Your Guide to Midwest Whitewater

For artificial whitewater, Peoria is pretty much the center of the universe

Stephen Wright on the Charles City, Iowa play wave. Photo via Flickr user Cory Mutch.

Stephen Wright on the Charles City, Iowa play wave. Photo via Flickr user Cory Mutch.

By Andy Kravetz

Central Illinois isn't seen as a paddling paradise yet within five hours of humble Peoria, there are several options for whitewater paddling ranging from beginner to more advanced runs. There are at two good beginner whitewater runs within two hours of my hometown of Peoria, Ill.

First on our midwest whitewater checklist is the free-flowing Vermillion River near Ottawa, Ill, where you can take a three- to four-hour self-guided trip down the Vermillion’s Class II-III rapids. Located about four miles south of Starved Rock State Park off Illinois Highway 178, the run offers some stunning views of rock overhangs and there are a few spots where you can paddle up a side creek to see some cool canyons.

The gem of the run is Wildcat rapid, which sits roughly in the middle. A class II-III rapid, it offers the water-in-your-face thrill. Other rapids have colorful names like S-turn, Hole in the Rock and the Narrows.

The rapids aren't intense, says Bob Herbst of Vermillion River Rafting, which offers four- and six-person unguided raft trips. The outfit also has two-person inflatable kayaks. Herbst runs a shuttle service as well.

"If you listen to what we tell you, you shouldn't have any problem at all," he said.
A few miles north and east is the Marge Cline Whitewater Course, which sits right off Illinois Route 47 in Yorkville. Constructed a few years ago for $6 million by the state, the course is free to anyone who has their own gear. It's about 1,000 feet long and allows people to walk back up and do it again.

The rapids here are Class II at best, and every year, dozens who haven't been in a boat make their first trip down.

"We know that we have had a lot of people from Chicagoland and from out of state come," said Tim Evans of the city's parks department.

Another bonus of the Yorkville course is that it's designed to always have water in it, regardless of the season. That's unlike many natural whitewater runs, such as the Vermilion, which are rain dependent and can dry up entirely in summer months.

Another all-natural run is the St. Francis River in Missouri. Located about 100 miles south of St. Louis near Fredericktown, it is a five-hour drive from Peoria. There are no outfitters, so this is something to try only if you have the proper skills and gear. The river offers solid Class III rapids and a few Class IVs, depending on the water levels.

The pink granite rocks that form the shut-ins (Missouri lingo for a canyon) are amazing to behold. The river is the preferred run for members of the Missouri Whitewater Association; check their website for river levels and beta on the run.

Another option right on the edge of our five-hour limit is the artificial course in Wausau, Wisc. This offers Class II-III rapids on a course that is roughly the size of the Yorkville one. It's easy to walk back up and do again.

Outside our five-hour drive time, Wisconsin offers several other naturally flowing runs, including the Wolf River, the Peshigo and the Red.

Slightly closer to home is the East Race course in South Bend, Ind. The oldest artificial course in America, East Race was built about 30 years ago when city fathers opted to use an old cement drainage canal as a catalyst to revitalize their downtown. Since then, the area has turned into a park used by tens of thousands, and townhouse condos line one side of the course.

Used often for racing slalom events, the course is about 1,000 feet long and offers inflatable kayaks and four-person rafts for people to use. Lifeguards, hired by the city's parks department, line the course in case a person falls out of the boat. The rafts are collected at the bottom and a person need only walk back up and get another raft to splash back down.

And Iowa is quickly becoming the whitewater state. Within the past five years, three courses have opened there. Manchester is the newest and offers 16 feet of drop over 800 feet. About 30 miles away is the course in Elkader, which opened in 2013. Both are within about 45 minutes of Dubuque, Iowa. About an hour away from Elkader and 90 minutes from Manchester is Charles City's course.

Charles City, about 45 minutes from the Minnesota border, offers rapids in the class II-III level and feature surfable waves as well as rodeo holes.

The Manchester, Iowa course. Courtesy manchesterwhitewater.com.

The Manchester, Iowa course. Courtesy manchesterwhitewater.com.