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Jun 30, 2014 08:19AM

Hennepin hopeful: Blogger sets out to kayak the full length of Illinois canal

By Becky Langdon
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John Greenwood/jgreenwood@qconline.com
Rene Robinson is a kayaker and blogger who is going to boat the length of the Hennepin Canal this summer.
More photos from this shoot
Rene Robinson is about to add another title to her eclectic list of identities. She's a bookbinder, blogger, IT professional, basket weaver, and soon-to-be Hennepin Canal conqueror: This year, the Moline resident has set a goal to kayak the entire 104-mile length of the Hennepin Canal.

"I just want to see what it's like to do the whole thing," she says. "Why? Because it's there. If anyone else wants to come kayak it, I want them to know what they're getting into."

The Hennepin Canal was initially designed in the late 1800s to connect the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Since the 1930s, the canal has been used primarily for recreation.

Robinson decided she wanted to paddle the canal and blog about her experience after finishing a similar project last year. Over the course of 2013 she visited all 63 QC Wild Places (qcwildplaces.com) and blogged about each for the benefit of potential visitors. "The process became fascinating," she says. "I never knew what I was going to encounter. I always came back with something that I could write about."

After completing the last of the Wild Places, she was eager to continue blogging and offsetting the sedentary nature of her desk job. In January she went on a hike with the Friends of Hennepin Canal, which became the inspiration for her next big experiment. She got started with her kayaking venture in May and completed her first trip, paddling the section between lock 32 and lock 30. She quickly found the hardest part of the journey is not the paddling itself but the launching, landing and lugging.

Once a continuous waterway, sections of the Hennepin Canal are now pools connected by drop boxes, which allow water to flow through but not a kayak. Robinson writes about the challenges of traversing these sections on her blog. "At one spot the only place to launch required crawling over bowling-ball sized chunks of riprap, sitting in the boat on the rocks — thank goodness for the high-density polyethylene kayak! — and doing a very inelegant scooch-scooch-scooch-splash into the water!"

Because of this, Robinson advises that kayaking the canal is not for the faint of heart, the very elderly or people with certain disabilities, due to the challenges of getting into and out of the water.

For those up for a challenge, though, the rewards are ample. In a kayak gliding quietly across the water, she says she can get much closer to wildlife than anywhere else. The water is teeming with turtles, fish, frogs, Canada geese, white-billed grebes, mallards, red-winged blackbirds, herons and more. She says with a smile, "When I go and do a kayak I'm all alone. Nobody is making any demands of me."

Other highlights of the canal include six aqueducts and a variety of unique locks and dams. Though no longer functional, the locks are fascinating, says Robinson, because they all look different. No two are alike.

Since beginning this journey, Robinson has joined the board of the Friends of Hennepin Canal and is excited about plans to enhance the canal's accessibility in the future. The organization's Renaissance Project has a goal of restoring the locks to make a navigable waterway from Geneseo to Rock Falls.

Throughout her journey, she hopes she can inspire others to make use of a tremendous resource. "I hope the blog gets more people out there using the water," she says. "You don't have to go off to Washington Island (Wisconsin). You can just do it right here in your own backyard. We talk about buying locally and eating locally. Well, use your water resources locally. Enjoy this gift."

Becky Langdon is a frequent Radish contributor. To follow along with Rene Robinson on her journey on the Hennepin Canal, visit her blog at reroqc.tumblr.com.

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