One of the true joys of living in the Salt Creek Watershed is waiting for a good rainstorm, then throwing the canoe on the roof and heading off for an afternoon of adventure on the Salt Creek. The creek is a dynamic, ever-changing body of water which can be deceptively placid along one stretch, and then very technical and treacherous around the next bend.
When you combine a bicycle "reconnaissance mission" with a canoe trip, you can have fun, do some challenging cross-training and experience a beautiful natural setting just 12 miles west of downtown Chicago!
The creek runs almost exclusively through forest preserves from the Graue Mill until the Brookfield Zoo, and this natural setting is great for attracting diverse species of birds, as well as beaver, deer, fox and coyote. Rumor has it that the fishing is improving dramatically, due to the greatly improved water quality.
To add to the appeal, there is a great paved bicycle trail that follows the creek from the Bemis Woods forest preserve to the Brookfield Zoo woods on 31st. Street in Brookfield, as well as an extensive network of singletrack trails on both banks of the creek.
The pre-trip strategy is this; after a good (1"+) rainfall, ride the bicycle trail, starting from the Zoo Woods and working your way upstream until you reach the intersection with LaGrange Road and Cermak Road (22nd. St.).
Past this stretch will be a number of obvious access points to the creek, the first of which will let you view the water levels over a former overpass which we call the Trolley Bridge. This low water point needs to be fully submurged, and free from obstructions on one or both sides.
The other check point is the small dam which is in place and clearly visible from the paved trail, just before you reach the Westchester 31st. Street crossing.
If these points are both substantially submerged (i.e.; they won't grind your boat to a halt), it is generally possible to navigate the entire stretch from the Graue Mill to the Plank Road Boat Launch without bottoming out or portaging due to low levels. The creek can be a long walk with a canoe, so it is best to be sure that Surf's Up!
This is not to say that you won't have to portage a time or two! The creek is very dynamic, and stretches that last time were no problem can be blocked by a downed tree the next time, so it is wise to adopt a cautious approach when nearing blind corners! This fact makes it a good idea to pack the boat light!
Also, please be advised that this creek is not suitable for motorized boating, and this we know from experience! Leave the outboard at home, grab the paddles and make a day of it! There is a nice gravel beach at about the halfway point which is a natural for a shore lunch, and a fast, easy stretch from Brezina Woods forest preserve downstream to the Zoo Woods/31st Street Brookfield Bridge (often we will pull out at this point).
The creek proceeds through the Brookfield Zoo and into Brookfield and Lyons, ending finally at the confluence of the creek with the DesPlaines River, near the Northeast corner of First Avenue (Rt.171) and Ogden Avenue (Rt. 34) in the Plank Road Meadow forest preserves in Lyons.
When you want to run the outboard (or the jet ski), the DesPlaines River upstream from this boat launch is very scenic, and very navigable, water levels permitting! Be sure to proceed with utmost caution approaching viaducts on the DesPlaines with a power boat, as water levels shallow out considerably, and more than one boater has sheared a propellor (or even the bottom half of the motor!) under the bridges that you will encounter.
If the water levels are up, you can go a long ways upstream before encountering a dam, so pack your tools, a big can of gas (maybe some spare oil and shear-pins), a cooler and whoever your boat can hold, and head on upstream! Don't forget some spare paddles or oars!
There's an island with a couple of boat tie-offs at one bridge, which is a good place to stretch your legs and have lunch, and then some of the coolest houses you will ever see as you proceed through Riverside. One home even has a two-boat garage!