The Kankakee River is one of Indiana's most extensive water drainage systems. It encompasses approximately 3,000 square miles of river basin which includes at least thirteen northwestern Indiana Counties. The topography of the watershed is flat to moderately rolling, expressing the effects of extensive glaciation. Sand and gravel river bottom and scoured bedrock are indicators of the glacial activity.
Land use in the river basin is predominantly agricultural, with over 75% of the land used for cropland, pastureland, or forest land. Extensive corn, soybean, wheat, and hay fields surround the Kankakee River. Consequently, the Kankakee system is quite important in providing drainage for these agricultural lands. Much of the basin was dredged and channelized in the early 1900s to aid waterflow from these lowland areas. Although dredged and straightened, the Kankakee River still offers scenic and enjoyable canoeing waters. The banks have revegetated, and much of the once-rich marsh areas are becoming productive again.
The Potawatomi Indians were early settlers of the Kankakee River basin and used the marsh areas as a refuge against the ferocious Iroquois of the east. French explorers, such as Charlevoix, La Salle, Tonti and Father Hennepin, were among the first to chart the area. Soon the white fur traders moved into the Kankakee marshland to take their claim of the abundant numbers of fur-bearing animals. After treaties in 1832 and 1836, the Potawatomi relinquished control of their lands in northwest Indiana, and all but a few moved from the Kankakee River basin. The fur trappers derived most of their wealth from muskrat pelts, although beaver and other fur-bearers were harvested. The muskrat harvest during the 1834-1884 period averaged between 20,000-40,000 pelts per year.
The immigrant farmer became increasingly present after the Potawatomi moved from the valley. Crops of wild rices and sedges from the marshland were harvested for hay and pasturage. Sportsmen's clubs became prevalent as fur trapping, waterfowl hunting and fishing in the "Grand Marsh" became well known. Mallards, pintails, spoonbills, teal, bluebills, wood ducks and the sandhill crane were abundant in the Kankakee marshlands during this period. Trapping trails, roads, railroads, cabins, motels and resorts became numerous in the Kankakee River basin as man began to develop it. As agricultural development became greater, the demand for channelization began. A massive channelization program began in 1911, and by 1917 the main Kankakee channel was straight. The width of the main channel now varies from 75 to 180 feet with an average depth of 4-5 feet. The Kankakee's average fall is approximately 1 foot per river mile and flow is generally at 3-4 miles per hour. Forest land in the Kankakee basin is generally in oak-hickory, or beech-maple-birch succession. Other tree species include ash, sweet gum, white pine, aspen, cypress, black cherry, black walnut, cottonwood and sycamore. Marsh grasses and sedges, wild rice, cattail, spatterdock, smartweed and many other forms of marshland vegetation are still present in the wetlands along the Kankakee.
Wildlife habitat is excellent in the river's natural marsh areas, and the wildlife includes beaver, muskrat, deer and many species of waterfowl. The greater prairie chicken, sandhill crane, osprey and golden and bald eagles are examples of rare species located in this important wetland area. The sloughs and marshy bottomlands along the river provide excellent wildlife habitat and afford river users the opportunity to observe a variety of species. Walleye and northern pike, large and smallmouth bass and various panfish are found in the waters of the Kankakee.
Although most of the Kankakee River may be canoed, for the purpose of this guide the river section between Kingsbury and the Indiana-Illinois State line will be discussed. Kingsbury, Kankakee and LaSalle State Fish and Wildlife Areas all have access sites with boat ramps. All canoeists should register with the State Fish and Wildlife Area property manager before using these facilities.
Kingsbury State Fish and Wildlife Area to the Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife Area
This section of the Kankakee River is approximately 16 miles in length and requires between 6-8 hours to float. Both channelized and unchannelized stretches will be noted as canoeists travel on this and other stretches of the Kankakee River.
The put-in is at Kingsbury State Fish and Wildlife Area. From the parking area and access point, travel north on Breckenridge River Road to Hupp Road and turn left (west). All visitors should register at the Kingsbury Headquarters Office, located on Hupp and Stillwell Roads. Turn right (north) on Stillwell Road, left (west) on Co. Rd. 500 S, then proceed to U. S. 35 and turn left (south). At S. R. 8 , turn right (west) and continue to the Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife Area access, which is located immediately west of the S. R. 8 bridge. There is a lane, parking loop, picnicking area, and river access at this location. All river users should also register at the Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife Area Headquarters, located off S. R. 39, just south of the S. R. 8/S. R. 39 intersection.
Doctors and emergency service are available in LaPorte, Knox, and North Judson.
Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife Area to S. R. 49
This 18-mile section of the Kankakee River requires approximately 7-9 hours of canoeing. The put-in is at the Kankakee State Fish and Wildlife Area, as previously described. For the shuttle route, continue west on S. R. 8 to S. R. 49 at Kouts, where you turn left (south) and proceed to the take-out site. Adequate parking space is provided along S. R. 49 by the bridge crossing the Kankakee River. The best access is located upstream of the bridge on the right bank. Intermediate access is located at Dunn's Bridge if a shorter trip is desired.
S. R. 49 to Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park
This portion of the Kankakee River requires 5-7 hours of paddling and is approximately 14 miles in length. The canoeist will pass through agricultural lands, forest and marshlands along this route. Continue south from the S. R. 49 bridge put-in site to S. R. 10 and turn right (west). Turn right (north) on Newton-Jasper County Road (1200W). This road bears left and does a right-then-left dogleg over I-65. Continue on Newton-Jasper County Road crossing the bridge over the Kankakee River and park in the lots located in the Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park. The river access is located downstream of the bridge on the right shore.
Doctors and emergency service are located in Valparaiso, Cedar Lake and Kouts.
Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park to LaSalle State Fish and Wildlife Area
The 15-mile stretch requires 5-7 hours of canoeing and ends on the Illinois State Line. The put-in site is at the Grand Kankakee Marsh County Park as previously described. For the shuttle route, go south on the Newton-Jasper County Road (reversing the take-out directions of the previous canoeing section) to S. R. 10 and turn right (west). Continue on S. R. 10 to the Illinois-Indiana State Line Road and turn right (north). The access site is located on the Indiana side of the bridge over the Kankakee River.