I&M Canal Ride

Way back in the mid-1800s, some entrepreneurs decided that what Chicago needed to succeed was a canal connecting the Illinois River with Lake Michigan. Originally 96 miles long, the finished I&M Canal stretched from Chicago all the way out to LaSalle and was powered by mules dragging barge-like canal boats along shoreside towpaths. Along the way the boats passed through countryside, towns, locks, and forest.

Now, more than 150 years later, the canal is obsolete as a shipping route. However, 61 miles of the original towpath have now been turned into a crushed limestone path that is perfect for biking along. In July of 2006, Kevin and I decided to take a weekend biking/camping trip along the canal.

Above is a map of our route, the blue line of our journey layed over a map shamelessly stolen from an official parks website. I added the campground symbols myself to mark spots where we found official trailside camping. While planning the trip we found several mentions of these mythical campsites, but no indication of where exactly they could be found. The three in the east are single plots with simple campsite markers, while the western-most one is actually three separate sites that belong to Buffalo Rock State Park.
Our trip began on Saturday morning at the canal access point in Channahon. Lis was nice enough to drive Kevin and I, our two bikes, and all of our gear down there in exchange for a weekend without us bothering her. She also said she would come pick us up on Sunday afternoon, but we feared she might think better of that after a few hours of peace. To the left is my bike with its share of the gear.
Whatever gear didn't fit in my bike ended up in Kevin's. Since we were camping, we had to include a tent, sleeping gear, food, and water. We each also carried camelback backpacks on our backs, which we definitly needed - we ended up picking one of the hotest weekends in the month to take our ride. We also knew that there are towns every ten miles or so along the trail, so we weren't too worried about carrying lots of supplies.
Here we are, packed up and ready to go. Note that I wore nasty clothes with plans of getting them messy, while Kevin wore nice biking clothes. Apparently we had different plans for the trip.
After getting the gear all packed up, we hopped on our bikes and headed west from Channahon. The first sight we stopped to take pictures of was the aqueduct that carries the canal over the Aux Sable creek. There are a few of these engineering marvels along the way, but this could probably be classified as the best one. There's even a parking lot next to it in case you want to get there by car.
Here's a shot of funky green water crossing the bridge over the creek. So weird!
Just down the canal from the aqueduct is one of the many locks along the path. This one is complete with the locktender's house as it looked back in the 1800s. As we rode along the path, we ran across many locks in various states of repair, but this one was preserved well enough to see what it looked like in real life.
Further down the path we stopped for lunch. As we sat on the edge of the water eating our apples and sandwiches, this fuzzy little caterpiller came to visit us. He was in too much of a hurry to stick around long enough for a good photo shoot, though.
As the day drew on, the sun got higher and the world got hotter. A lot hotter. At one point we found a nice bridge to stop under, so we took a rest in the shade. It was at this stop that we discovered an amazing way to park our bikes, as shown to the left.
This is the bridge we stopped at. It is pretty cool: the entire thing was made of wood and metal, and then was paved over.
Next to the bridge was this old, somewhat-falling-apart barn. Sadly, it wasn't in a good position for taking a good old, somewhat-falling-apart barn picture, so this shot will have to do.
Unfortunately, the day just kept getting hotter the longer we rode. Although we were carrying plenty of water, we were very happy to know that there were towns along the path that we could stop at for supplies if needed. One of the best stops we made was at a highschool baseball field in Seneca. We made very good use of the drinking fountain there to drench ourselves and top off our many water containers. We also carefully marked its location on the map so we could find it again on our way back. For reference, it is just east of the Seneca Grain Elevator and easily visible from the path.
One of the best parts of the ride was the great variety of scenery we saw. Sometimes we were riding through wooded areas, sometimes through nasty marshy areas, sometimes through cornfields, and sometimes past factories. This, of course, is an example of the latter. Look at the size of that garage door!
Kevin couldn't resist trying to push the train car we saw, but he didn't get it to budge. I pointed out to him that it was empty and should be light, but he claimed the parking brake was probably on.
Speaking of trains, we saw this beautiful old station on Marseilles. I would love to have a house built with the same architecture.
By the time we made it to Utica, I had run out of steam. The day was way too hot and I was too lazy. Since we were only five or ten miles from the end of the path, Kevin decided to leave his share of the gear with me while I cooled off so he could make a fast trip to the end. While he was gone I layed in the shade, soaked myself with water, and refilled our bottles. I also took a couple of pictures, including this one of a strange corner building. Apparently they expected somebody to put another building next door.
I also wandered down to a bridge to get a shot of the canal as it passes through Utica. The level of water in the canal changed a lot as we rode along it - when we began, it was full; toward the middle it had turned into a forest; in the middle of one town it was a nicely mowed greenspace; in Utica it was back to being full of water.
After Kevin had rejoined me in Utica and I had cooled off, we loaded the gear back onto the bikes and headed back east again. By now it was four or five in the afternoon, so we had to start thinking of where we were going to stay. We had noted camping spots at Buffalo Rock State Park, so we decided to head that way. When we got there, we found a beautiful river-side campsite to claim as our own.
Here's what the site itself looked like. Pitching the tent was easy in the sandy soil, and we even found enough wood to make a small fire in the fire pit after dinner. Here you can see Kevin applying liberal amounts of bug repellant in an attempt to keep away the many, many mosquitos the site had.
The next morning we awoke at around 5am, had some breakfast, and then started the trek back to Channahon. It was much cooler going that early in the morning, so we made it a point to get as far as we could as quickly as we could while it was still early. That didn't stop us from stopping to look at various bits of scenery along the way though.
Here's a stairway to nowhere that we saw at one point. Apparently there was once a bridge attached, but now it just goes up and drops off.
This very cute bridge crossed one of the dry spots in the canal. We, of course, rode up and over it to check its worthiness. Approval granted!
As I mentioned earlier, the canal itself and the locks that served it were in various states of disrepair throughout the ride. This particular lock stands in stark contrast to the one at Aux Sable - there's no water in the canal, and the lock itself is very overgrown.
The Seneca grain elevator is a very recognizable sight along the ride. At one time boats would dock right up next to it, but now you can see that grass and weeds are the only things docking in the area.
Our last major stop of the trip was at Gebhard Woods outside Morris. There we ate some lunch, dried out the tent, and had some long-needed sitting. Channahon was only about 10 miles down the path from here so when we were rested up we hopped back on the bikes and finished up. When we reached Channahon my odometer read 99.5 miles for the entire trip with a total riding time of eight hours and 52 minutes.