Illinois' Vermilion River, Kickapoo State Park

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

Contact Information:

Illinois Department of Conservation

Kickapoo State Park

R.R. 1

Oakwood, IL 61858

217/442-4915

Illinois State Parks

Location:

The Vermilion is located in eastern Illinois, 100 miles south of Chicago. The nearest sizable town is Danville (217/442-2096), about 10 miles to the southeast.

Getting There:

First stop should be Kickapoo State Park, near the Indiana state line, a few miles north of I-74 between Champaign-Urbana and Danville. Canoe access areas are well maintained and easy to find. Ask for directions and maps at the site office or canoe livery.

Seasonal Information:

The Middle Fork is best run from March to June. Summer flows are generally adequate only after a heavy rain. Fall paddling is also good, peaking when the foliage does. Winter paddling can be great, except for a few weeks when you might have to dodge ice floes.

In summer, temperatures range from 60 to 95 degrees F. In winter, temperatures range from the teens to the 40s.

The area is closed the third weekend of November and the first weekend of December for firearm deer hunting.

Wildlife:

A biological inventory of the Middle Fork Valley lists 57 fish species, 20 amphibian, and 23 reptile species.

More visible to a passing canoeist, however, are mammals and birds. You might glimpse mink, muskrats, beavers, raccoons, whitetail deer, pileated woodpeckers, herons, kingfishers, wood ducks, and darting warblers. One hundred and ninety bird species have been identified in the area, including 15 of the state's endangered or threatened species.

Insects:

You'll find fewer insects in spring and fall.

Plant Life:

The banks are heavily wooded with silver maple, walnut, ash and sycamore, while on higher ground stand oaks, hickory and American beech. Flowering dogwood and redbud trees add splashes of color to the spring-green scene. In places the banks are also flanked by several 100-foot-high bluffs bristling with red cedar.

Three nature preserves are located along the route. In the horseshoe-shaped floodplains bordered by bluffs and ravines, a meadow of bluebells may stretch for several acres. Hillsides of little bluestem and sideoats grama grasses remain as a vestige of Illinois' heritage as a prairie state.

Facilities:

Numerous primitive campsites are available at Kickapoo State Park near the takeout. You can also camp at the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area, five miles north, where there are also equestrian camping facilities. No backcountry camping is allowed along the river.

There are horse and canoe rentals at Kickapoo.

Parking:

Parking information will be available in the near future.

Permits:

A permit is required for camping.

Fees for walk-in campsites are about $6 per night.

Policies:

Pets must be kept on leash.

Hazards:

  • Be careful to share the road when hiking on equestrian trails.
  • Poison ivy is abundant.

Leave No Trace:

Camp only in designated sites, and use grills and fire pads provided.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Maps are available from Kickapoo State Park.

Other Trip Options:

  • There are 35 miles of equestrian trails, 7.5 miles of cross-country skiing trails, 19 miles of snowmobiling trails, and a number of lakes for fishing in the Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area.
  • In Kickapoo State Park, there are 15 miles of hiking trails, 10 miles of mountain bike trails, and 20 lakes.
  • If you're interested in history, Vermilion County Museum boasts Abraham Lincoln artifacts; (217/442-2922).
  • Also nearby is Orchid Hill Natural Heritage Landmark (217/345-2420), home for several rare species of native orchids,.
  • The Vermilion County Airport sponsors an annual hot air balloon event the second weekend in June. For more information about Balloon Classic Illinois, call 800/383-4386.