Illinois River Whitewater
First off, a few thoughts on whitewater in general. I am not a hardcore boater or an adrenaline junkie, and I don’t wish to come off that way. The Illinois is definitely an exciting and challenging river, but it is by no means pushing the envelope in the world of modern rafting. And like many rivers renowned for their action and adventure, like the Selway, the Middle Fork of the Salmon, the Grand Canyon or many others, it would absolutely be worth running even if it didn’t have a single rapid. People often assume that we river guides are all amped-up thrill seekers like the dudes in Red Bull ads. The stereotype surely exists for a reason, but in my experience most career guides aren’t out there for adrenaline. It’s the scenery, the natural history, the rhythm of days and weeks in the wilderness and the friendships that keep us coming back year after year. Running whitewater is icing on the cake.
That being said, there’s no doubt that the Illinois is one of the finest multi-day whitewater trips anywhere. It has over 130 rapids in 35 miles, so many that numerous Class IV drops don’t even have names. Most of them are fun, splashy runs between boulders that get your attention, but don’t really stress you out. A few get your attention very much indeed.
The Illinois’ rapids are beautiful. Glassy tongues of green water lead you over mosaics of cobbles into gardens of rocks flecked with foam, and then funnel you into steep, fast chutes, sometimes with barely enough space to slide a raft between boulders. Waterfalls pour in from the sides (often pretty enough to distract an oarsman), and lush greenery lines the banks, sometimes overhanging the channel. Calm, deep pools provide welcome rests between drops.
Our first day on the water was rainy and cold, not an uncommon state of affairs on the Illinois. Running whitewater in rain and mist always feels intense and exciting, but we were glad to see a clearing trend on day two. And our third day, in which we’d run the gorge and all the toughest rapids, was as bright and clear as you could ask.
Prelude Rapid, the beginning of the big ones:
And then there’s Greenwall. It’s the most difficult thing on the river by a wide margin, and (to me at least) is definitely scary to look at. If it weren’t there, the Illinois would probably see a lot more traffic than it does. A perky Class III entrance rapid strewn with rocks and small holes suddenly narrows into a tight channel between giant boulders on the left and a sheer cliff on the right, and the entire river turns white. A tall, steep drop then feeds into very fast current with big holes and a spur of the cliff at the bottom. It’s a place I really don’t want to swim.
The Greenwall scout eddy, a beautiful but anxious place:
Nolan Verga on the big drop:
We ran in two waves, and our first boat, a small light cataraft, flipped in the entrance rapid. Thankfully, its solo occupant swam into an eddy before going over the big drop. I was right behind, and somewhat to my surprise I had a very satisfactory run, and was able to secure the upside-down boat at the bottom. We regrouped, and I perched on a convenient boulder with throwbag and camera to watch the second wave.
I paid for my good fortune in Greenwall with an absolutely trashy run in Little Greenwall. We then ran the rest of the gorge without incident, though Submarine Hole, the last big one and the only place I’ve ever flipped a boat (so far), snuck up on us with no time to pull over and scout. But the water level was very friendly for Submarine, and we came through with ravenous appetites and ready to relax on some calmer water.