On their 22nd anniversary, Jean Evans and Jerry Lane drove 30 miles from their home in Sycamore, Ill., to St. Charles, a picturesque town on the Fox River west of Chicago. They wanted to do something special to celebrate, so they chose a ride on the Fox River Queen, an old-fashioned Mississippi River-style paddleboat with a red paddlewheel and painted red roses. Despite the heat, locals and visitors streamed in for the Queen’s afternoon tours on a typical August afternoon.
The Fox was named for a Native American tribe, and its first dam was installed in 1835 to harness hydropower to grind grain and cut lumber, explained Captain Rich Anderson, 63, as the boat glided north up the river. It passed Boy Scout Island, where people launched canoes and jet skis, and a golf course where “the Fox River provides a pretty difficult water hazard for a couple of the holes,” Anderson said.
Anderson’s father Chet started running paddleboats on the Fox in 1945, and now Rich continues the tradition with the Fox River Queen and its sister, the St. Charles Belle.
Jim Wilson has taken this ride countless times since retiring from the Chicago candy industry to St. Charles 17 years ago. He pointed out the bikers zipping through trees along the bank, part of the approximately 40-mile Fox River Trail – “it’s a marvelous trail, just wonderful.”
And he pointed out a colorful piece of the river’s history that Anderson didn’t mention. During Prohibition, Al Capone and his men were known to smuggle liquor up and down the Fox. Capone was known to hang out at a speak-easy that is now Al Capone Hideaway & Steakhouse near the river in St. Charles.
“They ran liquor all up and down this dog-gone river to get to Chicago,” Wilson said proudly.
The Fox River meanders 202 miles from its headwaters in Menomonee Falls, Wisc., to Ottawa, Ill., near popular Starved Rock State Park, where it meets the Illinois River. In Illinois, the river is 115 miles long with a watershed covering 1,720 square miles. The river weaves through cities, much agricultural land, woods and prairies, new suburban developments, small towns and golf courses.
Similarly, the Fox is woven into the lives of many locals – a driver of economic development in riverside villages, and a place for family fun and contact with nature for nearby residents. The Fox provides drinking water for more than 330,000 people in Elgin and Aurora and draws people for boating, fishing, waterskiing, paddling and various other activities along its length.
Like most working rivers, the Fox once faced serious contamination problems from industry and sewage. Today, locals who have grown up with the Fox say it has undergone a massive transformation. It is also an example of how a degraded waterway can – thanks largely to environmental laws and the dedicated efforts of residents – be nursed back to health so that it is a financial, social and environmental asset for numerous municipalities and countless individuals.
The Fox still faces significant challenges, including nutrient pollution from the runoff of farms and lawns along its course, plus releases from wastewater treatment plants. But organizations, including the Friends of the Fox River and the Fox River Ecosystem Partnership, are determined to continue the waterway’s improvement.
As passengers loaded on the River Queen, Anderson pointed out white egrets and blue herons fishing in the river. “When I was a kid, you never would have seen that,” he said.
“It’s cleaned up so much – the northern [pike], walleye and musky wouldn’t be living here if it hadn’t,” said John Vuscko, 56, who rode his bike to go fishing at the Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva, Ill., downstream of St. Charles, right after a heavy thunderstorm on Aug. 4. This stretch of the river is wide and slow, lush with vegetation and abutting a lovely Japanese Garden.
“You used to see red stuff coming out of the factories, tires coming down the river,” continued Vuscko as he helped Joel Silva, 17, put a fake worm on a hook – a method he learned from another local standing in the river in waders, who’d been fishing this stretch for 40 years. “People go all the way to Canada to catch musky – that costs a lot of money. But now we have it right here.”
Charlie Zine has loved the Fox River since he was 10 years old, growing up in Carpentersville and playing in the water on a rubber raft. An avid paddler, he’s been a river advocate for a quarter century, founding various citizens groups and events and working with the Valley of the Fox group of the Sierra Club on river-related initiatives. He notes that the Fox River “has been an economic engine for Aurora” – where he now lives – during at least two distinct time periods. First, when the settlers depended on hydropower for grain and lumber mills in the 1800s. And than during the early 1900s through World War II, when the river was crucial to factories and other industry.
“Now we’re trying to make it an economic engine for the third time, but based on recreation and tourism and cultural events,” Zine said.
Because of its heavy industrial history, Aurora was known in years past as a less desirable place to live or enjoy the river than more upscale villages like St. Charles. But recently the river has been central to Aurora’s revitalization, including by serving as “the backyard,” in Zine’s words, to hundreds of new condos. For the past four years, Aurora has hosted the Illinois Paddlesports Festival, and it is the ending point of the half-century-old Mid-American Canoe & Kayak Race.
In May, Zine and others staged an “adventure” race involving 17 miles of paddling, cycling, running and an obstacle course on and along the river. And the city is developing a 35-acre riverfront park that will include a 9,500-seat theater.
Like Aurora, many towns along the Fox have remade themselves into tourist getaways, homes for Chicago commuters and small hubs for artists, retirees and information technology workers, with both the river’s history and its recreational potential as key to the towns’ identities. Cafes and restaurants with patios are abundant along the river, and outfitters renting bikes, canoes and kayaks do a thriving business, as do stores selling fishing and boating gear and snacks. The Fox Valley Chamber of Commerce representing business owners along the river in the greater Chicago metro area was founded in January. It already has 200 members, according to president and CEO David Berens.
“Businesses pay prime rates for retail space and business space up and down the river,” said Berens, so maintaining good water quality in the Fox is crucial. No one wants to dine al fresco next to a stinky river. That’s where people like Cindy Skrukrud come in.
Powerboats zipped by as Skrukrud sat on a bench outside the Epic Café in Johnsburg, Ill., northwest of Chicago on an August day. A clean water advocate for the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, she noted that protecting and enjoying the waterway is a delicate balance. The waves caused by fast boats erode the banks and increase run-off of fertilizer and sediment into the river. The dams that make stretches of the river deep enough for power boats also exacerbate problems with algae growth and low oxygen, as water is relatively stagnant behind a dam. Once a month, Skrukrud and other members of the Fox River Study Group take water samples at 12 locations on the Fox and its tributaries, measuring the water’s pH, conductivity, temperature and dissolved oxygen levels. Skrukrud lowered a bucket from the bridge near the café, then pulled it up full of what could pass for pea soup.
“It’s looking greener,” then last time she sampled, said Skrukrud, who has been active on the Fox for more than two decades.
Since the Fox is a tributary of the Illinois River, which joins the Mississippi River that empties into the Gulf of Mexico, nutrient pollution in the Fox contributes to the 6,700-square-mile low-oxygen Dead Zone in the Gulf. Algae is fed by the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus that accumulate in the Mississippi largely from fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plant releases.
Nutrient pollution is also a problem in the Fox River itself – municipalities can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year addressing taste and odor problems in the drinking water, and algae blooms can make fishing and boating unpleasant or even impossible. In 1999, the group American Rivers named the Fox one of the country’s 10 most endangered rivers, a designation that includes political as well as environmental factors.
The Fox River Study Group was founded in 2001 in response to the listing of three stretches of the Fox on the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s list of impaired waterways. The study group coalition includes citizens organizations like the Friends of the Fox River and the Sierra Club, water reclamation agencies, the Illinois EPA and representatives from many of the towns that the river passes through.
The study group is working on a comprehensive plan to improve water quality and habitat. Using computer modeling, they predict the outcomes of using different approaches to control releases from farms, urban areas and sewage treatment plants. Sierra Club wants more sewage treatment plants to remove phosphorus before releasing treated wastewater into the river, and they’d like to see Illinois develop statewide standards for nutrient pollution. In 2010, Wisconsin adopted limits for the amount of phosphorus that wastewater treatment plants, paper mills and other industry can release. Fox River advocates would also like to see some of the smaller dams removed to open up fish passage and possibly improve algae issues. Some towns in the Fox River watershed have already banned lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus, and ELPC and Sierra Club have worked with the fertilizer industry to address the problem. Runoff can be decreased by wetland buffers around the river, especially in agricultural stretches, and storm water that is funneled into the river can be reduced by building bio-swales and other green infrastructure along roads and drains in more urban areas.
Zine notes that Aurora has already made great strides in separating its sewage pipes from its storm water pipes, curbing the dreaded “combined sewer overflows” (or CSOs) wherein during heavy rains raw sewage is released into the Fox. But even storm water carries much contamination into the river, so the city is planning to build more than 100 rain gardens to soak up runoff at 28 different street intersections. State funding was obtained for the project, a collaboration including the city, the wastewater treatment agency and the Sierra Club.
“The key is to have not just one entity but a whole community working together to get cleaner water,” Zine said.
“I think we’re all moving in the same direction,” Skrukrud added. “That’s what you need to solve these problems.”