Last fall my solo overnight along the I&M Canal Trail had a somewhat disastrous conclusion, when I lost my eyeglasses and had difficulty working for the month or so it took to have them replaced. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, and M— was interested in reprising the trip with me. This time, we would set a very moderate pace, to allow for plenty of time at camp and in town along the way. We would leave on Wednesday, August 27, and return that Saturday.
We had hoped to catch one of the morning Rock Island Line Metra trains to Joliet, the 10:30 or 11:30. But we had a slow start and then, at the last minute, I discovered that someone had stolen my pump and all of my tools out of my saddlebag, presumably the night before while I was at the Open Gov Hack Night and my bike was at the notoriously theft-prone Merchandise Mart bike parking. We had to stop at a couple of bike shops to find everything we needed to feel prepared, and ended up on the 1:30 train.
In Joliet M— had scouted the excellent, fast, and cheap Chicken-N-Spice restaurant (“Home of the breast chunk”), only a few blocks from the train.
Thus fortified, we rode the quick couple miles to the Brandon Road trailhead and headed west along the trail, stopping occasionally to do some off-trail exploring..
We arrived at Channahon State Park, where we seemed to have the place to ourselves aside from a motorcycle camper. The campground here is small and not at all remote from the surrounding residential neighborhood, more like a city park really, but it’s grassy and pleasant.
The surrounding neighborhood has houses, a church, and a baseball diamond, but nowhere to buy groceries. There is a Jewel only about three miles’ ride to the east, but it was a harrowing three miles alongside a busy highway with no shoulder. Next to the highway are an endless succession of ugly new subdivisions with useless streets that connect to nothing. Eventually we made it back with some bean soup, steak kebabs for the fire, and firewood which turned out to be too wet to burn. (Happily the Trangia was able to cook the kebabs with no problems.) I regret to report that the Dari Castle which the state park’s website describes appears to have been turned into a Subway—a very poor substitute (though we made up for this with our ice cream consumption later on this trip).
Back at camp we enjoyed the view of the dam over which the trail passes. This dam was built to “provide a stable impoundment of the DuPage River for the I&M Canal to cross (instead of an aqueduct).”
In the morning M— made coffee, I made tea, and then we headed out, planning to have breakfast in Morris later in the morning.
The river along this stretch was choked with enormous waterlilies.
We stopped for a bit at the Dresden Lock & Dam to explore the edge of the river.
In Morris we stopped at the Weitz Cafe for eggs and pancakes and hash browns and bacon. The sign was better than the food, but the waitress was very friendly and let us charge our phones.
We spent a while walking around Morris, whose citizens have disconcertingly chosen to pipe music through loudspeakers on the lampposts throughout the downtown area. I don’t recall this from my last visit in November and it lent a surreal feel to our visit.
A little further on we came to Seneca, where the trail crosses the main (perhaps only) downtown street and a trailside sign for Fergy’s Bar and Grill promises the “best burgers in town—guaranteed.” Seneca is very, very tiny, so this claim seemed somewhat less than impressive, but as it turned out the burgers were in fact delicious, the beer cold, and the bartender friendly—in fact she insisted on filling our water bottles with ice water before we left.
Our next stop, at Illini State Park just across the river from downtown Marseilles, would be our last for the day. Our planning here had been a little loose; we’d wanted to stay at Illini both Thursday and Friday nights, spending Friday resting and exploring, but the park doesn’t allow reservations on weekend nights unless you’re staying the whole weekend, so we’d made a reservation only for Thursday. Fortunately, there are a number of non-reservable sites that are only available at the campground, and the camp hosts were happy to let us switch to one of those and stay for both nights. The site was quite nice, although very muddy after the heavy rain of the previous week.
The park is immediately across a bridge from Marseilles, and while the bridge has no shoulder and fairly fast traffic, there is a protected sidewalk which makes it easy to get across—and the views from the top are wonderful.
At the campground concession where firewood is sold there is also ice cream, and we ended up with two of something called the “Devil’s Tower.”
We had just enough time to set up camp and buy some groceries in town when it started to rain, and our campsite grew muddier and muddier. We spent most of the evening in our tent, and gave up our plans for grilling steaks over the fire and instead had a dinner of red beans and rice cooked on the Trangia in the tent vestibule before going to sleep.
The rain had stopped when we woke up on Friday, though our campsite was still a muddy mess. M— made us a wonderful scramble of eggs, shallots, scallions, and mushrooms for breakfast, and we started to feel human again.
Upon our arrival at our campsite the previous night, M— had discovered that she’d been riding the whole trip with one of the rear rack bolts missing, and that the remaining bolt was both loose and the wrong size. Given that her panniers probably exceeded the rated weight for this rack anyway, it’s amazing that she made it this far missing a bolt without more problems. So we decided we’d head to Ottawa, a little ways down the trail, to buy new M5 bolts at The Bike Shop In Ottawa—and to catch a movie at the very pleasant Roxy Theater, which reminded us of the Davis in Mary’s old neighborhood of Lincoln Square.
Back in Marseilles we stopped at Skoopz for more ice cream, M— as usual sensibly sticking to a cone while I foolishly ordered something involving ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, and an enormous brownie which I could barely finish. Restraint is not a strong point of mine in ice cream shops.
We had dinner at the Illini Lounge and then visited several of the numerous Marseilles bars before heading back to our campsite, where we made a fire and then went to bed.
We packed up and headed over the bridge one last time to grab breakfast at the Coyote Cafe and then said goodbye to Marseilles.
Heading west, we passed quickly through Ottawa and toward Buffalo Rock State Park and Utica.
In this area the previous fall, I’d seen trail closure signs due to a washout west of the Buffalo Rock access point. But I’d been able to cross the washout on a set of planks that someone had placed there, and the rest of the trail had been fine. This year, although I’d been told on the phone that a section of the trail was still closed, there was no sign, so we decided to continue west past Buffalo Rock.
Unfortunately, the heavy and constant rain the previous week and earlier in the week had left long sections of the trail here extremely muddy, with a dense clay mud that built up in our fenders and didn’t want to come out. Possibly my fender clearances were too tight, but M—’s were much more generous and even she had problems. Several times we had to stop and remove wheels to try to wipe out our fenders with leaves (during one such stop I picked up a nasty case of poison ivy) in order to be able to get our wheels spinning freely, and in one section I lost control of my bike in the slippery mud and it went down (though I managed to stay upright straddling it). There was dense vegetation right up to the edge of the trail in this section so there was usually no way to go around the muddy patches. This slowed us down considerably, and in retrospect we would have been much better off leaving the trail at Buffalo Rock and taking the roads to Utica (although a report on The Chainlink a week or two later indicated that the trail had dried quickly by that time).
Finally we straggled into Utica, where we saw the same two horses who’d watched me change a flat on my last trip in November.
Perhaps they are bad luck, because after a hearty lunch and a beer at Duffy’s Tavern in downtown Utica, we emerged to find my rear tire had gone flat—our only flat of the whole trip. After fixing it we continued west toward LaSalle and the end of the trail.
We had thought we’d allowed plenty of time to catch our 8:14 pm train in Mendota, but at this point we were starting to get a little worried. The muddy trail had cost us a lot of time, and we’d probably spent too much time at lunch. We finally arrived at the end of the trail at LaSalle around 5:30, with around 17 miles to go to get to the Mendota Amtrak station and not much energy left in our legs to push our pace too hard. The ride out of LaSalle includes one brutal hill and some unpleasant high-traffic roads, but once you get out into the countryside it’s very pleasant all the way into Mendota, if a bit boring (once you’ve seen one cornfield…). Fortunately, we had no further mechanical problems and arrived in Mendota with about an hour to spare. Sadly, it wasn’t enough time to stop and explore the Mendota Tri-County Fair which we passed on our way into town.
While waiting at the train station, I pulled out our tickets and had a moment of panic. We’d (I’d) bought tickets for the preceding Saturday by mistake. Fortunately we were able to buy new tickets over the phone, and at 8:14 we were heading home, drinking beer in the cafe car.