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Death of a River

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Where is the outrage?

Where are the answers?


We have people arguing over who's bass is bigger, the poacher with an 8" fish in his bucket, whether a report is accurate in showing a 17" or 20" smallmouth....but all I hear is silence.

This is the stuff that drives me each and every day.

Not the fact that fish are dying, but rather the fact that nobody cares.


From a blog titled River Rat, I found this remarkable piece of journalism by Lindsay Wood Davis, long time Rock River lover and dear friend of the River Alliance of Wisconsin.



"Hello darkness, my old friend I've come to talk with you again Because a vision softly creeping Left its seeds while I was sleeping And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence"


When Paul Simon wrote those famous words back in the winter of '64, the Rock River in Northern Illinois was a muddy old river, filled with organic and inorganic effluent, from heavy metals to farm field runoff to residential, industrial and commercial sewage piped straight in. There was certainly some wildlife and a few fish, but it was far from a healthy place for "man or beast." But it was the river we had, the only one we knew.


Like the storied summer of Bryan Adam's anthem,"Back in the Summer of '69," I started paddling the Rock River. That year, a group of friends paddled and floated down the Rock River from Oregon, Illinois to Grand Detour, about 12 miles. Putting in at sundown of a Friday evening and getting in Saturday at sunup, the way was lit the entire night by a moon darned close to full and bright white. That nighttime paddle on the Friday of the full moon of July came to be known simply as, "The River Trip", an all night odyssey of friends and fun. The cast of characters paddling expanded and contracted over the years, but the core group remained. The River Trip has been held every year since.


This year a dozen folks canoed down the Rock,marking the 40th anniversary of our nighttime adventure. Age has taught us the wisdom of leaving at 6 instead of 10; now we arrive in time to help close the local tavern instead of waiting for breakfast to be ready. But what has taken place in each year since that first hasn't changed. Each year the river became cleaner, clearer and a whole lot better for "man and beast." Every year we experienced new delights: One or two Great Blue herons became a rookery with dozens of nests; Little Green herons and Night herons joined their bigger brethren. We saw eagles! Bald Eagles on the Rock! You can't imagine our delight. Or the spine tingling moment when we first spied an otter-slide on "our river." Year after year, the Rock River healed, pulling away the curtain and showing again what the Sac and Fox had seen, the river that Blackhawk didn't want to abandon; a great meandering beauty of a muddy old river, abundant with the feel and the sign and the sound of a place teeming with wonder. Every year, every single year, the river got better. Until this year.


The Rock is not a little stream; it isa good sized river with sections easily a quarter of a mile across.Where we paddle is often referred to (going back at least to the French trappers and perhaps to the Native peoples) as "the land of a 1000islands." It has been used as the site of the American Canoe Association National Championships, and big money fishing tournaments,such as the Bass Masters and Cabella's Catfish Challenge. While Bass and Walleye have made spectacular comebacks, the river has always been most noted for huge flat-head catfish. It is said that Rock River Catfish was served at the White House by President Grant and fished for by future President Reagan. And all these fish shared the river with the buffalo carp, sheepshead and other "rough fish" typical of slow-moving, Midwest rivers. Until this year.


Our put-in, just below the Oregon dam, has for some years been a sort of Izaak Walton version of the United Nations. The people who fish that hole represent every age, race, color, creed and nationality. Little old grandmas, big tattooed bikers, Mexican kids, hordes of Hmong, toothless,tobacco-stained old men, couples paying way more attention to each other's charms than to their bobbers. There are people who fish with cane poles and carbon-fiber Ugly Sticks, stinky cheese bait or Finnish lures, the latest monofilament or thread stolen from Mom's sewing basket. They're all there, standing on that riverbank or up to their ankles, knees, waist or armpits, trying to land that big walleye or catfish, maybe even a spoonbill. Or anything. Or nothing at all. Except this year.


rock+river+catfish.jpgEach of us who paddle, or fish or float or gaze, or write or snooze or wonder or cuddle along a river has a "home river, " that stretch of water that means something deeper to us that anyplace else. Its probably obvious to you that this stretch of the Rock River is very much my "home river." While it has the familiarity of hundreds of trips, it is the changes that I see each year that really make it special to me. Until this year.


A terrible thing happened this year to my home river, the Rock River. Something so terrible that tears run down my face as I write this. In late June a train carrying ethanol hydroplaned off the tracks near Cherry Valley, just east of Rockford.Among its load were a dozen and a half tanker cars filled with ethanol.Some of these cars derailed and caught fire; the fire was fought(valiantly, according to press reports) using fire-retardant foam.Eventually, all that ethanol and all that foam ran into a creek(swollen from the same storms that derailed the train,) ran into the Kishwaukee River and then into the Rock River. What happened next is very clear. Why it happened is not.


Beginning somewhere below the Oregon Dam and above Grand Detour, essentially everything in the river was killed. Though initial reports referred to it as a "fishkill," it was WAY more than that; the river was denuded of turtles,frogs, snakes, whatever was in it at the time. This kill (and what was already dead) moved downstream past Dixon, Lake Sinnissippi,Sterling/Rock Falls and down to Como, Prophetstown and Erie. The deaths may have continued almost to the Mississippi. It was a near total devastation of almost 100 miles of the Rock River. This Canadian National freight train was our own Exxon Valdez, wiping out not only wildlife but endangering a way of life. The Rock River went from proof of the efficacy of the Clean Water Act and the efforts of thousands of people over decades of work, to being a dead zone.


Rock+river+fishkill.jpegAs my paddling partner and I headed down the Rock last Friday night, we reached a favorite stretch a few miles north of Grand Detour. It is a spot we both know particularly well. In the midnight silence she asked,"Hey, how come it is so quiet? There's nothing! No frogs peeping or croaking, no carp feeding, no muskrats splashing. Just nothing." And she was right. The sound of that silence was both deafening and painful.


It will be years until the Rock River can recover. A real estimate is probably impossible; how many 100 mile stretches of a river, ANY river,has ever been comprehensively killed off in a matter of hours? Whatever it was that wiped out the life of the river appears to be gone; little fish, probably those who had been up the creeks feeding into the Rock,are already being caught by anglers willing to throw their lines in,even before the cause of the kill has been determined. Over time those little fish will grow to be big fish. But it will be years and years.


As of yet, there's no real outrage from the State of Illinois, no real clarion call from the politicians, no real editorial anger, no real wailing from the local chambers of commerce; there is only this deep sadness among those who know and love the river.


Over 40 years of watching the Rock River come back, I've been one of those afforded a vision of what a great place it has become and can and will be in the future. The Rock led me to involvement in the politics of rivers and the joy of paddling dozens and scores and maybe hundreds of rivers more. I'll return next year to night-time on the Rock River...and say, "Hello Darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again."I hope the message I hear from my old friend will be happier than the sound of silence I heard this year. They killed an entire river, my river. Think about that: An entire river. It brings tears to my eyes.


"And the vision that was planted in my brain Still remains Within the sound of silence"

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"We have at least one credible report from a conservation officer (near Sterling) who saw the fish jumping clear out of the water to escape whatever was in the water,” Sallee said. “They were jumping 2-3 feet onto the bank and the locals were corralling fish like it was Christmas Day.”




It is scary that is this topic has become a cold case. It floors me. I remember hearing that only flatheads and carp where hit the hardest, but frogs snakes and turtles? That is something deeper.

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It floors me too, Travis.

As long as the ISA is still functioning and I'm still the Conservation Director, IL rivers are not going to die without our every last resource to save and protect them exhausted.

Nobody can predict fish kills, but rivers can be brought back from them if the blame is laid where it belongs.


The Kankakee River is next.

She isn't going to die overnight like the Rock, but she will die in utter and complete silence.



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The fight for the Kankakee may die with those that are currently fighting for it, at age 53, I'm one of the youngest with the exception of maybe Mike.


It can be fixed with lots of money and even more importantly the political will to make the necessary changes.

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Ironically ethanol is our "green" fuel. While gasoline would float on the surface of the water, ethanol (a version of alcohol) goes into solution in water. Unlike floating gasoline or oil, it would not have been visible to the casual observer. That made a nasty combilation for the fish, I suspect, as they were literally overserved by the spill. As humans we have a natural defense against alcohol poisoning though it is not always effective. Normally we pass out before we exceed the limit. The fish pickled in the solution did not have a chance.


Others have noted the silence of politicians at all levels. I am surprised that the EPA was not more on top of this one. There should be damages similar to the EV disaster.

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Ethanol isn't too green nor are a lot of other "green" touted items...


Not to take anything from this post as it highlights a symptom of a world wide problem but was there ever a definitive answer from the powers that be that the ethanol spill was the cause of the fish kill? I know we debated a lot about this but I still find it hard to believe that a spill in a creek that led to another river that led to the Rock didn't affect the creek or the Kish but affected the Rock 30-50 miles downstream (or whatever the distance is). Not trying to argue or downplay just looking for some facts. No matter what the Railway company should pay for something/be fined just for being morons and ignoring a couple of calls that the tracks were compromised.


I've said it before and I'll say it again... remember The Lorax!!! It should be required reading.

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The Lorax was my favorite book growing up. I now own it again and read it to my daughter who is four. She already helps doing neighborhood clean ups. She is wonderful like that. It’s funny how timeless that book can be.


The question on rather or not the spill was a direct effect of fish kill CAN be answered from those that can research it. Simply put, for fairness, this is nothing more than a theory. What is now needed is funding to prove or disprove that theory. Hopefully, with a result from that testing action can than rightfully be placed.


I can think that they, the Canadian National Transit, are. How long does carbon dioxide poisoning take place before it fills and room and make one sick? In relative to size of the room it can take awhile. With the weight of the ethanol, the size of the river, the flow of the river it might have taken that little time before it all got mixed up and damaged the eco system. But I am no scientist.


I know that water samples were taken, but some think it might have been too late.


A lesson should be learned. Once a spill like this takes place samples should be taken right away from any water system within so many feet or miles. Take them sporadically throughout the days and weeks to monitor the effect of it. This should have been done; it would have helped everyone cover their ground. But it wasn’t and the river is paying for it.


There are too many larger groups out there that can help get the attention that the Rock River needs. EPA and the Sierra to name a few, these groups all have different power and support to get ones attention. I wonder if such a write up like the one that Mike wrote would get their attention again.

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Great post, Travis.

Your passion hopefully carries over to others.

The EPA and Sierra Club are not synonymous in the sense that a reaction is needed....as you pointed out.

Two completely different animals, but each with it's own degree of power.

It's people like Prairie Rivers Network that should be screaming bloody murder, taking people to court and they probably already acknowledge this behind the scenes.


As for the Kankakee River and it's troubles, we have a representative of the largest fishing club in the state sitting on their board in Norm, for a second tour of duty.


As I stated in another thread (the K3 video in Off The Hook), there is a documentary being produced on this river as we speak.


I made it crystal clear to the producers that without a definitive Q&A with the people that allowed the troubles of this watershed to continue, it isn't going to come close to even talking about solving the problems, let alone solving them.


The KRBC on both sides need to be called to task, and if it doesn't happen on the IL side, then their partnership designation within the IDNR needs to be rescinded, starting today.

J.R. Black will either take an active role in acquiring the resources to turn this around or we will do it for him.

At some point the stakeholders are going to need to decide what is best for the river.

The old school politics no longer apply here.

This whole thing needs to be torn apart and approached with a 21st century mindset.

It doesn't die where lack of funding is concerned, it starts with each and every one of us telling our legislators and all elected officials that we hit the refresh button and we're serious this time.

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The EPA and Sierra Club are not synonymous in the sense that a reaction is needed....as you pointed out.

Two completely different animals, but each with it's own degree of power.


Sorry, I mentioned the EPA and Sierra Club only for reasons of their power in general but not exactly what is needed for this. Some people dislike or like those groups for different reasons. For example Sierra, I know they have community leaders, forest monitors, Stewards and etc. They have been known to bark up trees and have small numbers heard. I don't have the knowledge of the ends and outs of these groups. I just know that, good or bad, they have been effective.


The poeple in the forefront of this are a wide of range of people and the DNR needs to listen (not like they don't) when the attention of these groups are brought up.


This is the real work.

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Well it did not take long for a tragedy to happen. Canadian national purchased the ej&e railroad with some concern that was smothered by politicians and lots of cash hush money. They are running more trains through with more train cars attatched. Thus a lot more tons/gallons of nasty chemicals. Then there is the intermodal terminal expansion in northern illinois increasing dangerous chemicals traveling through by multiple means of transportation. This only raises the chance for disaster to any and all organisms. Progress and needed economic development words are used to stop concerns. What a world we live in. I guess the plague of man is man. We are our own worst enemy followed by money and apathy.How many people vote in our elections ? national about 45% of the registered, local and state even less. Thank God for the organizations and people who do not go quiet into the night.Rage rage rage and keep up the fight.

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