Canal Tour Ideas
Ice Skating Marathon
Both the locks and the culvert-style bridges would present challenges to a tour skate. (See the Canal Facts page). Perhaps someday there could be a marathon—a loop from the Visitor Center, west to lock 25, back to the feeder junction, up to Rock Falls and back, and then back to the Visitor Center would nearly equate to 200km. The difficulty would be in the logistics of having a mostly snow-free surface for that length, dealing with the many obstructions (locks / culverts where the water isn't frozen), as well as safety concerns given the length of the route. Rather than trying to skate most of the canal in a thru-skate excursion, a shorter, "laps" course would be feasible for a formal event or tour. All of the skate marathons that are held annually tend to be laps around a 10km (or more) course laid out on a lake plowed of snow cover.
Other Skate Ideas
Shorter skate tour ideas also are numerous. Besides sections of the Hennepin Canal, the watered portions of the I&M Canal lend themselves to short races or "fun skates", with the 5 mile (8 km) stretch between LaSalle/Peru and North Utica making for a good recreational skate. The 15 mile (24 km) stretch of open water from Channahon to Gebhard Woods benefits from being the closest section of the canals to Chicago.
Illinoistocht - winter adventures and journeys
While the route itself isn't that well suited to a race / tour skate given the difficulties outlined above, it would be possible to have a winter adventure incorporating the canal over a 1 - 3 day span.
Instead of a skating-only marathon, there could be a single-day, mixed-sport team event, with 3-4 persons each, self-supported. The idea would be to start with a runner at the Mississippi River in Rock Island, IL in the predawn. The route could continue east to Colona, IL. From there, the route could be a skating route. Some of the bridges would require portaging, in addition to the locks. At the eastern end of the Hennepin canal at the Illinois River, it is about a 20 mile (32 km) distance to the western part of the Illinois and Michigan canal; this segment could be covered by mountain biking, cross-country skiing, or other means. The I&M Canal is only watered in the western section and parts of the eastern section. The portions without water could possibly be covered by cross-country skiing on the towpath / bike path. (This assumes that the canal is magically free of snow while the towpath has plenty of snow--perhaps a generous ATV driver with a plow attachment makes an excursion...) The I&M canal ends near Joliet, IL, and after a 5 mile (8 km) trek through the city, the route then connects to thd Old Plank Rail Trail, which extends about 20 miles (32 km) to within less then 8 miles (13 km) to the Indiana border. This would be a sort of wintertime answer to RAGBRAI.
Difficult? Yes. But with a team it could be covered in a long, arduous day or long weekend--a roughly 300km (185 miles) trek.
The canal route is an excellent ride. See the page on my "Bicycling the Hennepin and I&M Canal" page on this website from the menu choices above under Canal Information. The Hennepin is an excellent bicycle trail.
The Hennepin is watered throughout and is suitable for a canoe or kayak, but the many locks and some of the bridges would need to be portaged.
Hennepin Canal in Google Earth. Also, file of the I&M (from Utica) and the OPRT to Matteson in Google Earth. Note that you will need Google Earth to open these, and simply clicking on the "download file" may yield gibberish--please send any comments to me on downloading these. I had to right-click, "Save Link As", and then manually type in the .kml suffix. Then, from the downloaded file, I clicked on the file and "Open With" Google Earth.
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Map of I&M and Hennepin Canals from Putnam, The Illinois and Michigan Canal: A Sutdy in Economic History, 1918; see also Kapsch, R. Canals, WW Norton & Library of Congress, 2004. The Hennepin was formerly known as the Illinois and Mississippi Canal. See also the "Canal Facts" and the "Bicycling" pages on this website for more detail on the canals.