Kingston to Irene Road:
A tale of two personalities on a long-ish section of the South Branch of the Kishwaukee River, a generally easy-going and beginner-friendly trip at first, before flowing through two forest preserves full of large amounts of deadfall (and a mandatory portage) which requires the right skill level and patience to navigate challenging currents in high levels.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: September 2, 2022
Skill Level: Beginner/Intermediate
Class Difficulty: Riffles
≈ 4.4′ per mile
These were great levels from Kingston to Kirkland, however, they were too high to recommend from Kirkland to Irene Road. It was far too pushy with too much deadfall and strainers so I would not recommend it for beginners. Even intermediate paddlers should heed caution and be prepared to read the current at all times to avoid any hangups. In general, I’d recommend paddling this at lower levels. The location of the Fairdale gauge is basically right at the take-out, so it should be considered most accurate for a point of reference.
Time: Put in at 12:10p. Out at 3:05p.
Total Time: 2h 55m
Miles Paddled: 11.5
Heron, ducks, geese, many turtles, a bald eagle, frogs and an owl.
9 Miles. A 41-minute bike shuttle on mostly flat country roads. Beware of a lot of eye-roll-inducing “Go Brandon” yard signs along the way.
If you told me I was going to paddle the Kishwaukee River not once but twice in 2022, I’d say you were crazy, (or ate a bunch of legal gummies within the state of Illinois, of course) but holy smokes, that’s what happened. Only about an hour from Madison (a little more if you want to avoid paying toll money and opt instead for the backroads through northern Illinois) you’ll find a lot of great paddling options just over the border, including a whole lot of Kish to discover. (Fun fact: The South Branch was once known as the Sycamore River and Kishwaukee is an an Indian word meaning sycamore tree.)
Early in 2022 I paddled an interesting section of the Kishwaukee River which was inspired by a reader of Miles Paddled. After posting that trip, another reader of the site posted a comment offering some insight on the rail line mentioned in the post, as well as sharing one of his favorite sections on the South Branch of the Kishwaukee.
“The trip which offers the best scenery and riffles would be from the Annie Glidden Road bridge just west of Kingston to a put-out at the Irene Road bridge just west of Kirkland. West of Kirkland, you’ll experience a number of twists and turns as the river winds it’s way thru a former Boy Scout camp, with numerous riffles, thru gravel and bedrock-laden bottoms. The South Branch (especially west of Genoa) runs quite a bit wider than the main branch between Marengo and Belvidere. This is a very enjoyable paddle if you’ve never yet done it.”
Now it’s not often (or really ever) that I’m able to quickly jump on a suggestion as soon as it comes in, but I happened to be on vacation and I noticed that the water levels were up due to recent rains so I figured there was no time like the present to take advantage of the situation. I didn’t actually know if the levels needed to be up or if this was always paddleable – it is geographically distant from the main branch I paddled earlier in the year and that gauge was also much further away, but I figured that if the water was up, I didn’t have to worry either way.
Turns out, it might have been a bit too high as it got really pushy past Kirkland and there was a lot of deadfall including one mandatory portage. Whereas the section on the main branch of the Kish was a bit thirsty, this was quenched. That said, I enjoyed most of this 11+mile stretch for many of the reasons I enjoyed the earlier trip. And I’m always excited to explore something new, especially when it’s inspired by a reader.
Before heading out, I checked Bob Tyler’s Canoeing Adventures in Northern Illinois, a guidebook staple (albeit a bit dated, much like Mike Svob’s are for paddling Wisconsin and Illinois) for paddling Illinois to see if he had made mention of it. Bob did write about this section but he doesn’t make much of it one way or another.
“The next section, beginning at the town of Kingston, never wanders far from Illinois Route 72 or the Illinois Central Railroad.; river, road, and railroad all follow the same course for the next eleven miles down to a good take-out at Irene Road. The trip can be shortened by a mile or two by putting in at Glidden Road. The road and railroads proximity mar this section, along with riprapped banks and a waste treatment plant located at Pearl Street. Where they’ve been left alone, the banks manage to maintain a more natural state.”
A lot of what he wrote wasn’t all that obvious to me while actually paddling. The roads and railroad line wasn’t as evident as suggested so there wasn’t any mar-ing by way of those features. Maybe because it was dead of summer and everything was hidden by the dense greenery or maybe I was just lucky with my timing to avoid any rail traffic? The waste treatment plant was the only thing I noticed, but that’s also a pretty common sight along rivers and creeks in many towns.
“Once past Kirkland Road, the south bank of the Kishwaukee enters a more forested area twice dividing around islands. These islands are the only place below DeKalb where I’ve ever encountered log-jams. The second island signals the entrance of Kingsbury Creek and also MacQueen Forest Preserve, where you’re more likely to run into wildlife than people.”
Where Bob was right was his mention of log-jams and where, because once you enter Potawatomi Woods, the entire paddle changes with numerous piles of deadfall which requires Intermediate-level paddling skills, and honestly to be safe, lower water.
The trip begins in Kingston at a well-manicured park with a dedicated and great access point. (A note specifically for Wisconsinites: There’s a no alcohol policy within the park so make other plans for your pre-trip cocktail or post-trip celebration libation.) While preparing to launch, I met an outfitter who was, setting up a couple who were also heading downstream. They were taking-out at Kirkland, which in hindsight was the practical choice.
The guy was friendly and gave me some intel on their services. Paddle On! Outfitters provides many trip opportunities in the northern Illinois area, as well as some Southern Wisconsin ones like Turtle Creek if water levels allow. They also provide shuttle services so keep that in mind if ever in need.
From the mud and grass launch, I put-off onto the opaque light brown water. The river was noticeably swift and the current was evident. The first couple miles were quite enjoyable with minor riffles that added to the interest of the lush surroundings. This is a wider river than the Kishwaukee proper (as our reader noted) and there were no blockages within those first few miles but I sensed it would carry a lot of deadwood downstream after heavy rains (Spoiler: this became even more evident and then reality later on).
At first, these appeared like great levels since there were many shallow areas where I could see the riverbed at about 8” deep. It gave me the sense that I was lucky to avoid scraping, but in reality, this was actually on the high side. It got quite deep in bends and it become much more evident after Kirkland where these deep areas created eerie currents that commonly happen in deeper pools.
Within that first couple miles, there’s not many features, save for an old iron stack that was likely part of a bridge, but it could just as likely have been part of an oil rig with it’s massive iron tubes looking highly out of place in a river this size. Other than that, it was mostly wooded and wide but still intimate, with gentle riffles here and there.
After the first bridge at Glidden Road, you’ll enter the Kishwaukee Forest Preserve with a long straightway broken by a little bend with gentle riffles and then onto another straightaway. After more short stretchs of riffle and bends, it’s pretty uneventful for awhile. Just forested surroundings and no riffles for quite sometime. The trees recede once out of the forest preserve and the banks begin to get clearer with more a cut-bank agriculture vibe and natural prairie surroundings for a spell.
Within only a few miles, it was notable that I’d already seen plenty of fauna in the way of turtles, geese, heron, but also a hawk and an owl. Yet my flora-fixation was fixated on what looked like ivy – I’d liken it to kudzu, the “plant that ate the south” (and is moving into the midwest.) It’s not but it’s clearly invasive whatever it is, because it blanketed a lot of forest along the way.
The river continues to meander with a mostly open feel for quite awhile and though not particularly interesting, it held its delightfully steady current. There were a couple blockages but not portages. Soon, you’ll hear the first bridge in Kirkland and you’re nearing Pearl Street.
Just past Pearl is the Pioneer Park access point on river-left. At water levels like these, if you’re a beginner or not adept at reading the current, I strongly suggest taking out here which makes for a solid 6.75 mile day-paddle. If that’s too short for you, I’d also suggest extending your day by playing a round of disc golf at Pioneer Park and forgo the downstream section.
If you carry on past Pioneer Park, you’ll continue to wind through Kirkland enjoying minor riffles along the way. You don’t really see much of the town and soon you’ll pass the second bridge, Kirkland Road, which is followed by the aforementioned water treatment plant on river-left. Leaving Kirkland, you’re on the 4.75 mile homestretch and soon entering Potawatomi Woods where things get a little dicier.
Almost immediately I was met with a couple tight maneuvers, one being a particularly hairy strainer that I managed to bypass without incident, but I did have a bit of mental freak-out that I was going to capsize until I gathered my composure. The current just felt much stronger and way more pushy in part because the river narrows throughout AND there’s more deadfall in the water to negotiate on this stretch.
Soon you’ll encounter the only other bridge before the takeout, a pedestrian bridge within Potawatomi Woods. What struck me was the underside was packed with all sorts of logs and sticks, highlighting just how high the water can get – and a sign that I was probably in for a lot more deadfall downstream. Here, again, is where Mr. Bob Tyler was right.
Because that’s what there was – mounds and piles of deadfall for quite awhile thereafter requiring more nimble maneuvering and a more proactive approach to reading the current to stay out ahead (and out of the way) of any strainers. Often, push came to shove with the pushy current wanting to keep shoving me into mounds of deadfall. It was tolerable when it was shallow but nerve-wracking when the water got deep, knowing that I couldn’t simply walk my way around any formidable situation.
After many piles of deadfall, there came a mandatory portage. A bank-to-bank dam of logs and debris. It wasn’t the easiest of portages either. It involved climbing over the jam mid-stream since the banks and swift current didn’t accommodate an easy bypass. I was able to manage, but it wasn’t without hesitation.
At some point along the way, Potawatomi Woods meets the MacQueen Forest Preserve, all part of the Kishwaukee River State Fish and Wildlife Area. Where one starts and the other begins is beyond me as the surroundings are very much the same. The interesting thing was after the portage comes a large island (the one closer to MacQueen on the map) and there are two paths to choose. Logic told me to take the wider fork which looked congested, while the narrower fork looked open but real narrow. I was worried that there was almost certainly another blockage around the bend with how small and wooded it appeared, but I took it anyway.
And once you make this decision, you’re all in. There’s no fighting this current. So I cautiously took the narrower channel but to my surprise (shock even) it was completely clear and incredibly creek-like with a narrow, windy, riffly and intimate run – nothing like anywhere else on the river. For that moment I wished I had been paddling my creek-boat because it was so delightful.
The thrill is short lived as the river quickly widens again after the island and returns to its previous decor. Soon, you’re out of the Forest Preserve(s) and within its last mile, the temperament eases up, deadfall isn’t as common, and the river returns to gentle riffles along an environment more like that at the beginning of the trip.
You’ll soon encounter the Irene Road bridge. I took-out river-left under the bridge along the rip rap. I anticipated it being muddy due to the recent rain and high water but I didn’t anticipate it to be a slick, muddy mess. I slipped and slopped in some of the thickest, nastiest, clay-like mud I’ve encountered in quite awhile. It wasn’t pleasant but then again, river mud never is.
What we liked:
I enjoyed the paddle as a whole but particularly Kingston to Kirkland. I seem to glom on to “basic but enjoyable” streams like these. Maybe because enjoying the basic is better than anything else I could be doing at that moment. I also liked that this was prompted by a reader – it’s not often that I’m able to jump on a recommendation so quickly.
What we didn’t like:
I’m normally all-in on adventurous paddles but I wasn’t in the right headspace for a pushy current with a lot of deadfall including a precarious portage on this day. Maybe if I had been with others to share in that joy of “embracing the suck” as my friend Trevor would say, I would have, but this was a bit too sketchy at times.
If we did this trip again:
I definitely recommend Kingston to Kirkland, especially for beginners. For the adventurers out there, I might suggest continuing on – but just be aware of what you’re in for. Whether you choose just the first section or both, I’d recommend doing so at lower levels.
Kishwaukee River I: Cherry Valley to New Milford
Kishwaukee River II: County Line Road to Red Horse Bend
General: Illinois Paddle
Outfitter: Paddle On! Outfitters
Wikipedia: Kishwaukee River