[Author’s Note: The Illinois River recently experienced a record flood event (27.78 feet). Last year about this same time, the river was also in flood, but at a much lower level, when this essay was written and originally published in the online Pekin Daily Times blog, A View of Nature.]
Last week as I drove north of Peoria to a business meeting, all of the Illinois River’s tributaries were running fast, high, and muddy. The Illinois River had risen only slightly in recent days, but from what I was seeing, with so much water flowing in, it would soon be in flood.
When I returned from my meeting the next day, I wasted no time heading off to my cabin on Quiver Lake, a backwater connected to the Illinois River. Soon I was sliding my canoe into the water and was on my way. The river was either at or just below the official flood stage of 14 feet, with many of the lower lying areas under water. I headed into the wind and slight current toward Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge.
Bird life in the flooded forests was active and loud. Since it was early May, I was hearing resident species as well as migrants. The latter group included the strange yellow-billed cuckoo, which returns to nest in Illinois from as far south as Argentina. On the lake waters were a few mallards, wood ducks, and double-crested cormorants.
At the refuge’s old washed-out levee, I beached the canoe and walked toward the river. But I could only get to about 100 feet of its normal banks because of the flooding. Here I saw many species or heard their songs; but especially noteworthy were the American redstart, prothonotary warbler, blackpoll warbler, magnolia warbler, Tennessee warbler, and northern waterthrush. A Swainson’s thrush brought my gaze closer to ground level, and it was then that I saw movements of a very large fish near the water’s surface.
It was a grass carp at least two feet in length, and it was feeding on submerged vegetation, reminding me of a cow grazing in a grassy field. Grass carp are from Asia; they were brought to North America as a way to control vegetation from taking over farm ponds and other man-made bodies of water.
But, of course, just like the jumping silver carp from Asia, grass carp eventually escaped into the natural environment. I was concerned about the silver carp, though, because they are well known to jump into boats and slam without warming into boaters and canoeists. That has happened to me before, but, fortunately, not on this canoe trip.
It was smooth sailing back to the cabin, with both the wind and current on my back, and no jumping carp. And so, my afternoon of bird and carp watching came to a close.