Admit it. We all have at least one of those; a park or place whose name is so synonymous with your area, you tend to forget about it.
For the Bureau County area, that award mostly goes to the Hennepin Canal.
The canal traces through the whole area on a map; it swings south of Interstate 80 and brushes Wyanet before plunging southwest of Princeton. Everyone in the area knows what it is. The canal is like an artery: We all know it’s there, and it’s important to the body’s functions, but that doesn’t mean we give it the attention or respect it deserves.
I’m no history buff. I do know that by its completion, railroads had rendered the canal obsolete. If you’re curious beyond that, a visit to the Bureau County Museum might provide a better background, or look at the Illinois Department of Natural Resource’s page about the canal. It provides background, including that it’s a “104.5-mile linear park spanning five counties,” and helpful information for planning a visit.
The canal might not be used for its intended function now, but it’s been a great resource for the area. A gravelly and sometimes paved trail is good for walkers, bikers and equestrian use. I know that because of the occasional piles of you-know-what I encountered. There’s also fishing, camping, a plethora of animal and bird species to watch for, and many points along the canal are picturesque backdrops for photography and portraits. It’s an extended park with numerous entrances and lots of variety.
For all its graces, I don’t see a lot of people out when I’m there. Oftentimes months or years pass between my own visits. For such a wondrous resource, the canal is little used. I was awakened to this fact on three recent occasions, all within the last two to three weeks: two brisk walks to enjoy the fall colors and a photography bike ride.
I’ve gone on walks there before, but believe me. If you’re a walker, the canal can seem like heaven on earth. The same goes if you’re into bike riding. The trail is fairly flat, so you can focus more on the surrounding scenery. Fall is an especially beautiful time to visit with all the changing leaves.
On both walks, my cousin and I barely saw anyone other than a few fishermen near where we parked. My friend and I saw more people on our bike expedition, but we did cover more ground over a longer period of time. We saw two groups of bikers, a few people fishing and two groups of walkers. In the same setup in the suburbs, the place probably would’ve been choked with people. I think they appreciate open spaces all the more because of the crowded nature of city life. Not to say that rural folks don’t appreciate it as much, but we’re used to it.
That’s my point about the canal. I think we’ve collectively grown used to the place.
In some ways, that gives the visitors who do go more peace and quiet to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. But mostly, I think it’s a shame. We’re lucky this park was preserved and not destroyed. The locks are still there, albeit covered in spiderwebs. Trash also has a tendency to collect in places just before the water drops off.
The Hennepin Canal isn’t perfectly manicured, and I don’t think it should be that way in some respects.
Sarah and I jumped off our bikes to explore the ruins of some old building right off the path. I wondered what it was, what it was used for. The foundation was still solidly there, like the basic blueprint of a building. Vines were creeping up the walls and pillars that stood freely in the interior. The place had an aura of mystery. There it was, but there was no plaque, no clue as to what the building was in its former life. It’s cool to have places like that along the path to discover.
If we started rediscovering the canal, maybe we could do a better job keeping it trash and graffiti free so we could preserve the canal’s antiquity and continue to step back generations and walk along a literal path of history.
If and when you do decide to pay your respects to this age old fixture, it doesn’t matter what lock you go to. You will find something worth experiencing. There are points when the trail tunnels under the road. There are old railroad bridges and bridges. There are old locks with massive wooden gates. At times the canal is straight and narrow, and sometimes it billows out into a refuge for shorebirds.
We saw snakes, cranes, cardinals, blue jays, fish jumping out of the water, frogs, fuzzy caterpillars and all sorts of creatures. You might even bring a guidebook to identify the various flowers and native plants adorning both sides of the trail. Maybe you want to bring a pole (and your fishing license) and settle down for the afternoon. Primitive camping your thing? It’s there too.
If you’re at a loss for where to go first, the official Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park bordering I-80 and near Sheffield makes a good starting point. Informational displays help visitors get the most out of their time at the canal. Whatever you choose to do, don’t just think about it. Thoughts are nice but don’t accomplish anything unless they are carried out through actions.
Let’s get back to knowing the treasures that are a stone’s throw away from our backyards.