After our first day's ride getting out of the city, camping in the woods seems far away from urban Chicago. Little critters creeped in the leaves, and I jumped up several times, sure that raccoons were raiding our supplies. But mostly the noises of the night were great rumbles of tow boats pushing barges up and down around the big bend of the Illinois River here. The sound of their diesel engines echoed on the steep bluffs of the woods, so close to our camp. In the darkness their shining eyes played across our camp, probably attracted by the little glints of our bike reflectors parked in the forest.
Heating oatmeal for breakfast confirmed that the gas for the stove was just about gone before we've barely started on this trip. Washing my face at an iron pump, I felt ready for the day's ride, vowing to eat better today and keep my energy level up.
Mike says "the J" was the nickname of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, connecting these outer railroad suburbs in a big ring which allowed freight traffic to skirt around Chicago. Which means we've crossed another outer orbit of the city's gravitational pull, gathering speed for our escape into the countryside.
Except that we aren't really gathering speed. Mike's trailer slows us a bit from our expected pace and requires frequent stops to readjust the boards keeping it level. A rain storm blew in just before we reach the shelter of an underpass in Ottawa. This town is about the biggest we'll be visiting in several days so we stopped by the local hardware store in search of new fuel for the stove, but they don't carry the right size canisters.
Leaving Ottawa the gravel I&M Canal Trail deteriorated into a muddy slog which meandered through the woods, wasting our time with aimless zigzags and frequent stops to play in the mud. This is not a trail for bikers hoping to make miles before camp, so when we came neared Buffalo Rock we ditched the trail for pavement.
Fighting headwinds into Utica, we passed the lock and dam across from Starved Rock, but no time for a stop on this trip. Rolling into downtown Utica, our maps showed that we must take the trail again or face an uphill and roundabout detour. I'd never been on the last section of the I&M trail to LaSalle, but it turned out to be the prettiest of the whole day. The old canal is not shadowed by modern roads but heads through open country of marshes and fields.
In the low sunlight and still air dragonflies appeared by the hundreds and thousands, gliding around us, racing beside us and darting across in daring acrobatics hunting unseen gnats. After the frustrations of the muddy trail earlier in the afternoon this dreamlike riding was a spectacular treat.
Halfway to LaSalle, we pass through Split Rock, which is where the engineers of the canal blasted a passage through a rock wall. There's an old railroad tunnel on the north side of the canal, but the bike path follows the tow path on the south side so we continued on. Soon after that, however, there is a quaint little aqueduct over the Little Vermilion River with a close view of an industrial jumble of structures.
The trail and the beautiful golden hour were over too soon at the locks in LaSalle. A little canal boat is parked here, but it was locked tight and nobody was around.
I was intrigued a tiny marker near the boat for a cross-country trail connecting us to other interesting places. But we didn't follow the bike path to discover its dead end just west of here. Instead we immediately set about finding where we could pitch a tent in this manicured little city park. That is, where we could hide a tent from the inevitable 10pm patrol car cruising through the park.
Off the bikes there was no hiding from the mosquitoes. We found a secluded spot in the woods not far from the river bank and hurried to grab the tents as the drone of bugs intensified. While assembling my tent, Mike pointed out that there was poison ivy all around me. Really there was no place to put a tent or walk that was not covered by poison ivy. With the muggy air, the maddening mosquitoes, the poison ivy and the idea of having peanut butter sandwiches for yet another uncooked meal it was a disappointing end to the day.
Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to convince Mike that it'd be more fun to ride into town. While we might be cheap enough to guerrilla camp in a poison ivy patch, I was looking forward to some restaurant food and a cold beer like a civilized cyclist. We didn't find anything open in LaSalle, but down the hill in Peru there was a charming little tavern by the riverside just past the neon lights of a power plant. After 14 years living as a teetotaler in a Christian commune, Mike had an Old Style as well, and pronounced it worth the wait.
It was a long tiring day, and our civilized dinner didn't last long before we headed back to the pathetic little camp. I wanted to swim in the Illinois again, a quick swim in the river near our camp. I didn't dare go far in the dark, just out into open water but heading back to shore, a big fish leaped and crashed in the water ahead of me in the gloom. No doubt it was the infamous silver carp, flinging itself into the air just to show who owns the river. I hurried back to land and into bed.