I&M Canal Early Summer 2019 / by Erin Wade

I’ve been wanting to get back to the I&M Canal Trail this summer, but I’ve been reluctant given that the Midwest has become the equivalent of a northwestern rain forest this year. At the top of my list of concerns was the rather rustic stream crossing that appears about 2.5 miles east of Utica.

And by “rustic” I mean that you have to carry your machine over the water. There’s a bridge, of sorts but, given its positioning, odds are good that at least your feet will get a little wet. This is a picture of that crossing from last year:

The "bridge"

This Sunday the weather was just too perfect, and MLW and LB were away visiting family, so I was footloose and fancy free. I decided to give it a shot, and figured I could just turn around at the stream crossing if it was washed out. And if I made the crossing, I figured this would be my chance to cover the distance all the way to Ottawa - maybe stop in at Tangled Roots for a Kit Kupfer - instead of stopping at Buffalo Rock State Park like I had last year. Either would make for a great ride, albeit one option longer than the other.

The trail between LaSalle and Ottawa is a varied affair that I’ve discussed here before, but I’ll note again that it make for some very enjoyable scenery. There’s the canal historical site at LaSalle, the sandstone bluffs between LaSalle and Utica, the brief glimpse of downtown Utica itself, and then the more remote trail from there to Buffalo Rock. This was predictably pleasant and, at least when in motion, the bugs (which have been prodigious this year due to the rainfall) were a minimal problem even as I rode into the cattail lined portions of the trail towards the aforementioned rustic crossing.

There were a few puddles and soft spots as I progressed along this portion of the trail, and I did come across this section of water crossing the entire trail:

Early water crossing

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the water is not a puddle - it was flowing from one side to the other. The flow was slow and gentle, so any fear of washout is a distant one, but it did serve to remind that the trail is a firmer canal towpath, and that it was all built in the floodplain of the Illinois River. And of course, it did make me wonder once again what I was likely to find at that crossing.

My curiousity was sated soon enough as I rolled up to the spot...

The rustic crossing

So - clearly what had happened here was that the stream had moved the bridge down a bit, one suspects during a higher water period, but there was enough solid (or semi-solid) material on the route to and from the bridge to make it passable. I was going to get my feet wet, that was clear, but I was wearing my usual summer riding footgear (sandals - Keens, and they are waterproof), so that wasn’t any big deal. I carried the trike across. I did sink in and gather material into those sandals, but I went back, sat down on the bridge and rinsed them clean before riding on.

Rinsing the feet

That hurdle cleared, I figured this was my day to make the ride the rest of the way out to Ottawa.

I was not correct.

The trail from this point eastward to Buffalo Rock is remote, without a doubt. You get peeks at water occasionally through the cattails and other tall wetland plants, but for much of it you are in a botanical tunnel of sorts - nothing to see but the trail ahead.

The wetland plants should have, perhaps, been a hint of what I was about to encounter, but I’d ridden this trail before without incident. Given that, I was surprised when I came across the first...

...I’m not actually sure what to call it. Clay soup, perhaps?

It was an expanse of very wet, soft, slippery exposed gray clay filling the trail from one verdant wall to the other, proceeding forward as far as the eye could see.

Clay soup

I’m sure in the dry this is just a bare and dusty spot - I didn’t remember anything about this area from last year’s ride to suggest it would be like this when things were more damp. Not that any of that mattered, because here it was, regardless of my recollection.

I gave it a moment or two of thought, and then figured "how much of it could there be?" and decided to tackle it.

It was slow going, to be sure, and there were many moments where I could feel the rear wheel slipping, and there were a couple of times where I had to provide front-wheel assist (wheelchair-style, but using the spokes instead of the tires because, well, yuck), but I got thru it without having to get off the trike.

I also got thru the second patch.

Now, to be clear, I am not, and have never been, a person who enjoys playing in the mud. Before I got my trike my ride was a road bike, and I don’t own a mountain bike - the closest I come is my wife’s Schwinn Suburban - and if I did own such a machine I would not want to take it out when the trails were sloppy. It’s just not my thing. I say all of this so you will hopefully understand the "why" when I say that, when I came up to the third patch of this material I said "I’m not having fun any more", reasoned that there were bars in Utica and that they probably also sold beer, and turned around.

Of course, this meant that I also had to slog my way back through the other two patches, but that would have been inevitable if I’d kept going. And this was all very nice, once I got past the clay soup, and I rode along happily until I got back to the rustic crossing.

I have to get off the trike at this point in order to roll it down the walking path and cross. And when I did, I saw this:

No flag

What you are seeing, or rather not seeing, is my flag. The bottom half of the pole is there, but the top half, which holds the flag and my rear taillight, is gone. Just gone.

No flag

I made a comment questioning the parentage of no one in particular, and began to pace a bit. I walked back maybe a hundred yards and couldn’t see it. I realized I would have to ride back.

So I did, and made my slog again thru, and past, the first serving of clay soup, finding nothing. When I reached the second section I stopped, took a very long look at it and the increasing volume of gray clay coating my ride and myself, and decided that I could probably just purchase another flag and light. I turned around and rode back, tackling my fifth trip thru the clay soup along the way.

The rest of the trip back was more or less what you would expect, in terms of the trail. However, I did make a stop at the Lodi Taphouse in downtown Utica...

Lodi Taphouse

...and bathed my sorrows in an Evil Horse) Balmoral - an ESB), which is a style of beer I absolutely love, and which doesn’t often appear nowadays, seemingly lost to the sea of IPA’s and sours that microbreweries are pumping out.

If ESB isn’t your thing, however, they have a shocking array of beers on tap, along with a couple of ciders and a couple of mead options (really!). These were the offerings on the chalkboard when I was there:

Chalkboard

The Balmoral was lovely, and put a much more positive spin on what had become a rather frustrating ride. After I relaxed a bit I headed back out, covered the five miles back to LaSalle, packed up and headed for home. It occurred to me, as I rolled into view of the canal boat moored at the LaSalle end of the trail that, frustrating or not, it really is true that a bad day of cycling is still better than a good day doing a lot of other things.

...Which is where, under most circumstances, the story would end. But of course, now I needed a new flag and rear taillight. So the following morning I fired up my iPad and began my search. This did not go as expected, however, but that’s a story for another post...

TL:DR

  • The section of the I&M Canal Trail east of Utica, from the rustic crossing to Buffalo Rock State Park, as of 7/7/19, has sections of soupy mess that you may want to avoid or wait out until things dry up unless you enjoy riding in the mud.
  • The trail from Lasalle to Utica, and up to that rustic crossing, is just fine; and...
  • ...I can heartily recommend stopping in at the Lodi Taphouse for a refreshment as part of your ride.