Russell Road to Wadsworth Road:
This section of the Des Plaines River is a sliver of an oasis located between a densely populated area of northeastern Illinois that flows through the open wetlands of a series of preserves. This trip will appeal to both quietwater paddlers and self-shuttlers because of the convenient Des Plaines River Trail that courses from put-in to takeout.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: October 13, 2021
Skill Level: Beginner
Class Difficulty: Flatwater
≈ .75′ per mile
Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
Russell: ht/ft: 2.5 | cfs: 12.1
Russell: ht/ft: 2.62 | cfs: 45.3
These were great levels. The gauge is located at the put-in, so the info is as accurate as it can get. As a general rule of thumb, this section requires a minimum of 10 cfs to avoid portaging.
0-9 cfs = Too low
10+ cfs = Ideal
Time: Put in at 11:40a. Out at 1:35p.
Total Time: 1h 55m
Miles Paddled: 6.5
Wildlife: A beaver, egrets, heron, turtles, frogs, fish and a million geese.
The bike shuttle is just under thirty minutes and almost entirely on the Des Plaines River Trail, save for a quick detour to access the trail from either the Russell Road Canoe Launch near the put-in or from the take-out at the Sedge Meadow canoe launch. It’s a great ride if you’re looking for an easy self-shuttling paddle, but if you’re an avid biker you may have some complaints about the state of the trail where conditions differ from north to south.
The Des Plaines River (pronounced Dess Planes) begins in Racine County and flows 133 miles before joining the Kankakee to form the Illinois River which eventually resolves in the Mississippi.
In Paddling Southern Wisconsin, Mike Svob covered a 6.5 mile upstream section that begins in Wisconsin and ends where this one begins, just over the border in Illinois. A few years ago I thought “why didn’t anyone travel to this one little corner of Mike Svob’s guidebook?” So when curiosity got the best of me, I decided to paddle that section in 2019, putting-in at the Jean McGraw Nature Preserve. While it was lovely for a brief spell, it soon became bogged down and impassable at nearly every turn due to deadfall, log jams or numerous (and even monstrous) beaver dams. It was far too frustrating for even someone like myself who has a rather high tolerance for such endeavors, having put up with a great number of similar (and much worse) paddles. That said, I knew my intended takeout that day would be my next put-in should I ever revisit the Des Plaines. This week, I just happened to be in the area.
Svob continues his documentation of the Des Plains in his Paddling Illinois guidebook, including this section. The put-in for this trip is the beginning of a continous greenway that flows through the densely urbanized area of Lake County which is a combined series of preserves. Part hiking/biking/equine trail and part river preservation/flood prevention canoe trail, The Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway offers six access points between Wadsworth and Vernon Hills. The Lake County Forest Preserves site provides essential information about each segment with some tips on what to expect, which you should visit if you’re at all interested in this river.
If you bike-shuttle like we often do, the River Trail is convenient and (mostly) well-maintained. Some sections are in better condition than others but its meer existence makes for an appealing waves-to-trails paddle option (as I like to call it).
Located between such a heavily populated and developed area, it’s amazing how wild this place feels. The sound is a different story, of course. You’ll hear the din of trucks and traffic from the surrounding roads, specifically Highway 41 which is much more noticeable and untune-outable after passing beneath the highway 173 bridge when the river winds much closer to the highway. That said, this quietwater paddle is a great outlet if you’re looking for a nearby escape from suburbia.
The put-in within the Van Patten Woods Forest Preserve is well-marked and one of the better landings I’ve encountered. It’s well-groomed, offers easy access to the river, has plenty of parking and there’s great signage, including a map of the access points. There are no facilities but there are at the take-out as well as at points along the River Trail.
You’ll begin at a wide bend in the river but it soon narrows. On average, the river keeps around forty feet wide but gets narrower in some sections and wider in many more. Along the first couple miles, the banks are low and lined with brushy red, green and gold prairie and marsh grasses. There are very few trees and those that are there are kept at a distance or are dead-weathered oaks with interesting shapes and arches. The surroundings feel very barren and wide open in this marsh/floodplain, but it feels surprisingly isolated. In fact, it is noticeably quieter in this segment since the river is further from the highway and it’s not until after the Highway 173 bridge where you’ll see any sign of development.
While I found the first part of the paddle to be particularly sparse, it was one of those opportunities to not dwell on what it lacks but to seek out the beauty for what it offers in the simple colors of the environment, the wildlife, and the reflections – which the lack of current graciously provided me with amazing visuals that felt like paddling through a living and constant Rorschach test.
Yeah, the current is virtually non-existent. If you stopped paddling, you’d probably float upstream as quickly as you’d float downstream if there was any breeze whatsoever. I likened it to lake paddling, except with a destination.
The river continues to narrow and the marsh becomes a bit scrubbier, with more dead trees, closer treelines set apart from the banks, and a bit more deadfall in the water which was all easy to navigate around. There are also a few “drops” created in part by deadfall congregating together as well as probably “in progress or abandoned” beaver dams. They were all simple enough to nose into and subtely drop down to the next “level”. (There’s one of these before Highway 173 and two more after.)
You’ve arrived at the (near) midpoint of this trip when you see a series of three bridges. The first, a wooden Des Plaines River Trail bridge, the second, a Forest Preserve bridge, and finally the Highway 173 bridge. Here, the river widens again but soon returns to its narrower complexion for a clip. Another drop is encountered, easy like before. The surroundings open up a bit to that marsh feeling once again and this alternates for much of the rest of the paddle, as does the width of the river.
There was one short treelined section that followed that was particularly pretty and peculiar because the leaves had changed to their vibrant hues of red and yellow. Peculiar because this specific area of northeastern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin happened to be at peak in fall colors which was unusual since southern Wisconsin wasn’t even in the 40th percentile of change. Maybe it’s always this way in this corner or maybe these counties were overachieving to keep up with northern Wisconsin in only the second week of October.
After a wider stretch, the river narrows once again and you’ll encounter the last drop. Soon after however, you’ll encounter a long straightaway with (mostly dead) trees flanking both banks and soon you’ll arrive at the only must-portage of the trip. If the water were higher, you may be able to run right over the tree lying lodged clear across the river. There was evidence that many have paddled over it judging by the bark removed by boat bottoms presumably, but the water would’ve had to be higher for me to do so. Instead, I did what many others have apparently done as there was a well-trodden portage path around the tree with an easy return right after the blockage.
After the trees thin out, the river opens up to its widest on a long straightaway through the Wadsworth Prairie Nature Preserve which gently doglegs-left to the Wadsworth Road bridge. The takeout is on river-left downstream from the bridge. It’s a little smaller than the put-in but easily accessible and there are facilities.
What we liked:
The Des Plaines River is just that, plain – but don’t take that as a negative. These kinds of trips are beloved by many paddlers. An easygoing, pretty and accessible stream is nothing to turn your nose up at. I would add that this is very much a canoeist’s river and perfect for beginners and/or silent sport enthusiasts (save for it being all that entirely silent).
If you’re into wildlife, specifically birds, this is an ideal locale. I encountered a crazy variety of feathered friends (of which I know nothing about), as well as many underwater fins without faces (because the water is brown with zero clarify which prevented me from identifying any of the numerous fish that were flopping in the shallows). It’s a surprisingly weird dichotomy to be surrounded by a rather rich and unique habitat while also knowing you’re not all that far from a Denny’s, McDonald’s or Tobacco Outlet. For that reason, it becomes interesting in a different way.
Few obstructions, easy access points, and a dedicated bike trail from Point A to Point B are big in my book. It just makes the whole adventure more appealing, however uneventful the paddle itself may be (crazy for a paddler to say that, right?)
What we didn’t like:
The weather. (Oh, here he goes again… dissing a paddle because of the weather – don’t worry, it doesn’t affect Miles Paddled’s original and patented Paddling Wisconsin Star Rating™ Next-Gen Stats). But, it was one of those days where A) it wasn’t suppose to rain at all, but then B) when rain suddenly appeared out of nowhere it kept moving quicker and quicker overhead on the radar. My “window” shortened by an hour while I was on the river. This always worries me, especially when lightning is involved and I’m in a wide open marsh of all places.
When the rain began, there wasn’t any sign of lightning but there were thunderous bangs and each one felt more and more unnerving because I couldn’t discern where they were coming from – the highway trucks and traffic, or the sky? The idea of having to seek shelter somewhere in the barren marsh landscape was somewhat worrisome, I’ll admit. So, if you’re wondering how this paddle got done a little faster than one would anticipate (at just under two hours), just know I was pretty much paddling straight-through once the rain started – for fear of lighting.
Needless to say, everything was fine but yeah, I got a bit wet the last couple miles. And my arms were quite tired.
If we did this trip again:
I could absolutely see revisiting this section, but not before exploring downstream segments if I were in the area. While not overly amazing enough to drive from Madison on its own accord, I think there is something amazing about a paddling retreat like the Des Plaines amidst the urban setting. If I lived nearby, I would greatly appreciate having this accessible escape amongst the chaos of sprawl and noise. It really is a getaway. Plus, the convenient bike shuttle adds all the added motivation I’d really need.
Miles Paddled Video: