Dreams of Herons on the I & M Canal Towpath
Though the boy is pushing his Trail-A-Bike’s pedals for all he’s worth, we still can’t make it up the sharp slope from the parking lot at Channahon State Park onto the Illinois & Michigan Canal Tow Path. He’s only eight years old; his locomotive contribution is marginal at best and negative on ascents. I stand on my pedals, but the rear wheel just spins in the loose gravel and I quickly put a foot down to keep the bicycle upright.
“Guess we walk up,” I say, holding the bike while my grandson dismounts. It’s an inauspicious beginning. We’re barely a hundred yards from the start, with more than a hundred miles to travel over the next two days, and already we’re walking the bike.
It’s an awkward bike, too, festooned with rear panniers and dangling the chunky Trail-A-Bike from its seat post. The extra weight and length have made my nimble road bike spastic at the start, uncertain in turns, and heavy on hills. We muscle it onto the Tow Path’s crushed limestone surface and remount.
“I’m on, Papa,” the boy says behind me, and I slip my right foot into the toe clip and stand on the pedal to get us moving.
The defunct I & M Canal, a relic preserved to remind us of history, is on our right as we pedal west, our wheels crunching on the tow path’s limestone surface. The path is shaded by trees and the air is cool despite a hot sun. The canal’s waters are still and brown. I point out turtles sunning themselves on logs and rocks; it takes a few before the boy begins to separate their shapes from their perches.
Only a few miles from our start, we see a heron wading in the canal’s greenish-brown waters. I brake to a stop and name the bird, and the boy’s eyes widen at its size. “I never saw a Great Blue heron before!” he exclaims, his voice capitalizing the species.
He is a child of cities — born in Milwaukee, living now in Chicago. He’s familiar with zoos and aquariums, museums and libraries, theaters and concert halls and galleries. His parents’ careers dictate city life at this point, so the boy’s outdoors consists of concrete canyons, city parks and playgrounds, urban rodents and pigeons. I take it as my duty to acquaint him with forests and prairies, rivers and lakes, and the creatures that crawl and leap and fly across the land.
The best way I know to do that is to take him bicycling. Since he graduated from a child’s seat over my back wheel to this Trail-A-Bike, we’ve pedaled many miles together, but this is the first time I’ve taken him on an overnight tour. We’ve left the car behind, abandoned that link to security and home, and ventured into country neither of us has seen before. For the next two days, we own only what we’re carrying on the bike: a change of clothes, rain gear and warm sweaters against inclement weather, bike tools and a first aid kit for disasters, full water bottles and a few packs of cheese-and-peanut butter crackers for emergency fuel.
“We’ll travel light,” I said as we packed the panniers yesterday, rejecting one item after another that he brought to the table. I taught him the First Rule of Bike Touring: “Anything extra makes it harder to pedal.” Then I weighed Teddy in my hand, measured the anguish in the boy’s eyes as he looked at the rest of his stuffed bedmates, and found room in a side pocket for the small bear.
Our destination is Starved Rock State Park, where I’ve reserved an overnight cabin. It’s farther away than I anticipated. I’m prone to underestimating distances on maps; I guesstimated the ride at thirty to forty miles, but learned from a sign at the trailhead that it’s going to be at least fifty. The boy has pedaled steadily through twenty-five-mile rides and this I&M Canal tow path is flat as a griddle. We have about ten hours of daylight. I’m not overly concerned about the extra miles and the boy has no real conception of distance. He nodded sagely when I told him our ride today would be twice as long as he’s ever gone before. “I can do that,” he said.
The route is dotted with interpretive signage, two- or three-sentence historical factoids, but we ride past them. I’ve read up on canal history and tell the boy what I learned. He’s unimpressed. He’s watching for herons.
After eight miles, we take our first break at Aux Sable, where a lock keeper’s house stands beside Lock #8. There was once a small village here, but it faded away when the canal closed. I explain how the locks worked and we examine the remains of the great doors that closed the lock, then sit in the shade on the keeper’s porch and eat the sandwiches we made before we set out this morning.
Frequent breaks are key to pleasant bicycle travel with youngsters, so the town of Morris, at fourteen miles, is our next stop. The heron count is over a dozen and we’ve spotted two egrets. The turtle count is “lots.”
The path is less smooth west of Morris, the canal clogged with reeds and underbrush. We add two deer to the wildlife tally. It’s a long ride through a green tunnel and I keep the boy motivated with the promise of root beer floats when we reach the next town, Seneca. But there’s nothing in Seneca except a convenience store, so we push on to Marseilles.
The canal is dry and decrepit now, recognizable only as a brush-filled depression beside the increasingly rough tow path. Marseilles is another disappointment: no ice cream shop — indeed, no shopping district at all that’s visible from the tow path. We push on.
We’re well over thirty miles now and the boy’s legs are still turning, but his butt is hurting. I wrap a sweatshirt around his saddle to give him some extra padding, but after another mile he says it’s hindering more than helping, and we put the sweatshirt back into the pannier.
Signs appear beside the path warning of sharp curves, though the route on the Illinois Official Bicycle Map is a straight line. The warnings apply to snowmobiles, which move considerably faster; to us, they herald mild bends in the trail.
We wax sarcastic: “Hang on, bikin’ buddy — it’s a sharp curve!” “Oh, no! Better slow down, Papa!” Laughter helps the miles to Ottawa pass.
The tow path skirts the business district of Ottawa, but there’s a paved bike path along the Fox River that leads downtown. We follow it through parklands until we reach a busy street. A pedestrian wanders within range and we hail him with the question, “Ice cream shop?” He gives succinct directions and we follow them to The Little Brown Cow and excellent root beer floats.
Rested and fueled with ice cream, the boy and I consult the map and the shop keeper and decide to take to the roads to Utica instead of following the tow path’s rough route. At Utica, we cross the Illinois River to get to Starved Rock State Park. That bridge is our first real hill of the day, and the boy pedals valiantly to get us to its apex, relaxes with an audible sigh as we coast down the far side, and groans when we have to climb a bit before the turn into the State Park. We have a half mile downhill before we turn to start the real climb up the bluff to the Lodge.
It’s a cruel hill. My odometer reads 49.5 miles and the slope is easily over eight percent. The boy is done in and I’m standing on the pedals in my granny gear, but we’re going too slowly to balance the augmented bicycle. We dismount and push the bike up the last half mile. The boy’s frustrated, but I explain that there’s no shame in pushing a bike up the last hill of the day, especially a day when he’s ridden twice as far as his previous best.
The State Park is luxurious, with a lodge that’s more of a hotel and a restaurant that includes outdoor seating overlooking a long view of the river below. We check in at the lodge, then pedal to our cabin, one of many small, log-constructed buildings connected by winding concrete paths. We walk back to the restaurant, take a table on the deck as the sun leaves the sky. The boy eats everything in sight and drinks three tall glasses of lemonade that will get him up in the middle of the night.
Teddy goes on the pillow next to the boy’s head as he beds down. “You did good today,” I say. “That was a long ride.” “I hope we see more herons tomorrow,” he answers, his eyes drooping. I step out to check the sky, which is clear; the bike can stay outside tonight. When I come back in, the boy is so soundly asleep that artillery fire wouldn’t wake him. I hope his dreams are lofted on broad, grey wings.
Opening photo by Michael McCoy.