Pulling on the oars, gliding across a glassy, mirrored surface, broken only by the ripples of his boat, David Tyler Miller often has time to just think.
And when his rowing workouts bring him to the Fox River, on the north end of St. Charles, Miller’s mind will return – at times – to the same thought.
“I’ve been rowing this stretch of river for 10 years, and, to me, it’s one of the best expanses of river for training anywhere,” said Miller, president of the St. Charles Rowing Club. “And I’ve always wondered why, in 120 years, no one’s ever started a rowing club here.”
So, last year, Miller, working with Chris Meldrum of St. Charles, launched what he believes to be the area’s first competitive rowing club.
It’s just one sign of the Fox River’s steady transformation during the past few decades from one of the most troubled waterways in the country to a regional recreational destination throughout Kane County.
Since the 1970s, a renewed emphasis on cleaning the river’s water and improving public access to the waterway has enticed locals and visitors alike back to the water’s edge.
Miler’s effort began after an inquiry from Meldrum, who was seeking an option closer to home for her teenage son who had “rowed crew” with a club in Crystal Lake in previous years.
The endeavor has grown with new recruits. And now, it’s common to see the club’s long, thin “rowing shells,” with groups of several teens pulling oars in sync, on the stretch of river from St. Charles to near South Elgin.
And in that time, Miller said he thinks he may have hit on an answer to his musings on the lack of a rowing club.
“I feel that people are still just kind of reconnecting to the river, even here, where it goes right through the towns,” he said. “It’s only recently that the river has really become clean enough for that, I suppose.
“But citizens here are turning back to the river.”
Much of the activity has centered on public land, particularly the Fox River Trail and land acquired and put into public recreational use by local park districts and the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
During the spring, summer and early fall months, throngs of bicyclists, hikers and others pack riverfront trails.
Bird-watchers and anglers enjoy the river virtually year-round.
And in the winter, opportunities for winter sports, such as cross-country skiing and ice skating in select locations, continue to draw visitors to the river and its trails.
That shore-based activity has continued to feed public interest in the river as both a natural and recreational resource, said John Hoscheit, president of the Kane County Forest Preserve District.
“It really opened up the river to the public,” Hoscheit said. “It increased the ability of the public to appreciate it.”
But the river also has increasingly become a haven for water-based recreation.
And it is those kinds of activities with which the future of the river is entwined, said Hoscheit and others.
Hoscheit noted that the forest preserve district remains strongly focused on “increasing public access” to the river, particularly through the acquisition of riverfront property as it becomes available, using tax money raised through referendums approved by county voters.
He said such actions make the riverfront ever more accessible to those wishing to try their hand at pulling from the river a walleye, smallmouth bass, crappie or muskie, among other species of game fish.
But in addition to bringing more of the river’s shores under public ownership, the forest preserve also is seeking to increase “navigability” on the Fox.
To the forest preserve district, that means increasing the ability of those with human-propelled craft – such as kayaks, canoes and rowing shells – to explore from the river’s channels, rather than just its shores.
Increasing the ease of navigating the Fox has been among the priorities of the Illinois Paddling Council, a group of kayakers, canoeists and others who lobby lawmakers and work with local and regional authorities to make the state’s rivers destinations for paddlers.
Tom Lindblade, past president of the IPC and current member of the group’s board, said his organization worked to establish the Fox River Water Trail, among other trails on rivers in the Chicago area.
“For us, it’s about access and finding ways to encourage people to paddle these rivers,” Lindblade said. “We are an advocate for that, everywhere.”
He noted that the IPC also supported the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ development of the Marge Cline Whitewater Park in Yorkville.
Lindblade said such artificially-created whitewater courses would represent future opportunities to promote river-based tourism in other communities. He noted that other communities, including Algonquin and Aurora, have kicked around the idea.
Even candidates for city office in St. Charles have suggested retrofitting the river locally with such a course.
“Long term, we’d like to see ‘whitewater trails’ in some areas,” said Lindblade, noting that locally such a trail could take kayakers and others from Aurora south to Yorkville.
“People could do daylong paddles through, perhaps, three different whitewater parks,” Lindblade said. “It would be a tremendous amenity, we think.”
Mark Miller, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said the state believes increased navigation will be a key aspect of the river going forward.
However, he said, funding for river construction projects is scarce.
“We aren’t likely to see that kind of investment in things like that anytime soon,” said Miller, noting the Yorkville whitewater project cost about $10 million.
Miller said the state will instead seek to partner with local agencies to increase more traditional forms of public access to the river, such as better canoe access, portages and enhanced dam safety.
“There seems to be a resurgence in both the health and the usage of rivers, and we want that to continue,” Miller said.
Locally, that resurgence could include an increase in clubs and outfitters dedicated to rowing sports, as kayaks, canoes, rowing shells and even stand-up paddleboards increase in number along the Fox River in Kane County.
Brian Lewis of Batavia recently launched a kayaking tour company, The Kayakers, offering guided tours and kayaking classes on the river. Tours have drawn visitors from the Tri-Cities, as well as Chicago, Springfield and Wisconsin.
“The Fox looks so different from the water, even along the bike path,” Lewis said. “It’s a great opportunity, and there just aren’t any outfitters here.”
David Tyler Miller said the opportunity to see the river from a different angle isn’t what he uses to start a conversation with potential recruits for his rowing club – but it helps.
“A lot of other rowing venues are not necessarily all that naturally attractive,” Miller said.
“But this place,” he said, gesturing to the woods that line both sides of the river north of St. Charles, “this is just picturesque.
“And when you’re out on the water, rowing, on a calm day, when the water’s still as glass, it’s a great place to be.”