Tom Sawyer style, hits the open water...
March 26, 2011 7:33 PM   Subscribe

Some friends and I want to take off on a canoe in the Fox River (in Illinois) for a day trip to see the sights when it gets warmer. Advice, warnings, etc.?

We're a bunch of risk taking teenagers. Sigh. So, I'd like to think I'm the more reasonable one. Go ahead and talk us out of it, if that's the reasonable thing here!

Of course, if this did happen, I'll need to have working life jackets first thing. A map, to avoid dams/find portages and keep our bearings, and letting people know we're gone. Some sort of phone that could risk getting wet would be nice too. Extra paddles... sorry, I'm rambling!

So, any words of advice or reasons not to do it? Likelihood we'll get in trouble? I'd like to know, just so you don't see a news article about a bunch of drowned, risk taking, morons...

Adventure calls!
posted by Askiba to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Oh, and I'm currently trawling through older AskMe's with great material like boating class links and "Drowning Doesn't Look Like Drowning", that sort of stuff. But this is a very specific situation, so thus the question)
posted by Askiba at 7:35 PM on March 26, 2011

Learn the river, especially where the impassable dams are.

I'd be inclined to visit canoe/kayak outfitters local to the river who know about the feasibility of your journey.
posted by artlung at 7:51 PM on March 26, 2011

Fox River info, specific instructions on each dam.

If it's just a daytrip, there are plenty of canoe rental places that do trips on the Fox River ... several are linked from that first link.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:01 PM on March 26, 2011

Oh Skiba...we should all pile into a giant tire raft ed ed and eddy style... :)

People canoe all the time down the river. Its not something they arrest you for. But I could see you totally misjudging when to go to shore and go over a damn. You will drown from that. :)
posted by NotSoSiniSter at 8:04 PM on March 26, 2011

I could give you a lot of generic canoeing info, but your advice needs to be from someone that knows the river. Check with local outfitters, canoe rental places, etc.
posted by tomswift at 8:22 PM on March 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you willing to read a short book? I'm a casual kayaker, and my favorite boating book is River Safety: A Floater's Guide, by Stan Bradshaw.
posted by not that girl at 8:24 PM on March 26, 2011

Um -- do you know how to canoe? As in, knowing the strokes, the different roles of bow and stern paddler, how to sideslip, how to unswamp an overturned canoe, etc? That would be the first concern. Do you know how to be in a canoe? How to change seats, how to not stand all the way up, how to use your weight to move it around? If you really don't know how to canoe, prepare for a long wet day and be extra aware of safety. I see terrible, untrained paddlers out there all the time - they usually don't die but they aren't necessarily having a great time. They fight more and it can be a struggle, depending on the nature of the river. Grab a few lessons prior to the trip if you can.

Second, yes, you'll need life jackets for each person and an extra paddle for each boat. Are you renting? Your rental company should provide this. Also, if you're renting, one of you probably has to be over 18. If nobody's over 18, call the rental company and check on their policies. SOme don't rent to people under 18 at all.

Do you all know how to swim? Do you know how to rescue someone in trouble in the water (throw, don't go and all that)?

A day trip? People do it all the time. It's not a big deal. But it'll take you twice as long if you don't know how to paddle.

Bring: a LOT of plain water. Snacks. Sunscreen. Sunglasses. A hat with a brim. A jacket and t-shirt. Bug repellent - good bug repellent. A simple first aid kit with stuff, especially, for bee stings/horsefly bites and band-aids, in case of paddle blisters. Wear your swim trunks. Wear shoes that can get wet - Teva type sandals, AquaSox, crappy Keds. No socks. Store everything in Ziplocs - the food, your cellphones, your wallet and keys. Put the Ziplocs in something like a zipperable backpack, and then clip that directly to a thwart on the canoe with a carabiner or lanyard. If/when you do go over (more likely if you don't really know how to paddle, but always possible), at least your stuff won't sink to the bottom or get carried downriver - it'll be physically attached to the canoe.

Tell someone when you expect to be at the takeout and be ready to get in touch if you're gonna be back on time. If you're going where you might not have cell reception, let them know. There might not be cell reception. If you're going with a rental company, they'll keep an eye on you.
posted by Miko at 9:12 PM on March 26, 2011

*As TomSwift hints, it's not your age really that matters, it's your level of experience on rivers plus local knowledge. I've taken a lot of people on canoe trips, ages 10 and up, and most people can handle themselves just fine with training. What can pose dangers is inexperience and naivete and being unable to assess unfamiliar risks. Be honest with any outfitter you choose to rent from about your level of knowledge and skill. If it's really not much, just say so. They'll recommend their safer trips and, hopefully, give you some pointers. Canoeing is the kind of thing that seems totally innocuous, easy, and safe, until it's not. Start simple, don't try to do some kamikaze run as your first time out.
posted by Miko at 9:17 PM on March 26, 2011

Yes, you need PFDs, paddles, river shoes, and dry bags (a proper dry bag is desirable, as ziplocks have a way of developing small holes at inconvenient times; but be aware that water can enter a dry bag if it's dragged through the current; so your best bet is to put a cell phone in a ziplock or two, and then inside a dry bag).

But one of the best things to take with you is an experienced guide who knows the river. Boldfaced for emphasis. This can make a big difference for your safety. It can also make the difference between zipping through rapids having a great time, and repeatedly banging into rocks, tipping over, falling out, having to drag a swamped canoe to shore and dump the water out of it, etc.

Here are some other considerations—nobody can give you a complete river safety course in an AskMe answer, but these are things to ask a guide or experienced local paddler about:

Do you know how to identify the following hazards: hydraulics, undercut rocks, and strainers? In brief, a hydraulic is a place where the water flows back on itself in a "washing machine" cycle that can push you underwater and prevent you from swimming away. An undercut rock is a place where the current flows through a passage under a rock that might be too small for your body to fit through; you can get jammed in their and trapped by the force of the current. A strainer is a downed tree or other obstacle where the water flows through but solid objects such as you and your boat do not. Strainers are usually pretty obvious but hydraulics and undercut rocks are harder to identify unless you've been trained to spot them. Some rivers have no undercut rocks and no hydraulics large enough to be dangerous, but trees can fall into just about any river at any time.

Do you know how to avoid foot entrapment? Foot entrapment is when your foot gets wedged between rocks on the river's bottom. It is dangerous because if you are in a spot where the current is strong, the river can knock you over and it may be difficult or impossible for you to keep your head above water. Foot entrapment should be avoidable if you use proper swimming and wading techniques, but again, this takes training.

Do you know how to find out the current water level of the Fox River, and do you know what's considered a safe level for novice canoeists on this river? (Rapids that are fairly safe with low consequences for messing up at lower water levels can become more hazardous at higher levels.)

Are you OK with giving up on the trip if you find out at the last minute that water levels are unsafe?

Do you know how long it typically takes to paddle downstream from point A to point B on the Fox River? Do you know what's a reasonable distance between put-in and take-out spots? You don't want to overestimate how far you can paddle in a day.

Always put your own safety above the safety of your gear.

If your boat turns over and fills with water, DO NOT get between it and a stationary, downstream object such as a rock or bridge piling. A water-filled canoe weighs hundreds of pounds, and may have hundreds more pounds of force on it from the current. You do not want to get pinned.

Don't take anything on the river that you couldn't bear to lose. Jewelry that seems secure on land can be pulled off by the current if you fall out of the canoe in a rapid. Make sure that your car keys are secure. Dry bags and coolers should be tied to the canoe—just take a length of rope, tie one end to the thwart, and the other end to the handle of the bag or cooler. Any bag that you take with you should be able to be closed securely (with zippers, clips, the roll-down top of a dry bag, etc); open totes risk spilling their contents.

Look, chances are that you and your friends will have a great time and will never flip your canoe or get into any trouble. I don't want to discourage you too much—paddling on mild (class II) whitewater is one of my favorite sports. The first couple times I did it, I shared a canoe with two friends who had barely any more whitewater experience than I did. (We were all fairly experienced flatwater canoeists.) We got stuck on rocks a couple times but it was no big deal—we just shoved the canoe off the rocks and went on our merry way. A day out on the river can be wonderfully relaxing, and it sounds like the Fox River has relatively mild and infrequent rapids. You'll probably be OK. But the more I've gotten into whitewater paddling, the more I've learned about the potential hazards and the value of learning from more experienced guides, especially ones who know the specific river. So please talk to some local outfitters and paddling clubs.
posted by Orinda at 11:29 PM on March 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

jammed in their there
posted by Orinda at 11:33 PM on March 26, 2011

"dams are drowning machines": this page has illustrations of some of the hazards I was talking about.
posted by Orinda at 11:39 PM on March 26, 2011

The most critical, can't do without piece of gear after the paddles and PFDs? Keys to the take out vehicle!

Don't do rapids the first time in a canoe: do a flat water float. Canoes are tricksy to paddle and also sink if you fill them with water: stuff that you'd happily float in an inner tube can be damn near impossible in a canoe. Getting them off the bottom of the river when they're full of water is a real pain. Any rental outfit should be able to recommend a good easy float. In fact you'll probably find that they're conveniently located right at the top of one.
posted by fshgrl at 11:46 PM on March 26, 2011

The Fox River kills people fairly regularly. Go with an experienced guide of some kind.
posted by gjc at 12:00 AM on March 27, 2011

All I have to add to the above is: when going on the water always check the weather.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:35 AM on March 27, 2011

ah. the fox might not be the best river for this as it's pretty wide and shallow. it is pretty good for drifting, but will probably involve a bit of work. i haven't paddled much of the fox, but the stretch between aurora and elgin has a lot of dams, and would involve several portages. it should also be noted that the lakes behind the dams don't flow very fast. and yeah, stay away from the dams. none of the rivers around chicago have any significant rapids--the danger is from submerged items and of course the roller dams.

the kankakee river is also really nice--and a lot cleaner.

the nippersink, however, is the river for canoeing in chicago. even better--there is camping available, so you could do an overnight if you wished.

fox river canoe places here and here

kankakee here

nippersink here

tl;dr: skip the fox. do the nippersink.
posted by lester at 7:13 AM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

oh, this link might be useful, too.
posted by lester at 7:14 AM on March 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Fantastic answers here. Take away so far- talk to somebody who knows what the heck they're doing. That's on the checklist then.
posted by Askiba at 10:54 AM on March 27, 2011

lester is right about the region between Elgin and Aurora. But past Montgomery/Oswego there are longer stretches of the Fox River with fewer dams.

Seriously, be VERY knowledgeable about where the dams are.
posted by achmorrison at 12:58 PM on March 27, 2011

I'm in the same general area and have kayaked different stretches of the fox river. In general, it's a good place for teenagers to canoe. it's calm water and typically shallow enough that if you goof around and tip a boat, getting it back upright is doable. In fact I'd recommend it unlike lester because it tends to be shallow enough that you can get away with a lot of goofing around at low risk.

If you're renting a canoe on the fox, they'll be a planned route for you to take. It'd probably be a few hours, not an entire day, but it'll also be a known stretch with no dams for you to portage. I rented a kayak from the the canoe shack in St. Charles.

Like the Illinois Paddling Council dam page above says, don't screw around with dams. It's probably the most likely way for you to get killed on the Fox river because they may look like they're no big deal, but getting caught in a hydraulic would be bad news, and it's hard to tell how dangerous a dam is from the top side. If you plan on going far enough that you'll go past a dam, then portage around it.

It's a good idea to plan on everything in the boat potentially getting wet, so some sort of drybag for your cellphone to call the outfitter for pickup, shoes you're ok with getting wet (and able to use to drag the canoe through shallows / get in /out of the boat, and a dry change of clothes in the car for when you're done.
posted by garlic at 7:53 AM on March 28, 2011

One more bit of advice. Teva-type sandals are a lot better than bare feet in the river, but closed shoes (like old tennis shoes that you don't mind getting wet and muddy) are best. Broken glass is a nearly universal problem in rivers where there are a lot of recreational boaters, thanks to generations of people going out on the river with a beer or a Coke and tossing the empty bottle overboard, or losing it in a rapid. Which reminds me: when packing your own lunch, please don't take any glass.
posted by Orinda at 9:27 AM on March 29, 2011

This is a late addition to the thread, but I want to throw it in for the benefit of future readers who might be looking through the Ask Me archives. In my first answer above, I referred to "proper swimming and wading techniques." I think I should elaborate a little. If you're boating on any river that has rapids (as the Fox River does), you should know how to do a whitewater swim. This does not require any special skill; it's just a matter of choosing how you orient yourself in the water. If you fall out of your boat in a rapid, FIRST make sure you're not in a position to get pinned (get out from between your boat and any stationary objects downstream); then get on your back and point your feet downstream. The basic idea is that it's better to hit obstacles with your feet and butt than with your head.

I had to use this the other day when I hit a rock at a bad angle and fell out of my kayak at the beginning of a long class II rapid. The rapid had a wave train with foot-and-a-half high waves that obscured my view of the rocks in the rapid. I found a lot of big rocks with my feet as the current swept me down the river. I am very glad that I found them with my feet and not with my face as I might have done if I'd been flailing around or trying to dog-paddle downstream. The current was too strong to stand up in, but by swimming with my feet downstream I was able to bounce off the rocks unharmed.

After I got off the river, I said to myself, "the whitewater swim really saved my bacon. Maybe I should go back to the recent Ask Me thread about canoeing and tell people how to do it."
posted by Orinda at 12:17 PM on April 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

p.s. Oh, for an edit window. I just realized that the Fox River links in my preceding comment refer to "park and play" areas at specific dams rather than stretches of the river with natural rapids. Ahem. Anyway. What I say about the whitewater swim may be less applicable to the original poster's planned expedition, but I think it's still good information to throw into an Ask Me thread about river boating.
posted by Orinda at 12:42 PM on April 21, 2011

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