Apple River
★ ★ ★ ★

Apple River

By on May 2, 2014

East Canyon Road to South Apple River Road
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Quite possibly the most beautiful stretch of river in all of Illinois (and definitely one of the best in the entire Midwest) the Apple River is rich with clear water, (or jade green in the deeper pools) constant riffles, light rapids, gorgeous rock walls, a veritable canyon and little to no development.

It does, however, have landowner issues that must be recognized and respected. Added to that is a steep gradient that drains its water volume quickly, so catching the upper Apple River at the right time is tricky. But it’s oh so worth it!

April 20, 2014

Class Difficulty:
Class I(II)

Hanover: ht/ft: 2.7 | cfs: 206

Recommended Levels:
This is the recommended minimum level. There are all sorts of issues with this river, its basic legality being one of them. Below 200 cfs is not recommended, as it will be shallow. 250-300 cfs should be perfect. The river is prone to flash-flooding, so be mindful of staying off it just after or in the event of heavy rain.

Apple River Canyon State Park, East Canyon Road
South Apple River Road bridge

Time: Put in at 9:45a. Out at 1:15p.
Total Time: 3h 30m
Miles Paddled: 9.75

Wildlife: Lotsa wood ducks, mergansers, several herons, one teenage bald eagle, many sandpipers, a cavalcade of cattle and roughly one billion Canada geese honking like all hell had broken loose.
Time worth driving to: 4 hours

This trip has been the Apple River of my eye for years now (sorry, but I had to). But the threat of being ticketed or arrested (saying nothing of making the drive in hopes of there being enough water) has forced my desire to simmer on the backburner. This was the year to do it I told myself and Easter Sunday seemed like as good a day as any to try my luck. So now that I’ve done it, there’s a lot to set straight and explain.

What we liked:
The river is pure Driftless and it’s magnificent! In a number of ways this upper stretch of the Apple River that runs through Apple River Canyon State Park, is like a combination of the Kickapoo and Kinnickinnic rivers in Wisconsin.

The water is crystal clear, swift and bubbly enough to be considered the champagne (Champaign?) of Illinois streams. The current is constant and like an action film: It. Does. Not. Stop. But this isn’t a trip for beginners. You need to have good boat control as there are dozens of sharp bends where the swift water is thrust against rock walls. Those canyon walls are stunning and exhilarating but you don’t want to be colliding into them! When not riffly and clear, deep beautiful jade green pools lure you to their haunting hue, usually below craggy rock walls, calling to mind an Ozark stream.

For the first four miles there’s not a sight, scent or sound of development. But for three fly fishermen, I had the whole river to myself (it was Easter Sunday morning). After that, there are some houses and farms but they’re infrequent and generously spaced out.

The very last 50 yards of this trip features a long row of pitch-perfect Class I standing waves. Going over them like on a bronco is thrilling. Or better still, they’re perfect for surfing on or doing tricks in (if you’re into that).

What we didn’t like:
There are two problems with this trip: low water levels and the law.

Low water: The river had just enough water in it to run but anything less and you’d be walking quite a bit. As it was, I had a good ab workout, butt-scooting and gorilla-arming my way through some of the many rocky shallows. I never got stuck badly enough where I had to get out but it was touch-and-go for quite a few places where there were only a few inches of water. You’d want a couple more inches to comfortably run this. The problem is catching the river at the right time, because it has a gradient of 13’ and thus it drains quickly.

That said, DO NOT RUN THIS RIVER IF THERE IS EVEN A CHANCE OF BEING ON IT DURING A HEAVY RAIN. Due to the steep canyon walls and gradient, this section of the river is prone to flash floods.

For example, on April 13th, the gauge was hovering around 2’-high. After a couple inches of rain the river rose to 11’ in 24 hours! Two days later, by April 16th, it fell down to 4′. Thus, it rose 9’ and dropped 7’ all within 72 hours. From the 16th to the 20th, (when I paddled it) it had dropped only from 4’ to 2.7’. But if you can paddle this at 3.5’, I think it would be perfect with enough water never to get stuck but not too much water to make the rapids too menacing.

The law: With certainty, I can say: wherever you take out, you should first seek permission from the nearest landowner. This area of the Apple River is designated as “non-navigable” according to Illinois law, a law established in 1911 based on 19th Century notions of commercial purpose and use of what defines navigability! This is total BS and foolishly antiquated, as the river is quite obviously navigable and arguably commercial (with respect to outfitters) but the law is on the books… for now. That said, it can be reasoned, alas, probably in court, that federal law trumps state law and all rivers are held in a public trust but it’s best to have a lawyer parse that argument out. And try telling that to the local sheriff.

Illinois ranks 44th in the nation for public lands area. Compounding matters, less than 8 percent of the entire state’s stream miles are considered public waterways. The actual official list of public streams is one of the shortest and most pitiful in the country. State law stipulates that not only the banks but the stream itself up to its center point are considered part of the property of the landowner. Or, if both sides of the river belong to one property owner, then the whole river that runs through the property is considered private (one wonders if the air above the property also is private and whether airplanes need to seek permission before zooming over the roof). Thus, without permission one runs the risk of trespassing.

All of this said, I encountered no strung wires across the river.

In his book, Paddling Illinois, Mike Svob stipulates in bold font “you must seek permission from landowners along the river before paddling…” That’s up to you. In my opinion, that is an unreasonable burden. Even with plat maps (we’ve provided them here) it’s hard to know whose property abuts the river and whose does not. And by property, let’s face it, 90 percent of it’s farmland – not exactly an easy door-to-door canvassing operation! And what if no one is home at the time you seek permission but return once you are already on the river and committed? Or what if all but one landowner grants permission? Do you seriously not do it because of that one guy or gal?

It’s worth noting too that Bob Tyler, in his quirky, devil-may-care book Canoeing Adventures in Northern Illinois, lists the Apple River as one of the “best streams for wishing to be arrested for trespassing.”

Incidentally, here is the statutory language:

“Under Illinois Law, (720 ILCS 5/21 3), a person commits Criminal Trespass to Real Property if he or she: (1) knowingly and without lawful authority enters or remains within or on a building; or (2) enters upon the land of another, after receiving, prior to such entry, notice from the owner or occupant that such entry is forbidden; or (3) remains upon the land of another, after receiving notice from the owner or occupant to depart; or (4) presents false documents or falsely represents his or her identity orally to the owner or occupant of a building or land in order to obtain permission from the owner or occupant to enter or remain in the building or on the land.

A violation of this Section is considered a Class B misdemeanor that is punishable by up to 6 months in jail. However, Court Supervision may be available as means of avoiding jail and a conviction.

Class A Misdemeanor: Up to 1 year in Jail and/or fine of up to $2,500

Class B Misdemeanor: Up to 6 months in Jail and/or fine of up to $1,500

Class C Misdemeanor: Up to 30 days in Jail and/or fine of up to $1,500.”

Thus, in my opinion (for what it may be worth) the onus is on you, the paddler, to seek permission from the nearest landowner(s) to put-in or take-out on what is legally their property. As for incidentally passing by these properties while on the river between your put-in and takeout, that’s up to you and your own comfort level. I ran into no trouble but A) it was Easter Sunday and B) maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe/hopefully this issue is improving and not as bad as it used to be. It’s such a gorgeous river, it would be a shame for the private few to greedily hoard it to themselves. And considering that the river itself can only be selectively run a few times a year due to low-water levels, I really can’t imagine there would be any significant high-impact use from paddlers. If anything, ban tubing on the river. I think we all can agree on that!

Technically, “boating” is not allowed in the state park. I know, I know – this is crazy! The park itself is named after a river! But I have emailed and called the office on two different occasions a year apart from one another and corresponded with two different employees. Both told me flat out that boating is not allowed in the park. Even kayaks or canoes, I asked? Yes, they told me. Why? I asked in disbelief. It just is. I saw no signs indicating such while at the park, so you the paddler could make a plea for plausible deniability a la It’s a state park, ergo public land. It’s a river. You have a kayak or canoe. Etc. I did this alone and early on a Sunday morning – a holiday at that. There was no one around. If you do (try to) paddle this, know the risks and be discreet. And if you live in Illinois, contact your lawmakers about allowing for public access on this incredible natural resource.

This said, the day before paddling this Barry and I met this hilarious fellow in Freeport who had paddled the Apple a bunch of times and assured me that the trespassing concerns were overblown. In fact, he recommended a takeout where he and friends cleared out a landing. The guy was so fond of the river that he actually had an apple tattoo on his back, I kid you not! Granted, some guy in a bar with an apple tattoo is hardly an alibi, but maybe it’s a good omen that things are changing in favor of paddling the river.

Also, if you do attempt this, I don’t recommend a bike shuttle unless you’re a glutton for punishment. It’s a longer distance than the paddle itself (thanks to the few roads) but a) the climb in elevation is several hundred grueling feet and b) worse still, almost all of it is on gravel dirt roads. This is quaint for sure but even in a car I never drove faster than 30 mph. On my bike it felt like I was stationary in some places.

If we did this trip again:
In higher water I’d do this again in a heartbeat! The area is supreme and spectacular. It sure would be nice to see it once things are in bloom again and the world anew with green!

Related Information:
Article: Spilling the Secrets of Apple River Canyon
General: River Fact Or Fiction
General: River Law Handouts
Map: Apple River Plat Maps
Wikipedia: Apple River (Illinois)


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Ahnapee River

Apple River (IL)

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    County Highway Q to Brainards Bridge Park

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Wedges Creek

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Yahara River

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Yellow River (IA)

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    Highway X16 to Old Sixteen Road

Zumbro River (MN)

    Zumbro River
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    Zumbro Falls to Millville
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