★ ★ ★ ★

Apple River

East Canyon Road to South Apple River Road:
Quite possibly the most beautiful stretch of river in all of Illinois (and definitely one of the best in the entire Midwest) the Apple River is rich with clear water, (or jade green in the deeper pools) constant riffles, light rapids, gorgeous rock walls, a veritable canyon and little to no development.

It does, however, have landowner issues that must be recognized and respected. Added to that is a steep gradient that drains its water volume quickly, so catching the upper Apple River at the right time is tricky. But it’s oh so worth it!

Apple River

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: April 20, 2014

Skill Level: Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Class I(II)

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Hanover: ht/ft: 2.7 | cfs: 206

Current Levels:
Hanover: ht/ft: 4.10 | cfs: 68.0

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level. There are all sorts of issues with this river, its basic legality being one of them. Below 200 cfs is not recommended, as it will be shallow. 250-300 cfs should be perfect. The river is prone to flash-flooding, so be mindful of staying off it just after or in the event of heavy rain.

Apple River Canyon State Park, East Canyon Road
GPS: 42.4491, -90.05556
South Apple River Road bridge
GPS: 42.36414, -90.15927

Time: Put in at 9:45a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 9.75

Lotsa wood ducks, mergansers, several herons, one teenage bald eagle, many sandpipers, a cavalcade of cattle and roughly one billion Canada geese honking like all hell had broken loose.

This river has been the “apple” of my eye for years now, with the thrills of the Driftless landscape at its core but the peril of being arrested or ticketed for trespassing at its thin skin. Located mainly in northwestern Illinois – a sliver of the state that was spared the glacial bulldozing of the last Ice Age – the Apple River technically begins its roughly 55-mile journey to the Mississippi River across the border in Wisconsin. While most of its scenery is surrounded by numbingly homogenous crops of corn and soybeans, the dazzling exception and crown jewel to this rule of thumb is in its upper half through Apple River Canyon State Park. There, the river has incised through limestone for a very long time, leaving a scale of exposed outcrops and topography rarely found in the Upper Midwest – Illinois in particular. Trouble is… well, there are two caveats, one especially formidable:

1: You might get arrested for trespassing, or at the very least fined.
2: Water levels are fickle and unforgiving.

What’s this about trespassing on a river? It’s true, thanks to the tortured laws of “sucker” statutes. More on this in detail below, but the long and short of it is “boating” is prohibited in the state park. (Yes, the one named after a river.) I have emailed and called the office on two different occasions a year apart from one another and corresponded with two different employees. Both told me unambiguously that boating is not allowed in the park. “Even kayaks or canoes,” I asked? Yes, they told me. Why? It just is. Now, I saw no signs indicating such while at the park, so you the paddler could make a plea for plausible deniability, but know the risks (and be discreet).

The mixed bag of good and bad news is that most of the river can be paddled without fear of trespassing, yet those aren’t the sections most folks will be keen to float along. Ironically, or unmercifully, it’s through the eponymously named state park where paddlers might run afoul of the law, which is where the river is prettiest and most fun.

I can be a fairly stubborn person. “Determined” sounds better. For starters, I didn’t grow up in the passive-aggressive Midwest, but rather in the northeast, where speaking your mind is not just a way of life but a survival mechanism. Moreover, I grew up a classic latchkey kid full of self will and independence, practically an only child at that. Now masquerading as a grownup, I barrel down adulthood without ever having the rudder of a spouse or the brakes of kids. And for those with an astrological penchant, I’m a Taurus through and through. All of this has culminated in a personality type who asks for forgiveness, not permission. As they say, don’t ask questions whose answers you’re not prepared to hear.

What I’m not, however, is a total idiot. Impractical? Sure. Imprudent? You bet. But there aren’t many risks I take that aren’t first calculated. And so I resolved to try my luck on this infamous river on Easter Sunday because I’d figured that the park itself would be quiet and empty, allowing me to slip by unseen, and that most folks would be at church or brunch during the time that I was actually on the water and allegedly trespassing. I’m happy to say that nothing whatsoever occurred (other than a great time on a beautiful river). But I cannot in good conscience recommend following my impish example. That said, since we are all captains of our own destiny, here’s my experience and take-aways.

Since “boating” is not permitted in the park proper, needless to say there’s no dedicated access points to launch a kayak or canoe. To keep away from the fray, I nonchalantly slipped in via the low, shallow banks a short distance away from the parking area on the upstream side of E. Canyon Road. Only a few hundred feet downriver the South Fork of the Apple converges on the left. For the first half of this trip the river runs entirely through the state park past wooded bluffs and steep-walled limestone outcrops. It’s stunningly pretty and essentially primitive. Given the gradient, the current is swift, resulting in lots of Class I rapids and little ledges. Typically, this leads to nonstop fun – glee, even. But every now and again some willful water will lead you siren-to-shipwreck straight into a very unforgiving rock wall, or into the tangled grasp of a strainer. Leaving aside the hot-button topic of whether you should be paddling this stretch of the river in the first place, only experienced paddlers with solid boat control should entertain the terrain here. Furthermore, in the event of a nasty accident, there’s really no way to get out through the state park, since it is basically a canyon.

The first bridge comes in at E. Townsend Road, followed by Highway 9 about a mile downstream. After ~5 miles of no real sights or sounds of civilization, these wake up from the dreamlike trance through the park. Indeed, by the time you reach E. Townsend Road you’re no longer in the state park, which means you’re no longer violating the whole “no boating” thing, but you’re still susceptible to trespassing, alas. It’s for this reason that the venerable Mike Svob, author of Paddling Illinois, begins his recommended trip on the Apple at E. Townsend Road – with the caveat that you, dear reader/paddler, are advised to seek permission from all of the landowners from the put-in to the take-out. Good luck with those logistics.

Anyway, the river is still quite lovely downstream, passing along umpteen wooded bluffs and exposed outcrops, flowing still with a jade green hue of water in an Ozarks-like state of mind. The second half of this trip is simply less stunning…and also surrounded by agriculture in a couple sections. But the first half is a real hard act to follow up, let’s be fair.

I took out at the handsome old truss bridge at Apple River Road rather than push my luck (and adding to what I knew would be a pretty grueling bike shuttle) downstream at the next bridge, which is S. Grebner Road. The less conspicuous spot was river-left on the upstream side of the bridge. There, I found a clear path from the river to the road, albeit a bit steep. For what it’s worth, the opposite side is flatter and easier, but it’s in direct view of a nearby house. The day before I paddled this trip a local guy in a bar recommended I get off the river here, so obviously some folks are paddling the Apple. But whether that comes with a precondition of knowing people and being known wasn’t a chance an outsider like me was interested in taking.

What we liked:
The Apple River is quintessential Driftless and truly magnificent! This upper stretch of the river that runs through the state park felt like a combination of the Kickapoo and Kinnickinnic rivers in Wisconsin. The water is crystal clear, swift and bubbly enough to be considered the champagne (Champaign?) of Illinois streams. The current is constant and, like an action film, it…does…not…stop.Where the water is not riffly and running clear, deep beautiful jade green pools lure you to their haunting hue, usually below craggy rock walls, calling to mind an Ozark stream.

For the first ~5 miles there’s not a sight, scent or sound of development. But for three fly fishermen, I had the whole river to myself (it was Easter Sunday morning). After that, there are some houses and farms, but they’re infrequent and generously spaced out.

The very last 50 yards of this trip features a long row of pitch-perfect Class I standing waves. Going over them like bumps on a log was like having a scoop of ice cream with your apple pie.

What we didn’t like:

There are two problems with this trip: low water levels and the law.

Low water: The river had just enough water to run, but at low levels you’d be scraping a lot and walking quite a bit. As it was, I had a good core workout, butt-scooting and gorilla-arming my way through some of the many rocky shallows. I never got stuck badly enough where I had to get out, but it was touch-and-go in a number of places. You’d want a couple more inches to comfortably run this. The problem is catching the river at the right time, because it has a gradient of 13′ and thus it drains quickly.

That said, DO NOT RUN THIS RIVER IF THERE IS EVEN A CHANCE OF BEING ON IT DURING A HEAVY RAIN. Due to the steep canyon walls and gradient, this section of the river is prone to flash floods.

For example, on April 13th, the gauge was hovering around 2′-high. After a couple inches of rain the river rose to 11′ in 24 hours! Two days later, by April 16th, it fell down to 4′. Thus, it rose 9′ and dropped 7′ all within 72 hours. From the 16th to the 20th, (when I paddled it) it had dropped only from 4′ to 2.7′. But if you can paddle this at 3.5′, I think it would be perfect with enough water never to get stuck but not too much water to make the rapids too menacing.

OK, so now the law.

This part of the Apple River is designated as “non-navigable” according to Illinois law, established in 1911 and based on 19th Century notions of commercial purpose and use of what defines navigability. This is total BS and foolishly antiquated, as the river is quite obviously navigable and arguably commercial (with respect to outfitters) but the law is on the books… for now.

Illinois ranks 44th in the nation for public lands area. Compounding matters, less than 8 percent of the entire state’s stream miles are considered public waterways. The actual official list of public streams is one of the shortest and most pitiful in the country. State law stipulates that not only the banks but the stream itself up to its center point are considered part of the property of the landowner. Or, if both sides of the river belong to one property owner, then the whole river that runs through the property is considered private. (One wonders if the air above the property also is private and whether airplanes or drones need to seek permission before zooming over the roof). Thus, without permission one runs the risk of trespassing.

All of this said, I encountered no strung wires across the river, but A) it was early in the season and B) that could always change.

In his paddling guidebook Mike Svob stipulates in bold font “you must seek permission from landowners along the river before paddling…” That’s up to you. In my opinion, that is an unreasonable burden. Even with plat maps (we’ve provided them here) it’s hard to know whose property abuts the river and whose does not. And by property, let’s face it, 90 percent of it is farmland – not exactly an easy door-to-door canvassing operation! And what if no one is home at the time you seek permission but return once you are already on the river and committed? Or what if all but one landowner grants permission? Do you seriously not do it because of that one guy or gal?

It’s worth noting too that Bob Tyler, in his quirky, devil-may-care book Canoeing Adventures in Northern Illinois, lists the Apple River as one of the “best streams for wishing to be arrested for trespassing.”

Incidentally, here is the statutory language:

“Under Illinois Law, (720 ILCS 5/21 3), a person commits Criminal Trespass to Real Property if he or she: (1) knowingly and without lawful authority enters or remains within or on a building; or (2) enters upon the land of another, after receiving, prior to such entry, notice from the owner or occupant that such entry is forbidden; or (3) remains upon the land of another, after receiving notice from the owner or occupant to depart; or (4) presents false documents or falsely represents his or her identity orally to the owner or occupant of a building or land in order to obtain permission from the owner or occupant to enter or remain in the building or on the land.

A violation of this Section is considered a Class B misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 6 months in jail. However, Court Supervision may be available as means of avoiding jail and a conviction.

Class A Misdemeanor: Up to 1 year in Jail and/or fine of up to $2,500

Class B Misdemeanor: Up to 6 months in Jail and/or fine of up to $1,500

Class C Misdemeanor: Up to 30 days in Jail and/or fine of up to $1,500.”

Maybe/hopefully this issue is improving and not as bad as it used to be. Whether I myself was lucky or mischievously opportune by paddling it on Easter, who knows. It’s such a gorgeous river, it would be a shame for the private few to greedily hoard it to themselves. And considering that the river itself can only be selectively run a few times a year due to low-water levels, I really can’t imagine there would be any significant high-impact use from paddlers. If anything, ban tubing on the river. I think we all can agree on that!

Now, for what it’s worth, the day before paddling this Barry and I met a hilarious fellow in Freeport who had paddled the Apple several times and assured us that the trespassing concerns were overblown. In fact, he recommended a takeout where he and friends cleared out a landing. The guy was so fond of the river that he actually had an apple tattoo on his back, I kid you not! Granted, some random dude in a bar with an apple tattoo is hardly an alibi in the event that you have a run-in with the fuzz, but maybe it’s a good omen that things are changing in favor of paddling the river.

One last thing, if you do attempt this, I don’t recommend a bike shuttle unless you’re a glutton for punishment. It’s a longer distance than the paddle itself (thanks to the few roads) but the climb in elevation is several hundred grueling feet and, worse still, most of it along unpaved dirt-gravel roads. This is quaint for sure, but even in a car I never drove faster than 30 mph.

If we did this trip again:
While this part of our trip reports is typically pretty easy to answer, this particular trip, being unusual, unique, and potentially risky, makes things more complicated. I mean, of course I’d like to do paddle this river again – but ideally in higher water. But doing so again at any level while not feeling 100% sure about the legality (and thus the risks of getting “caught”) feels like chancing my luck. Capturing lightning in a bottle once feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity. Twice seems greedy, maybe even reckless and irresponsible. But no one’s ever accused me of being practical. Plus getting arrested for paddling a river could be a badge of honor. But in Illinois…?

I don’t know.

Related Information:
Article: Spilling the Secrets of Apple River Canyon
Map: Apple River Plat Maps
Wikipedia: Apple River (Illinois)

Photo Gallery:


You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • Reply
    Kevin Pfeiffer
    May 6, 2023 at 10:41 pm

    Hi ! I really enjoy reading your articles on the places you travel. You do a fantastic job with the level of detail and additional knowledge about the areas, etc. Do you have a recommended equipment list that you can share ? I am new and want to get into kayaking locally…NW Illinois. Thank you !

Leave a Reply