The Riverfront Park in Yorkville is a bustling little spot on the Fox River where outdoor enthusiasts can come to fish, kayak and enjoy a scoop of ice cream from Foxy’s to cool off.
But among the paddling community, the area is best known as the home of the Marge Cline Whitewater Course —a 1,100-foot-long bypass chute with recreational whitewater features.
Owner of local canoe and kayak rental company the Yak Shack Jeffery Brown said the Marge Cline course is unique to the area because it always has a good, consistent flow despite changes in water levels.
“You’re not gonna find anyone that’s having a bad day out there,” Brown said. “I mean it really is a great spot to have fun on the water.”
Brown has been running the Yak Shack on Riverfront Park for eight years now. He rents kayaks, tubes and canoes to paddlers from all over the area. He runs trips from Oswego to Yorkville as well as from Yorkville to Plano. To make a reservation, call 630- 479-8074 or visit yakshackonline.com.
Safety Chair for the Chicago Whitewater Association Dave McGovern said the area is a great place for paddlers from all over the area to come together.
“We use it for lessons and a lot of the time in the summertime I just know on Sunday mornings if I want to go boating, I can go to Yorkville and there’s gonna be people out there to boat with that I know,” McGovern said.
Brown said the riverfront is also ideal for catching a wide variety of fish.
“It’s actually become quite a good spot for small mouth fishing,” Brown said. “There’s muskie out there, walleye, big catfish, bluegill, crappie…you can find a lot out there.”
According to Brown, Riverfront Park has something for everyone to enjoy.
“Everything from good food with patios that you can be outside on, especially if you’re coming out of the river wet, you know, they’ll still accommodate you,” Brown said. “There’s ice cream and I do tube rentals as well as canoes and kayaks so there’s basically something for everybody down here.”
River Fest and the Illinois Whitewater Festival
The Chicago Whitewater Association will be holding its annual Illinois Whitewater Festival on the Marge Cline course July 13 and 14.
Membership and Advocacy Chair for the Chicago Whitewater Association, Andy Cocallas, said that the festival falls on the same weekend as Yorkville’s River Fest, featuring ribs, craft beer and live music.
“We always try to plan our event to coincide with River Fest so that there’s even more activity down by the water, you know, more spectators for the races,” Cocallas said.
Cocallas said that the Whitewater Festival will feature a cardboard regatta on Friday night (July 13) before the main events on Saturday (July 14) — the Buttercup Slalom Series and Boatercross. All three races are open to paddlers of all experience levels.
The River Fest will also have an event where attendees can use a giant slingshot to try to land an apple in a kayak positioned in the middle of the river, Cocallas said.
In the cardboard regatta, participants will be asked to construct a boat capable of holding a person using only cardboard, Cocallas said. The boat that makes it the farthest across the river wins.
According to Cocallas, the Buttercup Slalom Series is a series of races that kayakers can participate in to earn points and the paddler with the most points at the end of the year wins a trophy.
“There’s like four locations up in Wisconsin that do it and then we sort of joined up about three years ago, running and hosting one of the events here in Illinois,” Cocallas said.
In a slalom race, paddlers must navigate their way through gates that are positioned above the water. If you accidentally hit a gate post or miss a gate entirely, Cocallas said penalties are added to your final time once you complete the course.
Brown said he will be participating in both events on Saturday, but is especially looking forward to the boater cross.
“With the boater cross, all the participants from the day’s slalom race start at the same time in a no holds, no rules race to the bottom of the course and it is hilarious to watch,” Brown said. “We tip each other over, sink boats, run each other over … anything goes.”
History of the Marge Cline Whitewater Course
The Marge Cline Whitewater Course was constructed as a bypass for the Yorkville dam when it was reconstructed over a decade ago, Safety Chair for the Chicago Whitewater Association Dave McGovern said.
The design of the former low-head dam created an incredibly strong undercurrent which caused the deaths of over 20 people.
“The dam itself was roughly a six-foot drop … and whenever you have a drop like that, the water will build up a lot of speed as it goes over the lip of the dam because it’s starting to fall,” McGovern said.
“And that falling water erodes the stone or concrete on the downstream side of the dam and makes a —they call it a scour hole,” He added. “Which that then makes the water flowing on the downstream side of the dam reverse direction and come back into the dam which can spin and trap things very easily.”
According to a report by the American Whitewater Association, there were three deaths over Memorial Day weekend in 2006 which motivated the state of Illinois to prioritize reconstruction of the dam.
With those kinds of low head dams, McGovern said, if someone gets too close and is sucked into the undercurrent, there is no amount of swimming or kayaking experience that will save them.
“Experience makes no difference,” he said. “At that point, if you don’t have gills…you’re dead.”
McGovern said the state of Illinois began reconstructing the dam in 2006 and built a series of stair steps where the drop-off of the dam used to be to make the increase in depth more gradual.
While this greatly reduced the dangerous suction of the dam’s current, it is still dangerous for kayakers to go over a dam. So, the state of Illinois decided to construct the bypass channel in the Summer and Fall of 2009, according to the American Whitewater Association.
“They decided to make the bypass and, during construction of the bypass, a bunch of people in the paddling community got together and they decided to add in a few whitewater features as a bonus,” said Jeffery Brown, owner of the Yak Shack
The course was named after a member of the Chicago Whitewater Association who passed away around the time it was being built. Her name was Marge Cline or, as they used to call her, the “river mom.”
“She was very involved in teaching other people and shepherding them down the river for their first or second trips,” McGovern said.
That was how she got the nickname of “river mom,” because she was always patiently coaching others and helping them to improve their canoe and kayak skills, he said.
Cline also taught a variety of kids programs through her involvement with the Chicago Whitewater Association, the Illinois Paddling Counsel and the American Canoe Association.
“She just liked to go have fun on the water,” McGovern said. “So, we’re glad they decided to name it after her.”
EVENT: Yorkville River Fest
WHEN: 5 to 10 p.m., Friday, (July 13), noon to 10 p.m., Saturday, July 14
WHERE: Riverfront Park, 131 E Hydraulic Ave. Yorkville
FEATURED: Yorkville Parks and Recreation Department and the Yorkville Area Chamber of Commerce host weekend of food, live country music, family activities, the Whitewater Festival, and more.
EVENT: Illinois Whitewater Festival
WHEN: 9 a.m., Friday, (July 13) to 5 p.m. Saturday, (July 14
WHERE: Marge Cline Whitewater Course, Yorkville
FEATURED: Cardboard Regatta provided by the Yorkville Chamber with the Buttercup Slalom Series & Boatercross sponsored by World Kayak. Bring your boat, paddling skills, family and friends. Registration at 9 a.m. Racers meeting at 9:45 a.m. and races start at 10 a.m.
—- Kayakers take to the water during Yorkville River Fest —