For our fourth annual river trip, my good friend Jerry Craven and I decided to venture across the Red River into the state of Oklahoma. I lived in Oklahoma for two years back in the 1990s when I served as an English Instructor at Murray State College in Tishomingo (my first full-time job at a post-secondary institution). I did some canoeing in Oklahoma back then, but I never got around to doing the Illinois River. Jerry and I decided to right that wrong with this trip. Back when I lived in Oklahoma, I heard that the Illinois was a slow and lazy stream that was full of fish–and during the warm summer months, full of canoeists and kayakers as well. But as anyone who lives on the Illinois River knows (and as Jerry and I discovered on our trip there in May), during the rainy season in the spring, the Illinois can be a dangerous river indeed. The river rises quickly into flood stage during the spring thunderstorms. Trees fall into the river, blocking the sometimes-narrow channels and creating dangerous–and potentially deadly–sieves that can destroy boats and drown boaters. Those planning to canoe the Illinois during the spring months should exercise caution, keeping one eye on the river level and the other on the weather reports.
Monday, May 17th
After driving up from Jerry’s place in Central Texas, Jerry and I dropped his car at the Echota Public Access Area on the Illinois just above the Highway 62 Bridge. Then we drove the Xterra up to the Watts Public Landing Area, which was very difficult to find. After looking around for a while, and finally asking directions, we parked under the Highway 412 Bridge and unloaded our gear and my trusty green Pelican Colorado canoe. This is an excellent put-in site with a sloping caliche river access and covered parking under the bridge. We stowed our gear into waterproof bags, loaded up the canoe, and put it around 5 p.m. After a couple of days of heavy rain, the river was muddy and swollen and running fast. We shot downriver past the Redneck Yacht Club and saw a group of kids playing in the shallows. We teased the kids about being cold and they teased us back. Then we were past them, moving quickly along.
We stayed on the river for about an hour and a half, floating past big sycamores and cottonwoods and gravel bars and gray rock banks. We pulled out on a very nice gravel bar on the left bank of the river. Actually, with the river running high, it was a small island. We gathered firewood together, then I built a fire and set up camp while Jerry tried to catch us some fish to eat for dinner. He caught a nice smallmouth bass, but one fish wouldn’t feed the two of us. So Jerry gutted the fish and put it into a sealed plastic bag, and we put it on ice for another day.
We ate turkey sandwiches for dinner, which we washed down with delicious beer. Then we sat around the fire until pretty late, drinking beer and catching up while we enjoyed the lovely night on the Illinois. The sky was clear. The moon was a thin sliver, and the stars were bright. The only sounds were the river flowing and the frogs and insects. Perfect.
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