LOWELL — Soaring sandstone cliffs, a river that drops over a ledge and dances between rocks, frothy whitewater and a “train” of wave after wave 4 feet high — or more.
That could describe any number of whitewater rivers in the country. But this one is roughly 60 miles north of Bloomington-Normal.
Yes, whitewater — in Illinois.
Brett Hazen, one of the owners of Vermillion River Rafting, calls the whitewater on the Vermilion River between Lowell and Oglesby “one of Illinois’ best-kept secrets.”
McLean County Circuit Judge Paul Lawrence still remembers the first time he paddled that section 15 or 20 years ago.
He had taken a whitewater kayaking class at Nantahala Outdoor Center in western North Carolina with a friend, Eric Cash of rural Hudson, and “We came back from that and were champing at the bit.”
“The first time we came up to the Wildcat (rapid), we got out and looked around. I was amazed that we were in Illinois.”
Others also are amazed. And other paddlers have been “champing at the bit” to get back on the Vermilion River since the section was closed following a fatal rafting accident in June 2009.
The river was reopened March 31 after safety modifications to a low-head dam and the addition of warning signs and an exclusion zone.
“It is the single most significant piece of whitewater in the state,” said Dave McGovern, a whitewater kayaking instructor at Geneva Kayak Center and past president of the Chicago Whitewater Association.
Kayakers are not the only ones
paddling this section of river. It is also popular with rafters. Vermillion River Rafting rents rafts at the put-in just downriver from Illinois 178 bridge, about 3½ miles south of Starved Rock State Park.
Hazen said on a busy weekend, the company rents boats to about 200 people a day, from Scout troops and church groups to visitors from other countries. A safety briefing, but no special training, is needed for rafting.
Although the Wildcat rapid is the Vermilion’s star attraction, it’s the variety of river features and “play spots” that make the section popular.
“That has been the basic training area for all beginning kayakers,” said Tim White of Maroa, president of the Mackinaw Canoe Club and member of a loose-knit group of whitewater paddlers who call themselves Team Dirt Clod.
Jana Kiefer of Bloomington enjoys going through a series of “standing waves” — which she describes as “like a roller coaster” — downstream from the dam.
Rapids are rated Class I-VI. Class I and II are considered “novice” rapids, in which dangers are obvious and relatively easy to avoid. Class III is considered “intermediate,” with “moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid” and in which “complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control … are often required,” according to the American Whitewater website.
The Wildcat rapid is “considered a technical Class III. It’s not a big drop, but it’s kind of squirrelly,” Cash said.
Lawrence said, “I’m not the greatest kayaker in the world. I rarely make it (through Wildcat) without getting dumped. … I’ve felt my helmet hitting the rocks while I’m upside down.”
One place to get training is at Geneva Kayak Center. Its Outdoor Leadership Center is located in Yorkville (30 miles north of Dwight) on the Fox River at the Marge Cline Whitewater Course.
The whitewater course at Yorkville was completed in October 2010. While the Vermillion often dries up by July (if not sooner), the Fox at Yorkville maintains a good flow.
Having the Yorkville whitewater park and the Vermilion River relatively close together provides “a progression for people who are interested in whitewater kayaking and canoeing,” said Ryan Rushton, an owner of Geneva Kayak Center.
Beginner lessons at Yorkville cover basic safety, boat handling and maneuvering. Rushton said, “The goal is to move them toward being independent paddlers.”
If you are interested in trying whitewater paddling, here are a few ways to get started:
Vermillion River Rafting Co. rents four-person and six-person rafts. The charge is $25 per person for adults; $20 per person age 16 and younger. One person “funyaks” — inflatable kayaks — are rented for $35. There is a two-person minimum for the four-person raft; five-person minimum for the six-person raft.
The trip down the Vermilion takes about 3 to 4 hours, depending on water levels. Call 815-667-5242 for reservations. Website: www.vermillionriverrafting.com.
Weekend whitewater classes begin in May at Geneva Kayak Center, which is having a grand opening for its Outdoor Leadership Center in Yorkville on May 4 and 5. Eric Jackson, president of Jackson Kayak and four-time whitewater freestyle world champion, will be teaching classes.
Introduction to Whitewater is offered Saturdays. The cost is $98 with boat rental and gear, $84 if you bring your own appropriate boat and gear. Whitewater Play and Maneuvering is offered Sundays; $98 with rental, $84 without rental.
The introductory class is a prerequisite to the maneuvering class. For more information: www.genevakayak.com .
In addition, an informal group of whitewater paddlers keeps in touch through http://teamdirtclod.com.
If you are interested in something a little milder, the Mackinaw Canoe Club welcomes both canoes and kayaks, www.rivers-