper as we got closer to the crux rapid, Green Wall. Our adrenaline pumped as we paddled and boofed our way through the entrance rapid, Prelude, and into Green Wall’s precarious scouting eddy.

Scouting Illinois River at Green Wall
Scouting Illinois River at Green Wall

The low flows exposed many of the rocks that at higher levels, would make large boat eating holes. For us though, they opened up many new lines that looked perfect for a kayak. The last few moves however, looked like they would take me for wild and unwanted ride, likely resulting in me swimming, so I went back for my boat and walked it around to the bottom.

Pretty soon, I was drawn back by the roar of water crashing against rocks for another look. I was mesmerized by the turquoise water falling off the ledge, into the maelstrom at the bottom, and eventually back to the calm turquoise that moved downstream around the next bend. As we paddled away, the sun began to disappear under clouds that had settled in over head. Later, rain made for a wet dinner that night, but didn’t stop us from a post-meal hike later in evening.

Submarine Hole on the Illinois River
Submarine Hole on the Illinois River

The next morning, low hanging clouds crept through the trees. It is a hard site to describe now in words, but one that was certainly worth watching then, as it invited us out of our tents and into the new day. Like most last mornings, everyone agreed we should just stay there, or better yet, just drive right back to put-in and do it all over again. In the end, we all agreed we would just have to do it again soon. The river would be waiting.

Floating down the Illinois River
Floating down the Illinois River. Photo by Nate Wilson Photography

After breakfast we packed up our gear, crawled into our kayaks, and continued on down the beautiful Illinois River. I spent most of the day reflecting on how stunning our trip through the Kalmiopsis Wilderness had been. We enjoyed the abundance of waterfalls, plant and animal life, and the Illinois River’s great collection of rapids. Many people never get to experience that kind of wilderness. I hope it continues to be protected so my grandkids, like Barefoot Brad’s, can color me pictures where the water and sky are blue, and the trees are green.


Thank you to our friends at KS Wild, Geos Institute, The Conservation Alliance, Immersion Research, Base Camp Brewing Company and our generous supporters from Kickstarter for making this project possible.

Originally Published: | Updated on | Categorized under: Trip Reports

Post Author

Michael Hughes

Michael grew up in a small Minnesota town. He spent his days outside in the woods and riding a bike. The only thing that has changed is his location. Oregon is now home and he is still outside, riding a bike, and paddling where ever the water is.

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