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Illinois’ Vermilion River, Kickapoo State Park

A pristine prairie river winds through a sea of corn and beans in the shadow of Chicago.

Little-Known Fact: 22 deep-water ponds, ranging from 0.2 to 57 acres in size, dot the landscape of Kickapoo State Park.

Think of Illinois and two predominant thoughts usually come to mind: Chicago, the urban hub of the Midwest, and podunk towns surrounded by vast farmland. While it’s true Illinois has lost nearly all its wild lands and rivers, a few pockets of nature remain. One is the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, curving through the eastern reaches of Illinois. You’d have to search hard to find a prettier prairie stream.

It’s a surprise that the Middle Fork, lying within a day’s drive of some 30 million people, remains free-flowing. There was a time not too long ago when bulldozers sat poised to clear land and dam the river. The development scheme triggered a battle that lasted 20 years. Conservationists who touted the river as Illinois’ most pristine were pitted against a persistent group who hoped to revitalize the area’s decaying economy with a 3,700-acre reservoir for fishing and motorboats.

The often bitter and divisive controversy finally came to an end in May 1989. The federal government, at the request of Governor James Thompson, designated 17.1 miles of the Middle Fork as a National Scenic River, thus squelching plans for a dam. The Middle Fork became only the ninth river in the Midwest to be included in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, and the only river with such a designation in Illinois.

My most recent visit to the Middle Fork reinforced my understanding of why conservationists fought so long and hard for a relatively short stretch of river. Launching my canoe at the start of the Scenic River section within the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area, I was immediately funneled into a rugged, generally undeveloped corridor. The Scenic River corridor contains some of the cleanest water and the richest ecological diversity in the state.

It was paddling that I had come for, and my solo canoe was perfect for this intimate, non-technical stream. The river jockeyed between clear green pools, bedrock exposures, and Class I gravel riffles ~ easy for beginners, yet spicy enough not to be boring. Frequent sandbars and gravel bars (rather than mud bars, so common elsewhere in Illinois) provided convenient places to stretch my legs, hunt for fossils, and enjoy lunch.

Since its Scenic River designation, more people have been discovering the charms of the Middle Fork. It’s not uncommon to see license plates from several states at put-ins. But on weekdays and many weekends, solitude is easy to find. Except for the sounds of wildlife, the atmosphere is hushed and serene. The only building easily seen from the river is the Illinois Power Plant, which stands outside the corridor itself.

Rare among Illinois rivers in that it has remained so pristine, the Middle Fork is one of the last active examples in the Midwest of a prairie river. Not bad for a stream only 100 miles from Chicago.

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