Paddling Since: 1978
Join Date: Oct 2003
My folks moved from CO to Chicago to be near family, so I've spent a good amount of time there. I won't lie, the whitewater outlook is bleak. Here is what you've got:
* Vermillion River, 2-2.5 hours SW near Ottawa. 8 fpm gradient. No, I'm serious. It has some class III with marginal play at various levels. Probably needs 700+ cfs before it's truly good to go. If it's high, hike up Bailey Creek after Wildcat (the main event) and go huck the 25 foot waterfall there. I took my first swim on this river when I was five. Oh, beware the herd of 50,000 pigs upstream from the put-in. I.e., don't drink the water. Confluence would be much safer.
* Little Vermillion River, about the same distance, but it has some more stout rapids, maybe even a V? Don't know because I was never able to catch it running.
* Wolf River, 3.5+ hours north in WI. Sec. III has good beginner class II-III water. When at flood, it's fun and has a million great splats. Plenty of good surfing at the takeout. Sec. IV is on the Menominee Reservation and costs $20/head to boat, but they run shuttle for you. I think it is one of the prettiest, most unspoiled rivers in the country. Rapids are III/III+ with a nice park-n-huck IV at the takeout (Big Smokey Falls - left side is almost certain death, run the right side of the island).
* Peshtigo River - about as far as the Wolf, difficulty between Sec. III & IV of the Wolf.
* Artificial course in Wausau, WI is about 4 hours away, maybe. It's fun play, but still class III.
* The Red and Menominee Rivers are supposed to be in the neighborhood of these runs also, but I never have run them.
* There is an artificial WW course about 2 hours SSE in South Bend, IN. Never been there either. You have to pay.
* There is some assorted boating in southern MN. Don't know much about it, but I doubt it's worth the drive.
* If you keep an eye peeled on BoaterTalk you will catch wind of when the surf is on on the E/SE coast of Lake Michigan. This happens in the winter, and you would be surprised to know how big the waves actually can get (6').
* The really good boating is in one of three places: The Smokies, West Virginia, or the North Shore. I'll just explain the NS because the other two are easy to get info on. The NS has great water in both the MN and UP (Upper Peninsula) sides, and is probably an 8-11 hour drive depending on where you want to go. There are lots of rivers, but you go for the creeks. The Baptism (MN) is pretty well known, and has some nice IV/V. The Black River (MI) has some good waterfalls. On the Presque Isle River (MI) you can do a 25 mile day that finishes out with a nice 20 footer and then pours into Lake Superior. There are many other rivers in this area, some of them LVM-worthy.
A couple notes one the Chicago boating scene: Most of the folk are old-schoolers. I once showed up at the Vermillion put-in and the Chicago Whitewater Association was doing a trip (spring 2001). Out of thirty-six boats, there was one planing hull. People looked at our Riot boats like we were from another planet and talked as if it was superhuman to not constantly be flipping in a boat with edges. Still, there are some very good boaters among the old-schoolers and some of them are in a SuperSport because they paddled a planing hull for a few years and didn't like it as much. Usually these folks are racers, and indeed there is a slalom presence in Chicago, including local races here and there.
The other thing to know about Midwestern boating is that they almost always over-hype the difficulty and danger of a given river. CRC2 is pretty judicious about ratings and was written relatively recently by serious hardcore boaters. The guidebooks for the Midwest were written by open-boaters terrfied of anything over class II, and often back in the 80s. They will tell you that class IV is "experts-only with all possible safety precautions" and that anything above that is unrunnable. Conseqently, the creeking isn't in the guidebooks, unless a new one came out in the last few years.
Bottom line: It's not hopeless, but you have to drive a long way to get to whitewater, esp. good whitewater. Oh, and the season is shorter than in Colorado. As a result the boating community is tighter and friendlier than out here. Not that Colorado isn't either, but meeting a new creek boater in Chicago is rare, so people take time to make sure to get connected so they have partners. If you have to move, take your vacation in 4-day weekends and road-trip a lot to the SE and WV. What will kill you is how much water there is in the flatlands that could be harnessed for a play park and isn't. The town just south of my folks considered a park when they were going to remove and old low-head dam (they love these in IL). Notwithstanding the fact that desperate boaters (that's any boater in the midwest) would have walked miles to get to such a park, they scrapped the idea because they were concerned about lack of parkin space.
p.s. The backcountry skiing in the Porcupine Mountains (UP) is great, as it is at Mount Bohemia (the little finger on the UP - it gets lake effect snow no matter which way the wind blows, and can easily have more snow than CO resorts). Also, if you want to hit up stuff in MN, one of my best friends is in grad school in Minneapolis and I can hook y'all up.
Join up, suckas.
"People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid."
- Soren Kierkegaard