A typical prairie stream with steep muddy banks, the Mackinaw River is flat, warm, and best for canoe paddling June through September. However, canoe rentals and Mackinaw Canoe Club organized trips make the river accessible yearlong.
Jeff Fitch is the president of MCC and a certified American Canoe Association canoeing instructor. Fitch is on the board of the Illinois Paddling Council and the creator of the Banner Marsh Water Trail project that is half-way to completion. According to Fitch, the best place to go on the Mackinaw River is the nine-mile stretch from the Route 150 bridge, just east of Goodfield, to the Department of Natural Resources Canoe and Kayak launch near Mackinaw.
“You can expect to see tall bluffs and natural woodland river banks with very little human impact,” Fitch said, “I have seen eagles, barred owls, kingfishers, great blue herons, white tailed deer, and when the sun is just right you can see large schools of big fish swimming just under your boat.”
Fitch is also an “avid” outdoors and wildlife photographer. His photography is available on Facebook pages “Paddling the Mackinaw River” and “Paddling Banner Marsh.”
MCC has several outings lined up throughout the summer including: Dixon Waterfowl Refuge & Memorial Paddle — June 24, 10 a.m.; Bad Fish Creek (near Madison and Sugar Rivers in Wisconsin) — July 8, 9:15 a.m.; 2017 Abe’s River Race — July 15, 8 a.m.; The Missouri River 340 (kayak and canoe race) — Aug. 8, 8 a.m.; Paddle the Solar Eclipse — Aug. 20, 12 p.m.; and Paddle Starved Rock (overnight camp and fish fry) — Aug. 26, 7 a.m.
Amateur canoeists can apply for membership in the 59-member, nonprofit organization MCC, “whose sole purpose is to promote the safe and responsible recreational use of navigable waters throughout Illinois and neighboring states.”
Annual membership dues are $15 and are used for meet-up costs, the club’s reserve fund, and community improvement projects such as water trails. Club membership also allows for voting at annual meetings and provides newsletters, participation in the website, and email notices. MCC is a member of the American Canoe Association, the Illinois Paddling Council, the Prairie Rivers Network, and is a Paddle America Club.
Mackinaw’s Area 52 provides outdoor activities including four paintball fields and the Paintball Pro Shop, picnic and grilling areas, and canoe rental and shuttle services. Area 52 has 28 canoes available for rent and offers two- to eight-hour trips on the Mackinaw River; the most popular trip is four hours.
Area 52’s canoe rentals cost $35 per day, plus a $30 refundable deposit, that includes two life jackets and two paddles. Each additional life jacket or paddle is $3. Area 52 is located at 702 Smith St. and is open Saturdays and Sundays (weekday outings can be arranged by appointment for groups of 10 or more). Call (309) 208-1053 for more information.
Safety is of the utmost importance when canoeing on the Mackinaw River. Although there is no whitewater, the Mackinaw River is dangerous at flood stage. Area 52 does not rent canoes when the river gets over 4 feet and when the current cannot be fought. Area 52 requires that all passengers be at least eight years of age. Area 52 also employs cautionary measures including a full safety briefing, a prohibition on alcohol, and mandatory life jackets.
Part of Fitch and MCC’s mission is to promote canoe safety. Fitch said that the number one rule is “always always always wear your life jacket! It cannot save your life if it’s not worn … It should be worn and adjusted properly so that the shoulder straps cannot be pulled up past your ears. Drownings can be prevented in most cases if a [personal flotation device] life jacket had been worn properly.”
According to Fitch, preparation is key. Fitch recommends that “newbie” canoeists acquire some formal training before heading out on the river.
“Contact myself via the Mackinaw Canoe Club (for kayaks too) via Facebook or join our meetup group to gain the basic training you need to safely and efficiently paddle your boat,” Fitch said. “Once you have obtained your boat and gear and have paddled on flat water lakes a few times to get used to your boat you want to venture out onto moving water. Contact an experienced paddler and join in on a group trip down the Mackinaw River. Make sure the group leader knows you are new to moving water. They will gladly coach you when needed.”
Once a canoeist is experienced enough to head out on the Mackinaw River with their own group, Fitch said that they should check the river by using the USGS river gauge at Congerville and look for 1.3 to 3 feet of steady or falling, not rising, water.
“The Mackinaw can rise incredibly fast so know what’s going on with the river and the forecast,” Fitch said.
Preparation also includes creating a “paddle plan.” A paddle plan includes put-in time and location as well as put-out time (allow a little extra time in case delays are encountered) and location.
“Tell someone you trust before you go,” Fitch said, “Finish your trip by calling them by the take-out time as soon as you are done. Instruct them to call the authorities if they can’t reach you past a certain time.”
Fitch also advises bringing the proper equipment including bottled water, snacks, sunscreen, bug spray, a first aid kit, a dry bag with a change of clothing, and a towel.
Fitch said, “If you like excitement, take a fishing pole with some top water poppers for small mouth bass and take a waterproof camera … because this is the beautiful Mackinaw River!”