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Down in the Flood - Day 3

Finally we'd made it to the Des Plaines River. I was surprised how high the murky waters were, but there wasn't much to do about it. Now it was starting to rain, and the mosquitos had found us.

Des Plaines in Flood

Initially we'd thought about pulling the boat down a dirt bike trail to a muddy bank under the trees, but when we saw the railroad embankment at the end of the bridge it seemed easier. Away from the worst of the mosquitos anyway. So Mike took the back end of the boat as I held the rope on the front, lowering it backwards down the steep gravel. In a minute it was clear that we were exhausted and not thinking very well. The heavy luggage and food boxes slid down the deck and tumbled off onto the rocks. The food crate, heaviest of all, flipped upside down at the edge of the water, popped open and spilled all our things in a wet pile, ruining our crackers and cigars. Even the tools to assemble the boat disappeared in the brown water, and it took a long time of groping about to rescue most of the little pieces from the flooded river.

Fortunately our trail had put us downstream from the railroad bridge. The rising waters made it so low we would have had a hard time floating underneath. The flood brought a new anxiety to what might be around the bend. Perhaps an impossible passage under a bridge, or a log jam. Would we have time to assess the situation before being swept into it?

For now we chugged out into the river in the rain, boat reassembled and ready to go. The Des Plaines was a welcome relief from the monotony of the shipping channel. This was a more natural looking river, with muddy banks, lots of trees, and meanders hiding what might be around the bend. The water was cool to the touch instead of sickly warm. Flowers and nettles and random flotsam grew along the banks in homey scenes.


The Stevenson Expressway had followed us all the way from downtown. Here it ran alongside us, just out of reach behind a screen of trees. Commuters raced on, oblivious to our little boat floating along calmly. The roar of the traffic grew through the afternoon, and we were overjoyed to finally reach the bridges where the cars turned north and left us behind. As we drifted below, it was fun to look up and see the passengers do a double-take and point us out to their families. At the last bridge, a truck driver stuck in traffic tooted his horn and gave us a big thumbs up.


In the afternoon the sun came out a bit and the day at last became pleasant. We were finally able to pull a few books from the ship's library and read for a while. While the stern pedaller could absent-mindedly crank the pedals forever, the bow paddler had to be wary and look up from the book every few sentences to poke away the many floating logs and keep us on a steady course. But it was relaxing to know that no powerboats or barges would be in our way on this river.


On and on we pedalled, in a flooded forest landscape. There were only a handful of houses visible from the river for miles. Only one house that was actually on the water, where a couple farm dogs tried to chase us, then realized that we were on water only after they were up to their elbows. A white-haired man with snowy beard came out of a shed to see what was up, and he waved, and complimented us on our unusual boat.

There were so few dry places to make a landing of the boat. Suddenly on the bank there looked like a perfect little campsite, with a bank to step out, a fire pit, even a caboose parked in a little mowed picnic area. But we hadn't seen it in time. Charging across the current at full speed we were swept too far downstream, and our paddling and pedalling weren't strong enough to make headway against the rushing floodwaters. This was a one-way journey, and we now realized we had no chances to do things twice. We must be ready beforehand and in the right spot on the river to act.

As we approached Willow Springs in the dimming light we encountered three kayakers paddling upstream who told us about a takeout point ahead. We just slipped below the old Willow Springs Road bridge with inches to spare above our heads and tucked into the flooded picnic area of a forest preserve.


Now about the camping spot. The forest preserve cops seemed to be on the prowl, so we hid the boat awkwardly in a thicket of stinging nettles, hauled our gear across the old road and found an open dusty area under a bridge again to set up the tent and cook another canned dinner. And there was the shipping channel once again, only a few hundred feet parallel to the river.


Now we were glad to be off it. Just up from here the canal narrowed to half the width as when we were on it this morning. And here its sides became solid walls of huge stone blocks as far as we could see downstream. No easy place to get in or out of a little boat. In the dusk, a string of 8 barges glided down, just 20 feet of open water away from us, hardly room for a small boat to pass safely. Just as we watched the lead barge was about to run over a floating refrigerator or some other flood trash. With a tiny crunch the plastic crushed and was dragged along as a bug smacking a windshield. Far in the rear a towboat muscled the barges onward, its twin sad spotlight eyes steady on the route ahead.

Day 4 - Obstacles


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 27, 2007 9:33 AM.

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