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Nothing Sly About This Fox

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It touches nearly 11 counties in its 185-mile journey from Waukesha County, Wis., to the Illinois River near Ottawa. Learn how environmentalists are protecting the Fox River and discover the best places to paddle and play.

The sun sets over a stretch of the Fox River. (Ray Mathis photo)

The Fox River played a significant role in Nancy Fike’s childhood in McHenry.

Living “just up the street” from the river, she learned to swim and ice skate along the Fox. For an eighth-grade graduation gift, her parents gave her a rowboat with a 2.5-horsepower motor that she and her friends used for exploration and relaxation.

“They called us river rats,” says Fike, administrator for the McHenry County Historical Society Museum, Union. “We all knew how to swim. A typical day was spent discovering turtles and getting sun tans; we were gone all day long, until we were called home for dinner. I have many fond memories of time spent along that river, and there are millions of stories like mine out there. When you live along the Fox River, it impacts your life.”

The Fox River is the third largest tributary of the Illinois River. It begins in Waukesha County, Wis., flowing 70 miles through Wisconsin and 115 miles south in Illinois, touching 11 counties, including McHenry, Lake, Kane, Cook, DuPage and Kendall, before it empties into the Illinois River in Ottawa, in LaSalle County. The Fox River watershed creates a waterway that runs 130 miles, though it’s only 25 miles at its widest.

Many suburban towns grew up along the river’s banks, including Johnsburg, McHenry, Cary, Algonquin, Carpentersville, Elgin, South Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia and Aurora. In all, nearly 1 million people live in the surrounding Fox Valley. Outside these bustling cities, the Fox River passes serene nature preserves, offering ample opportunities for hiking, biking and boating.

“The chief illness caused by living in an urban environment is that people get disconnected from larger realities of the natural world that our civilization depends on,” says Gary Mechanic, a conservationist and river paddling enthusiast. “You go from your house to your car and from your car to your office. You leave work and go to the supermarket. It’s not easy for everyone to get away from all of that.”

In Illinois, the river presents three distinct regions, each boasting its own attractions for nature and recreation lovers. The upper Fox, from the state line to Algonquin, is prime for boating and summer homes. Near Antioch, the Fox spills into a series of glacial-melt bodies known as the Chain O’Lakes. Ripe with state and county nature preserves, the Chain O’Lakes make up the busiest per-acre inland recreational waterway in the country.

Farther south, the middle Fox stretches from Algonquin to Oswego. Here, it flows quickly through old river towns, where residents and visitors alike stop by riverside shops and parks. Popular destinations include St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia, where there are plenty of public paths for running, walking and bicycling.

The lower Fox, from Oswego to Ottawa, offers a lazy trip toward the Illinois River. Quieter and more rural, it’s popular for canoeing and fishing. To some, this is the most picturesque stretch of the Fox, with its majestic sandstone bluffs, rare native plants and abundant wildlife.

Many of the plant species found along this river are rare native wonders. Blooming starts with skunk cabbage in February and ends in late October with goldenrods and deep-blue gentians. Carnivorous plants, like the pitcher plant and roundleaf sundew, make their home here. Orchids easily grow along boardwalks; red trilliums and trout lilies lie hidden in the woodlands. Indian paintbrush and coneflowers can be spotted on the prairies. The Fox River has its share of wildlife, too. Natural areas are home to white-tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, red fox and weasels.

The pastoral scenery seems a world away from the bustling suburban landscape.

“There are so many things to do along the Fox, like boating, kayaking and teaching your kids to fish,” says Nancy Williamson, ecosystems administrator for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). “We have this beautiful amenity right in the middle of our towns, and it’s so easy to get to. But it’s too easy to become disconnected. It’s a shame more people don’t take advantage of how accessible the Fox River truly is.”

A sunset view across the river in downtown Geneva. (Ryan Afflerbaugh photo)

Williamson is quite familiar with the Fox River. In addition to her job with the IDNR, she is a dedicated volunteer, supporting a variety of efforts and programs. She was a board member of Friends of the Fox, helped to launch the group’s river monitoring program and was named Volunteer of the Year by the State of Illinois in 1998.

Touring along the river in Kane County, Williamson speaks with ease about a variety of subjects, from dragonflies to skunk cabbage, as well as the unusual history of Trout Park, which opened in 1909 as an amusement park, complete with roller coaster, vaudeville shows and concerts, before the City of Elgin bought it and converted it into a natural park 11 years later.

Despite her mother’s early warnings about the dangers of rivers, Williamson found happiness along the Fox, where she’s met many good friends during volunteer projects. She and husband Steve Byers, a field representative for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, like to sneak away to the river at any chance they get. Sometimes, they even enjoy a late-night kayak ride under a moonlit sky. “To have the opportunity to get your feet wet in a river, and to realize so many things live in there, is mind-altering,” she says. “When you learn how to look for insects, fish and birds, you never feel the same way about a river.”

In 1994, the McHenry County Historical Society and Heart Publications Inc. compiled a book called McHenry County in the 20th Century, chronicling the history of the county, its people, significant territory and events. The Fox River plays a key role in the region’s development.

According to the book, McHenry’s population boom started in the late 1880s, thanks primarily to the river. All along its banks sprang up the summer cottages of Chicago residents. The population of Fox Lake, normally only 500, ballooned to 20,000 residents during the summer.

“The story of the Fox is really a story about the evolution of the area,” says Fike, who oversaw the book project. “It was known as a resort area, where people came from the city, looking for an escape from the hot summers. It became a place for summer homes, then year-round homes, and businesses. The river is one of those things that draws people to a community. It gives you recreational opportunities and a better quality of life.”

The Fox hasn’t always been a pristine environment. In 1999, it was listed as one of the most endangered rivers in the United States, primarily because little attention was paid to nagging issues with water quality. The move became a call to action for local environmental enthusiasts.

Today, the Fox is recovering well, thanks to strong support from individuals and groups. Take, for example, the Friends of the Fox River, a nonprofit organization that works to protect and maintain the Fox through water-quality monitoring programs, educational events, river and stream cleanups, and river habitat improvement projects.

In 1996, the Fox River Ecosystem Partnership (FREP) formed, after the IDNR designated part of the Fox’s northern-most watershed a “resource-rich area.” FREP addresses issues related to stormwater management, water quality, flooding and habitat loss.

(Erica Lemon/Forest Preserve District of Kane County photo)

Seven years later, the Fox River Study Group (FRSG) was created to identify and solve major problems along the river. It drew together public and private entities including the Friends of the Fox River, Sierra Club, FREP, municipal governments and water reclamation districts from Elgin and Aurora.

For the past decade, Cindy Skrukrud, Ph.D., has worked as a clean water advocate for the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club, the oldest grassroots organization in the nation. The Illinois Chapter involves 15 groups, including one that’s actively involved with the Fox. Like the IDNR’s Williamson, Skrukrud is passionate about her efforts. She addresses clean water issues throughout the state, working with volunteers, members and municipalities to minimize water pollution. Once a month, Skrukrud and volunteer teams help the FRSG to collect water samples along seven sites from Johnsburg to Yorkville, as well as five tributary sites.

“The Fox is still a good place to recreate,” she says. “It’s not perfect, but we’re working on ways to improve water quality. Our primary concern was that there were problems with the Fox that weren’t being acknowledged. In the last decade, however, we’ve succeeded in drawing attention to the river. We have a diverse group of people working together, to figure out the best ways to ensure its future health.”

Another hurdle is dams, many of which were built in the 1800s by early settlers. At the time, dams powered mills and generated electricity. Few still serve their original purpose. Today, 13 dams still stand, in McHenry, Algonquin, Carpentersville, Elgin, South Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva, Batavia, North Aurora, Aurora, Montgomery, Yorkville and Dayton.

The dams restrict the distribution of 30 species of fish native to the Fox River, including sauger, skipjack herring, speckled and bigmouth chub, and black and smallmouth buffalo, according to the Fox River Fish Passage Feasibility Study, published eight years ago. There’s now an effort to remove some of the smaller dams. Dams in Batavia and Aurora already have been removed.

“Dams are impediments for kayakers and canoers, and they reduce the passage of fish,” Skrukrud says. “You can look at the data and the number of species found in the river. It would lead to a more diverse population of fish throughout the river if we removed more of the smaller dams.”

Fishing still remains a popular activity along this river. The Fox attracts anglers looking for walleye, catfish, muskie and northern pike. Ken Gortowski might be the Babe Winkelman of local fishing. The Yorkville resident first picked up a pole at age 40, and 15 years later, he’s still hooked. The outdoor writer and photographer documents his experiences through his blog, waterdogjournal.com.

“You wouldn’t believe the things I see out there,” he says. “It’s stunningly beautiful. It’s an obsession, just wanting to be outside. I grew up in Chicago, and there was no place to go. This just makes me feel better.”

Gortowski, nicknamed the “mystery angler,” prefers to fish alone, opting for solitude over companionship. He doesn’t like boat or shoreline fishing, either. Instead, he prefers wading in the river to catch his fish. Gortowski says he has waded in more than 40 miles of the Fox and its small feeder creeks. The best spots, he says, are around Batavia and North Aurora. “When you’re standing waist-deep in water and pulling up a fish that shoots between your legs, there’s nothing else like that,” he says. “You see the river at an angle most people never will.”

Quiet waters make sections of the Fox ideal for paddlers. (Kevin Horner photo)

Gortowski has caught 19 different species in the Fox, but smallmouth bass is his fish of choice, because of the fight it puts up. “Everything else I catch is by mistake,” he says, laughing.

But it’s not just fishing that draws people. The Fox is special to Mechanic, who can see it every morning from the backyard of his Aurora home. Mechanic is an expert on paddling the Fox. A lifelong kayaker and canoeist, he directs The Access Project, an organization that provides information on kayak access sites, water trails and Illinois water law.

Mechanic also is co-manager of Paddle and Trail, 107 Spruce St., Aurora, which opened earlier this summer, and sells, rents and services canoes, kayaks and bikes. It also offers introductory kayaking classes and shuttles customers to the river for paddling trips, including longer, self-guided excursions from Montgomery to Yorkville on Sundays. Professional guided trips on other water trails begin this fall.

“For beginners, it’s a really safe river to paddle,” Mechanic says. “In the summer, the Fox is warm, shallow and far cleaner than most northwestern Illinois rivers. I’ve taken many first-time paddlers on trips down this river, and they’re always surprised to find how easy, safe and fun it is.”

The Fox River provides many spots for launching canoes and kayaks. The section below Chain O’Lakes State Park is shallow lake paddling, but choppy waters from power boats can make paddling difficult and dangerous. Below the McHenry dam, stretches of tree-lined banks and sparse riverside development make this section enjoyable for beginning paddlers.

In Kane County, from Elgin through Aurora, the Fox passes highly urbanized areas and multiple dams. Between them, it cuts through sections of wooded areas and nature preserves. As it enters Kendall County, below Montgomery, the Fox becomes large, quiet and scenic, flowing mostly through farmland. The 28-mile tract from Yorkville to Wedron is designated “The Historic Fox Valley Canoe Trail.”

“There is very easy access throughout McHenry and Kane counties and into Kendall County,” Mechanic says. “You don’t have to go too far to find a designated safe launch site.” For more information on the best places to paddle along the Fox River, visit openlands.org.

No matter your pleasure, Fox enthusiasts offer one piece of advice to visitors: “Go out there and enjoy the river,” Gortowski says. “Fishing is just one way to see the Fox River up close.”

Skrukrud agrees: “It’s a great place to be for people who live in the Fox River Valley. It’s like having the wilderness in our backyard, especially as we urbanize more. Recently, I put my canoe in at Algonquin and canoed down to Elgin. The view from the river was simply amazing.” ❚

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