Paddleable, Accessible, Interpreted: Blueways in Northeastern Illinois

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Canoe trip along the chicago River

By Kaylee Morlan, Loyola University

June is National Rivers Month, an international event first celebrated in 2005 which promotes the importance of rivers throughout the globe. People often consider the natural and urban worlds as incompatible. The networks of water trails in Illinois and the Chicago region provide both locals and tourists the benefits of outdoor recreation next to one of the globe’s largest urban areas, and if you’re paddling down the Chicago River in downtown Chicago, you can experience both at the same time.

Water trails, also known as blueways, are commonly designated paths on waterways such as rivers, creeks, and lake shores that feature launch points for paddling and signage or maps. The provided trail information can be anything from necessary experience level to historical information about the waterway and the community around it.

Blueways don’t just provide paddleable routes for entertainment; they also promote stewardship and education. The use of water trails for leisure increases the likelihood of routine monitoring and maintenance, especially as paddlers steward the rivers reporting problems and/or organizing clean ups, improving the overall condition of waterways and the natural biodiversity that water sources support. For those who use water trails, a river transforms into a living classroom where learners can experience aquatic ecology in real time. “Using blueways for recreation helps improve water quality because it encourages the adoption of more protective water quality standards to keep the public from exposure to harmful levels of pollutants when in contact with the water,” says Openlands’ blueways director Laura Barghusen.

As one of the first conservation organization in the United States to operate within a metropolis, Openlands has spent decades preserving and promoting blueways in northeastern Illinois. In 1996, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Openlands, the Illinois Paddling Council, and the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC; now known as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning) hosted an event called People on the Water, held at Northeastern Illinois University. The organizations “invited paddling groups and any of the forest preserve conservation districts that had paddling access…for an all day session and said, we want to create a regional water trails plan,” says Ders Anderson, Openlands’ greenways director. “We were planning this for the general public, not the experienced paddler.”

The cooperation between these regional agencies and organizations produced the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Trail Plan, adopted by the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission in 1999. The following excerpt from the Regional Water Trail Plan highlights how attitudes towards waterways in the United States have changed over time:

“As the water quality in our regional streams became degraded due to continued development and cultivation in their watersheds, they became thought of more as dumping grounds and less as community assets. As thousands of homes were built in floodplains through the 50’s and 60’s, adjoining residents began, correctly or incorrectly, to consider their nearby stream segment as private property, further discouraging community use. From the 1970’s through [the 1990’s], pollution controls and regulations, better land use planning, and citizen stream cleanup efforts have resulted in a substantial new respect for our waterways in general… Notsurprisingly, there is also a growing desire to renew the experiences which people enjoyed in the past, and to gain public accessibility to these important landscape features. Where in the past one would float a paddlecraft, there is a desire by a growing segment of the public to do so again.”

The regional water trail plan gave rise to Paddle Illinois on Openlands.org which describes paddling opportunities in Northeastern Illinois, providing information on ten different blueways for those interested in a truly unique outdoor experience. Listed below is a selection of water trails ready to be enjoyed in the Chicagoland area.

Calumet Area Water Trails

Composed of a broad array of trails on both rivers and lakes, Calumet waterways provide outdoor recreation for both beginner and expert paddlers. Included in these blueways is the African American Heritage Water Trail, a seven-mile path stretching through multiple south-side Chicago neighborhoods. Launched in 2020 through Openlands partnerships with neighboring communities, the trail honors two centuries of African American history, from black settlers on the river to the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights movement.

Chicago River Water Trails

In 1979, a volunteer project within Openlands became its own non-profit –Friends of the Chicago River– advocating on behalf of the Chicago River, which had been poisoned through years of industrialization. The organization saw great successes and was instrumental in improving the river to be what we see today. Friends of the Chicago River is still in action today, with the mission of improving and protecting the river for people, plants, and animals alike. The Chicago River offers a diverse selection of water trails through both city and nature. Those with a passion for architecture and city history can paddle through the man-made canyon of downtown Chicago on the Main stem of the river.

Fox River Water Trails

The Northeastern Illinois Regional Greenways Plan of 1992, developed by Openlands and NIPC, asserts that “efforts to protect the [Fox] River as a greenway and to enhance opportunities for public recreation along the River should be pursued.” Since then, the Fox River has blossomed into a blueway offering a wide range of paddling experiences for different skill levels. In 2023, the Fabulous Fox! Water Trail was designated as a new National Recreation Trail.

Des Plaines River Water Trails

In 1996, Openlands was a contributor to the Upper Des Plaines River Ecosystem Partnership, a multi-year initiative meant to preserve and restore the Upper Des Plaines River Watershed. At the foundation of the partnership, the upper Des Plaines River was described as having limited recreational opportunities due to poor water quality. Today, the watershed is substantially cleaner and better suited for recreation, largely in part due to greenway and blueway implementation and the recent removal of ten dams along the river. The Des Plaines River offers water trails of all lengths for paddlers of all skill levels.

If you would like to experience these water trails yourself, check out the Paddle Illinois section of our website to find blueways available for every skill level and trip length. Although great progress has been made in protecting Illinois’ waterways, the fight for conservation is not over. Contact your state legislators and ask them to support HB 1568, which will guarantee that all Illinoisans have a right to responsibly recreate on Illinois’ shared rivers and streams. Remember to always wear a life jacket, and happy paddling!

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