Although the Fox Chain O’Lakes and the Fox Waterway extend across 118 miles of Illinois wetland and prairie, there is another part of the Fox River to the north in Wisconsin. Sometimes confused with the better-known Fox River of northern Wisconsin which flows into Green Bay, the Wisconsin-Illinois Fox River actually begins near Menomonee Falls, west of Milwaukee. The Wisconsin portion of the Fox River meanders for 84 miles through lakes, across dams and a 1,132-acre reservoir called Tichigan Lake before it reaches the Illinois state line and widens into the famous Fox Chain O’ Lakes. Tichigan Lake and the adjacent Fox River offer over 1,200 acres of water and are two of the busiest waterways in southern Wisconsin. The rest of the Wisconsin Fox is a favorite among kayakers and canoeists, with several wildlife refuges and natural areas protecting the shoreline. The Wisconsin Fox River is a destination in its own right worthy of a look-see. The Wisconsin portion travels through several popular residential lakes in Southern Wisconsin before crossing the state line and entering 1,360-acre Grass Lake.
The Fox Chain O’Lakes area offers everything a weekend visitor could want; many vacation lodgings, water-accessible restaurants and marinas dot the shorelines of the biggest lakes. The 2,794-acre Chain O’ Lakes State Park and adjoining 32,320-acre conservation area give boaters and campers access to 488 miles of shoreline on the Chain. Hiking trails, mountain-bike trails and nature paths offer something for every visitor. The park even offers equestrian campsites and horse-friendly trails. The area is dotted with rare bogs holding endangered plants and a large number of birds. Fishing is excellent on the Chain, with certain lakes being better known for fishing than for boating. Walleye, white bass, perch, channel catfish, crappie, northern pike and bass can all be caught just a short distance from one of the numerous public boat launch sites. All boating permits and regulations are available at the Fox Waterway Agency office on Pistakee Lake. Their waterway maps are a must as the maze of waterways and channels can confuse the most experienced boater. Many of their maps and services are available on their webpage, and some permits can be purchased online.
The Great Lakes Commission’s analysis concludes that preventing just one invasive species from entering the Great Lakes watershed could save as much a $5 billion over a 30-year period. Already 10 species have been identified that are poised to enter the watershed from the Mississippi River if they are not divided. Also at stake are the environmental health of the world’s largest fresh water supply and the $7 billion in economic benefits provided by the sport fishing industry on the Great Lakes. The possible impact on tourism dollars hasn’t been calculated. Three possible configurations of barriers were considered in the analysis to prevent the entry of Asian carp and other invasive species, improve wastewater treatment, and still allow commercial and leisure use of the waterways. The three alternatives studied were:
•a down-river single barrier between the confluence of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and the Cal-Sag Channel and the Lockport Lock
•a mid-system series of four barriers on the Chicago Area Waterways System branches between Lockport and Lake Michigan
•the near-lake alternative of up to five barriers near the lakeshore
A study now being performed by the Army Corps of Engineers is not due to be completed until 2015. Some interested observers say that the administration prefers to wait until the report is finalized before taking decisive action. Meanwhile, the Asian carp are moving north, breeding at a prolific rate and impacting fisheries everywhere they can reach. The Chicago-area waterway is not the only way this unwelcome fish can enter the Great Lakes: some river systems in the Midwest, such as the Wabash and the Maumee, are only separated by wetlands subject to flooding. The Maumee River, emptying into Lake Erie, is feared to be excellent prospective Asian carp spawning grounds if the carp can get to it. In Indiana, crews have finished installing a fence nearly 1,200 feet long and 8 feet high designed to prevent adult carp from using a northeastern Indiana marsh to swim from the Wabash River system into the Maumee River and then on to Lake Erie during floods. Similar to the efforts in Indiana, a 13-mile steel mesh fence splitting the narrow strip of land between the Des Plaines River and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal has been completed to keep the Asian carp from passing between the river and the shipping canal during heavy rains. Other possible entry points are being assessed and projects planned to prevent the spread of these voracious feeders. Asian carp have been caught on Mississippi and Missouri tributaries as far north as Minnesota and South Dakota where the problem is also being assessed.Since the 1970s when three Asian carp species were imported to aid in cleaning Arkansas catfish ponds, the silver carp and bighead carp have proved highly adaptable to our waterways. At the outset, federal government agencies experimented with the imported carp for cleaning sewage treatment ponds and lagoons. Localized flooding quickly moved these fish into adjacent irrigation ditches and river systems where they have steadily expanded their range. These prolific breeders can deposit upwards of 200,000 eggs in a season and grow to over 100 pounds, devouring up to 40% of their body weight daily in the form of plankton. The plankton are thus depleted as a food source for mollusks, insect larvae and the young fry of more desirable fish, reducing the numbers necessary to support traditional fisheries. Asian carp are not good candidates for game fishing as they seldom bite baited hooks. Some intrepid carp fishermen are successful at spearing them or snagging them on treble hooks where that is permitted. Others have built entire bow-fishing businesses along the Illinois River where they take advantage of silver carp’s tendency to jump out of the water when startled. The often-filmed tendency of these fish to jump leads recreational boaters to avoid water where they have begun to proliferate, reducing pleasure boating on some popular tourism lakes and rivers; no one relishes the idea of being hit by a 60-pound flying fish.
The North American effort to halt the northward march of these fish has caught the interest of large numbers of Chinese internet users, where they are endangered and considered a desirable food fish. Schemes to harvest the carp, considered a delicacy by many Asian cultures, have not been very successful as it is now illegal to ship live Asian carp across state lines. Markets catering to Asian clientele are often far removed from the source of the fish, and their patrons prefer live fish for purchase. Areas in the Mississippi delta regions where the carp were previously raised for sale have been stuck with ponds full of the now-unmarketable fish. Some have resorted to selling the dead fish as fertilizer. Efforts at developing a commercial cannery operation have thus far not been very successful due to lack of adequate facilities for processing. Although the mildly-flavored fish is considered a good source of protein, the bony carp are hard to filet and traditionally unpopular in the United States as home-prepared fare. Some deep-south chefs have offered schemes to prepare mechanically-deboned fish for domestic markets as fish sticks and filets but are unable to proceed to profitability of scale due to financing. Some have explored the feasibility of shipping the live fish to Asia, where they are considered a preferred species and are declining due to overfishing and polluted waterways.
The Great Lakes thrill us with their beauty and inspire us with their magnitude. In 1988 the Great Lakes Commission approved a Great Lakes Circle Tour to create a scenic, international road system connecting all five lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. What could be more ideal than a 6500-mile road trip around the perimeters of the Great Lakes? Each individual lake also has its own circle tour. Marked by distinctive green and white signs, the Tour passes through eight states and one Canadian province, primarily on the historic Blue Highways of the old road maps with spur routes such as the Lake Michigan car ferry. Along the way are small towns, nostalgic roadside attractions, friendly people, and small businesses who are happy to see you pass their way. Let’s look at a few of the highlights along “North America’s Fresh Coast”, starting in Upstate New York at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.
Lake Ontario is the smallest of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Seaway Trail is a 518-mile scenic driving route that follows the shores of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, the Niagara River, and Lake Erie in New York and Pennsylvania. One of the first roads in America to be designated as a National Scenic Byway, the Great Lakes Seaway Trail includes unique historical locations and cultural heritage sites in addition to outstanding views and scenic vistas. The magnificent Niagara Falls include the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. The area is well-supplied with small wineries which offer tours and wine tasting opportunities. Charter fishing for salmon, trout and bass is a big attraction, as is sailing. In the Toronto Harbor, a traditional three-masted schooner offers outstanding tours. The ‘tall ships’ still sail Lake Ontario here.
Lake Erie’s Presque Isle State Park near Erie, PA isn’t to be missed. This ancient sand spit extending into Lake Erie was made famous by Commodore Perry, who sheltered here while building the ships with which he won the 1812 Battle of Put-In Bay, the biggest naval battle of the War of 1812. The peninsula now offers beaches, nature trails, kayaking and wildlife preserve, along with the picturesque Presque Isle Lighthouse. The Lake Erie Coastal Ohio Trail meanders past a number of parks and beaches, ferry rides to islands, historic lighthouses and nostalgic roadside attractions. The Ontario side of Lake Erie features Long Point National Wildlife Refuge jutting from the mainland on a narrow sliver of land. Travelers turn north along the Detroit River, through Detroit/Windsor and around Lake Saint Clair, continuing north along the St. Clair River to the southern end of Lake Huron.
Lake Huron is the second-largest of the Great Lakes. Both the Michigan and Ontario sides of Lake Huron are supplied with scenic lakeshore drives. The Michigan shoreline follows the ‘Mitten’ outline around the Thumb and on to its highest point at the Straits of Mackinac where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan. Picturesque lighthouses dot the Lake Huron shoreline, many of them originally built early in the 19th century. The Ontario portion includes Georgian Bay and is particularly well-supplied with provincial parks. The two sides meet at the Saint Mary’s River, leading to the twin cities of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario and Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Here, a series of locks enable Great Lakes freighters to traverse the rapids and enter the lower Great Lakes from Lake Superior. Tours of the Soo Locks are available in the warmer months.
Lake Superior is the largest, deepest, coldest and least developed of the Great Lakes. The Whitefish Point Light is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior and the home of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The 80-mile stretch west from Whitefish Point to Munising is known as the ‘Shipwreck Coast’, with over 550 known shipwrecks recorded and a favorite of divers. This same stretch of deceptively peaceful and picturesque shoreline is home to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, offering some of the best scenery in North America, with giant limestone bluffs towering above the water of the south shore. At least a hundred waterfalls grace the Upper Peninsula. A trip to Isle Royale National Park is a trip that hardy primitive campers dream about. The Trans-Canada Highway swings north of Lake Superior for some distance through heavily wooded lands with many small lakes. Several provincial parks and nature reserves provide public access to this pristine wilderness area.
Lake Michigan is the only Great Lake located entirely within the United States. Starting at the eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula, travelers can follow the scenic lakeshore over 300 miles into Wisconsin. The Door Peninsula is one of Wisconsin’s most picturesque vacationlands. At Manitowoc, a popular car ferry allows for a ‘short-cut’ across the lake to Ludington, avoiding the larger cities farther south. Once past Gary, Indiana, a stop at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is a must. Heading north along the eastern shoreline, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was named Most Beautiful Place in America in 2011 by ABC’s Good Morning America. Continue north to the Old Mission Peninsula and its world-famous wineries, passing Lake Michigan’s famous yachting harbors and ski resorts along the way. Restored Fort Michilimackinac, founded in 1715, is open for tours during the summer months. Lake Michigan officially ends at the Straits of Mackinac and the Big Mac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula.