A mild winter and an early spring have lakelubbers in the Upper Midwest planning for a trip to the Fox River Chain O’Lakes
. The 15-lake chain in the Chicagoland area is one of the most popular boating destinations in the United States. Boats are being hauled out of storage, their water-loving owners are prepping the gear and pouring over catalogs for new water toys to add to the fun they will soon enjoy. Only 50 miles from downtown Chicago’s Loop, the lakes in the chain are popular residential lakes for commuters. Important in the development of the Upper Midwest, channels and dams along the Fox River in Illinois provided water for the Illinois and Michigan Canal in the mid-1800s and allowed the canal to cross above the Fox River via aqueduct. Water travel was supplanted in the early 1900s by rail travel, but the improved waterway quickly became a popular destination for Midwestern boaters and anglers. Many boaters head for the Fox Chain O’Lakes
every possible summer weekend.
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.
Aerial View of Fox Chain O'Lakes
photo © dsearls
Although the Fox River first enters Grass Lake
, this isn’t the northernmost lake in the famous chain. The Fox Chain O’Lakes
contains 15 lakes, all interconnected, most accessible by boat and all teaming with fish. Catherine Lake and Channel Lake
start the chain from the north. Lake Marie
, Bluff Lake
, Spring Lake and Petite Lake follow in quick succession – all flowing into Fox Lake
, as do Grass Lake
and Nippersink Lake. Nippersink Lake flows in turn into Pistakee Lake
, where the Fox River again narrows to a channel. Brandenburg Lake
flows into Nippersink Lake, while Redhead Lake and Dunns Lake
flow into Pistakee Lake
. Long Lake
and Duck Lake flow to Fox Lake
. Griswold Lake
is accessed via channel from the Fox River. Other small lakes in the area are also accessible by channel with small boats. The smaller lakes are often shallow and primarily residential, while the larger lakes are popular for water skiing, power boating and cruising the main waterway. The main channel of the Fox River continues to William G Stratton Lock and Dam, which maintains the water levels on the entire lake chain and the Upper Fox River. The lock is open from May to November for boating use. Below the dam, boaters often sail the Lower Fox River south as far as the Algonquin Dam, an additional 16 miles.. Serious sailors often venture the lower portion of the Fox River, but the average weekend visitor usually heads for the Chain O’ Lakes. The Fox Waterway Agency
controls the water levels and has authority over the waterway, providing navigation maps and services to 3.5 million visitors who enjoy the 45-mile waterway each year.
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.
Some lucky Illinois residents have seasonal or year-round homes on the Fox River Chain O’Lakes
. Housing in the area is increasingly upscale and much in demand. Visitors can rent cottages and condos on the water. Some of the larger lakes cater to water-skiers and power-boaters. Many regular visitors arrange to meet friends here regularly for a weekend of water-based fun. Sailboats, jet skis and power boats all find a place here, with regattas and fishing tournaments holding a spot among the many scheduled activities on the Chain. Although far more law-abiding than the days when famous gangsters hid out here during Prohibition, people on the Chain still enjoy a good party and know how to have a great time. There’s something for everyone on the Fox River and Chain O Lakes. It should definitely be on your summer boating radar.
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