What attracts nearly 30,000 boaters every weekend, and is one of the busiest inland waterways in America? Paul Anthony Arco finds out why this chain of 15 lakes is our region’s favorite summer playground.
Summertime means many things: road trips, vacations and lots of outdoor time, for starters. For some, it’s all about playing on the water, and the Chain O’Lakes in northeastern Illinois may be the busiest inland water playground in the nation.
The lakes draw more than 30,000 boaters and fishermen on summer weekends, with crowds nearly 100,000 strong on holidays, according to the Fox Waterway Agency. Nearly 28,000 boats are registered on the Chain.
“I think the Chain is so popular with boaters due to its close proximity to Chicago, Milwaukee and Rockford,” says Jaki Berggren, executive director of the McHenry County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s located in the center of the tri-city triangle and only an hour drive from each, which makes it an ideal location for people to go on the weekends and enjoy their boats.”
The Chain system begins at the Illinois/Wisconsin border with Grass Lake, and stretches south along the county lines of McHenry and Lake County, via the Fox River. Along the 15 navigable lakes and 45 miles of river are several towns and cities, including Fox Lake, Antioch, Johnsburg and McHenry.
In all, the system encompasses 7,000 acres of water, spread across nine major lakes and several smaller bodies. The largest are the Fox and Pistakee, each covering 1,700 acres, and Grass Lake, with 1,350 acres. The smaller lakes are Catherine, Marie, Nippersink, Channel, Bluff and Petite.
“They’re all connected and accessible via the Fox River,” Berggren says. “Boaters who live south of McHenry County have easy access to the Chain by using their boats, instead of driving to get there. “
Though some lakes have restrictions on boat size, they’re interconnected and easily navigable. The Fox River exits the Chain at the southwest corner of Pistakee Lake.
“Every lake has a different character and feel,” says Greg Behm, superintendent of Chain O’ Lakes State Park. “Some people will do the loop and sail the entire chain.”
A Wildlife Paradise
Craig Pfannkuche knows the history of the Chain O’Lakes inside and out. For the past 20 years, the retired high school history teacher has operated Memory Trail Research, a historical research company often hired to do research work for genealogists and authors.
“The Chain is important not just for McHenry and Lake counties, but for all of northwestern Illinois,” he says. “It’s been making boaters and business owners happy for a long time.”
Pfannkuche says the Chain was formed when a Wisconsin glacier melted, leaving behind many of the lakes that are now located in the Fox River Valley. “It’s a wildlife paradise,” he says. “The beauty is what brought the original recreational enthusiasts to the Chain. In the 1880s, it was a fantastic place for people from Chicago to go fishing, and it still is.
“People first came to the Chain by Chicago and Northwestern trains to McHenry, and took steam-driven launches from there to view the vast ‘Lotus’ beds, which covered many of the lakes.”
The Chain grew even busier when the Milwaukee Road Railroad entered Fox Lake in 1901.
“Train after train full of people came out to look at the lake,” says Pfannkuche. “They would get off in McHenry and take boating trips down the lower Chain, or stay in the hotels in the Fox Lake or Nippersink areas. As people saw more boats, notable boating companies came to town, sailing clubs set up shop and the area started hosting regattas and boat races. The price to travel by boat was only $1.25 one way, so it was cheap entertainment for Chicago people who couldn’t afford affluent activities.”
One of the most famous landmarks is the 100-room Mineola Hotel, built by members of the Chicago Board of Trade as a private clubhouse in 1884. The Mineola was one of the largest wooden structures in Illinois and joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Sadly, the historic building was closed last year due to safety concerns, after a court settlement between the owner and the Village of Fox Lake. Landmark Illinois recently named the Mineola one of the state’s most endangered historic places.
During Prohibition, the Chain area was a popular getaway for gangsters like Al Capone and his rival, George ‘Bugs’ Moran, who owned a summer house on Bluff Lake near Antioch. “Capone came through Fox Lake to fish and recreate,” Pfannkuche says. “He and Moran could not stand each other, so they stayed in very different lakes on the Chain.” Terrible Prohibition-Era violence took place at the Manning’s Hotel in Fox Lake on June 1, 1930, when five people were shot, three fatally.
The Great Depression took its toll on the Chain, resulting in the closure of several resorts. Many of the summer cottages became permanent homes.
“People were enamored with the Chain during that period,” Pfannkuche says. “They were buying up cottages around the chain and winterizing them. And now, the Chain has become a national destination. It’s a busy place that’s never faded away.”
Karen Haywood-Smott loves boating. Eight years ago, she and husband Steve moved from their North Shore home to Spring Grove, just to be close to the Chain.
When venturing into the sprawling waters on her 21-foot Sea Sprite deck boat, she’s in her ultimate happy place.
“It’s so peaceful and serene out there,” says Haywood-Smott, an estimator for a commercial plumbing and heating company in Woodstock. “I live for the summer.” She and Steve are often found on their boat, sometimes with their children Garrett, Danny and/or Jessica Sharp.
“We’re the first ones in the water in the spring, and one of the last ones out in the fall,” says Haywood-Smott. “I love to drop anchor, look around, and breathe in and breathe out. It clears my head. It’s like being on vacation all summer long. It’s a great way to spend quality time with family and friends. It’s just perfect.”
She isn’t alone in her feelings.
“We see a broad spectrum of user groups, from recreational boaters to people who come from miles just for fishing tournaments,” says Behm, the superintendent at Chain O’Lakes State Park. “People are ready to get outdoors after a long winter, and the hotter it gets, the more crowded it gets. It’s hard to believe the number of boats out there sometimes.”
“It’s bumper-to-bumper boats on weekends,” adds Barry Gilly, the park’s assistant superintendent. “And people who don’t boat come out on weekends with their lawn chairs, just to watch the boaters go by.”
“We see 8-foot kayaks to 40-foot cruisers,” says Ron Barker, executive director of the Fox Waterway Agency, a local governing body that’s responsible for overseeing the Chain O’Lakes. “We have everything from first-time boaters to experienced boaters. The best part about the Chain O’Lakes is that inland waters don’t get rough, like Lake Michigan.”
Maureen Riedy grew up in Wisconsin, but she and her family spent plenty of time in northern Illinois, waterskiing along the Chain. These days, as the president of the Lake County Illinois Convention and Visitors Bureau (LCICVB), she recruits visitors to the region.
“We’ve seen the boating industry making a comeback as the economy turns around,” she says. “Water recreation appeals to so many people. People like to come to this area for the beauty, wide-open spaces and, of course, the water.”
The Chain is home to hundreds of businesses, including marinas, boat vendors, resorts and campgrounds. Many host special events throughout the summer, including boat races, fishing tournaments and concerts.
“Certainly, the Chain O’Lakes is a major factor in many activities,” Riedy says. “We definitely capitalize on the surrounding bodies of water. With 75 lakes in the county, we have a chance to promote that fact to potential visitors. Our target market is the Chicago area. Most people who come from Chicago drive through Lake County and spend money. It’s made a huge impact on our community.”
Last summer, a LCICVB survey revealed that more than $1 billion in tourism is spent in Lake County each year. The average visitor spends $360 per visit; 4 in 10 visitors stay at least one night.
There are plenty of restaurants and bars along the Chain, such as Captain’s Quarters, 38283 N. Bolton Place, Antioch; Stormy Monday, 36930 N. Stanton Point Road, Ingleside; and Grass Lake Landing, 26250 W. Heart O Lakes Blvd., Antioch. Another fun place to stop is El Puerto Mexican Restaurant, 200 N. Forest Ave., Fox Lake.
“It’s nice to take the boat out and cruise to any number of restaurants,” says Haywood-Smott. “You don’t realize many of them are restaurants – they just look like homes. Most have wonderful food and outdoor decks to sit on and enjoy the view. The best part is that many of them are only a half-hour boat ride, and you’re home by dark.”
Due to the volume of boaters that use the Fox River to access the Chain, businesses along the river thrive during boating season.
Many days you can find one boat selling Chicago hot dogs and other treats, and another boat delivering Chicago pizza from local restaurants to boaters on the Chain. Fox Lake boaters can also pull up to McDonald’s, 40 S. Route 12.
“The restaurants that do well have docks so that boaters can stop and dine, and then continue on,” says Berggren of McHenry County. Some of the restaurants where boaters can stop along the Fox in McHenry County are Port Edward, 20 W. Algonquin Road, Algonquin; The Snuggery, 801 N. River Road, McHenry; and Vickie’s Place, 1211 N. River Road, McHenry.
Without question, one of the most popular destinations along the Chain is Blarney Island, a man-made pub set in the middle of Grass Lake, that can only be reached by boat. It’s also accessible by ferry boat from Port O’ Blarney, a restaurant and bar located nearby at 27843 W. Grass Lake Road.
Known as “The Key West of the Midwest,” Blarney’s Island has Thursday night speed boat races and live entertainment throughout the summer. The boat races alone can draw more than 5,000 people a week.
Boaters embrace the chaos of so many people. “It’s almost fun in a way,” says Haywood-Smott. “People are waving and having a good time. You know you’re not going to get anywhere in a hurry.”
Haywood-Smott’s neighborhood backs up to Grass Lake, so she often hears the roaring of the Thursday night boat races and the music blaring from Blarney Island.
“It hasn’t changed a bit all these years, and that’s part of its charm,” says Haywood-Smott, the recipient of a recent surprise birthday party held at Blarney Island. “It’s family-friendly by day, and there’s plenty of music and entertainment at night. From rock to country, it has a little bit of everything.”
Chain O’ Lakes State Park
If you’re looking for a peaceful and quiet getaway, the place to be is Chain O’Lakes State Park, which includes 6,000 acres of park and conservation space. The park opened in 1945 and borders three natural lakes – Grass, Marie and Nippersink – and borders the banks of the Fox River, connecting it with seven other lakes: Bluff, Fox, Pistakee, Channel, Petite, Catherine and Redhead. The park also has Turner Lake, separate from the others.
The state park offers camping, horseback riding, trails for hiking and biking through beautiful prairies and woodlands, a free boat launch, picnic areas, fishing, and a store and concession stand. Hunting, ice fishing and ice skating are permitted in cold weather. Throughout the park, guests find wildlife like cranes, herons and deer, as well as freshwater lotus flowers and water lilies.
“The park is absolutely beautiful,” says Gilly, the park’s assistant superintendent. “Fishermen head out in the spring, and when it warms up you’ll start to see the boaters who are here for recreational activities like skiing, boating and fishing, There’s a variety of user groups.”
Fox Lake resident Joe Rollhauser is among the many passionate fishermen who can be found regularly on the Chain. The retired engineering manager brings his NITRO fishing boat out at least once during the weekdays. “It’s a great way to kill time,” says Rollhauser, who catches and releases. “I prefer fishing at the Chain because it’s convenient and it’s fairly large to navigate. I could spend all day out there.”
Matt Simpson is manager of Gill’s Bait Shop, located at the Chain O’ Lakes and the McHenry Dam. The Illinois State University student and Lake Zurich resident runs the operation along with his father, Steve, and older brother, Douglas. The Simpsons have owned the business for nine years.
“I love it,” says Matt, who spends his summer days leading canoe tours and renting out motor and row boats, canoes and paddle boards. “It’s a chance to work outside, and talk and share stories with boaters. I like being a knowledgeable source, and giving people advice on the best places to fish and boat. I wouldn’t mind doing this full-time when I graduate from college.”
Chain O’Lakes State Park is open every day except Christmas. From April through October, hours are 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Dedicated boaters emphasize the importance of water safety. That’s why the Fox Waterway Agency works to improve and maintain these public waterways for recreational use, and to promote the Fox River and Chain O’Lakes as a tourism destination.
“We’re seeing a fair number of boats on the system these days,” says executive director Barker. “The biggest change lately is the upgrade in the quality of boats and the number of families that we’re seeing out on the Chain. Boating has become much more family-oriented than it was in the past.”
Boaters are required to take safety classes through the DNR, Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Power Squadron.
“We expect everyone to take the class,” Barker says. “Safety is the No. 1 priority. A user fee issued by the Fox Waterway Agency is required for all boats using the Chain. There’s no charge to launch boats at the park, and no horsepower limitations on boats using any of the lakes.” For more information, boaters can visit foxwaterwayagency.state.il.us, which also contains current boating conditions, notices and other advisories.
Spreading the Word
When it comes to the Chain, there’s no shortage of information for water enthusiasts. Another website, www.funonthefox.com, contains helpful tips and fun facts, including message boards, photo galleries, boating information and a calendar of events.
To help spread the word about boating opportunities in the area, LCICVB has stepped up its marketing efforts. It recently launched BoatingLakeCounty.com, with information about boating and waterfront activities in Lake County, Chain O’Lakes State Park and the area forest preserves.
The website includes downloadable apps for smartphones, updated weather conditions, local maps and suggestions for fun activities on the water, along with boating applications, waterway user fees and sticker information. There’s also a listing of rivers and marinas, information on sailing and campgrounds, and best places to fish. The new site will be updated throughout the boating season.
“This summer we decided to make water activities a larger part of our marketing and advertising campaign,” Riedy says. “We want visitors and residents alike to enjoy the many opportunities that exist in the region, including the Chain O’Lakes.”
There’s a sort of fraternity among boaters, and most agree that it’s brought the Chain O’Lakes communities closer together. For generations, this unique Midwestern destination has provided a place for families and friends to create summertime memories, and for out-of-towners to enjoy a nautical getaway.
Whether you’re a local or a visitor, it’s impossible to escape that special sense of community around the Chain.
“Boaters are very unique individuals,” says Barker. “Everyone on a boat is friendly. It’s like being part of a family, thanks to a single, shared common interest.”