By Jim Hagerty
Garrett Feik is an avid outdoorsman. If there’s an empty deer or turkey tag within reach, it’s a safe bet he’ll fill it or spend the rest of the season trying. Catching fish is old hat for the 19-year-old. So is kayaking the entire length of the Rock River, a challenge Feik accepted when pals Jake Boucher and Jon Gress decided to raise money for their school.
Boucher is a sophomore at Maranatha Baptist University, while Gress is a senior. When the school became a university last year, it re-branded, giving it and its sports teams new names. In December 2013, the Maranatha Baptist Bible College Crusaders became the Maranatha Baptist University Sabercats.
The campaign left a slight budget hole Gress and Boucher wanted to fill, and $10,000 was a round figure worth eyeing. Asking for donations in support of a 320-mile, start-to-finish paddle of the Rock River seemed like a good idea. So, Boucher and Gress tapped Feik, who just enrolled at Western Illinois University, to put the plan in motion.
It only took a few Google searches to hit on the Rock River Trail, the recreational corridor that spans the river from Waupun, Wis., to the Quad Cities. A newly designated national water trail, the Rock River Trail spawned the maps, dam information and water indexes the men were looking for.
Boucher, Gress and Feik are far from novice paddlers. Each knows how to handle a kayak and the river adventures to boot. Feik and Boucher are from Aledo, Ill.,while Gress hails from Pekin, Ill., near Peoria. Even with the Illinois River in their back yards, the longest kayak trip each had been on was three days, a far cry from an 18-day paddle spanning the better part of two states.
“We feel pretty confident because we’ve got Garrett with us and he’s a huge hunter,” Boucher joked. “He’s only 19, but I think he’s like the president of a deer-hunting club.”
Their plan also brought the men to Rock River Trail Coordinator Greg Farnham and founder Frank Schier, the editor and publisher of this newspaper, and supporters in 37 municipalities.
“Frank said he’d have someone to us within an hour of wherever we are if we needed them,” Boucher said.
Schier founded the trail in 2010, and inside three years, rallied a council and tapped local, state and federal leaders for a spot in the National Water Trails System. It’s been a labor of love for Schier, who’s canoed much of the Rock himself. His early writings about the experience became the basis of The Rock River Times. To have three people approach him about utilizing what has been four decades in the making has earned Schier’s stamp of approval.
“The trail is open and we are working on getting it completely signed,” Schier said. “The synergy of these three young men wanting to paddle the entire trail, their efforts and good cause certainly has been a boon to the trail and a help to promote it. They have been kind of a test to our support network for people canoeing the trail, the campsites and their condition. Most of all, practical considerations aside, I really appreciate their spirit. I talk to them every evening. Our reporter talks to them every morning. And, I am very proud of their calm demeanor and good spirits. I think they are having a great time.”
Their journey began Tuesday, May 13, in Horicon Marsh, where the Rock rises in Dodge County, Wis. The first day took the paddlers to the southern tip of Lake Sinissippi. Slightly high, yet manageable, water made for a quiet meander typical of the Rock north of Janesville, Wis. A decision to paddle through to the Maranatha home of Watertown, Wis.,Thursday, May 15, bought Boucher, Feik and Gress a half-day ahead of schedule. The stop at Gress’ college apartment was as welcomed as Friday’s public reception. It’s not that they second-guessed the trip. It was a matter of convenience.
“It was nice to have a hot shower,” Boucher quipped, before Maranatha faculty, students and Watertown supporters fed them a few hamburgers and hotdogs along the river before sending them off again.
South of Watertown, the Rock calmly hugs the outskirts of Johnson Creek, Wis., and Jefferson, Wis., offering a serene landscape of a relaxing Friday afternoon. A few catfish and carp in the mix made for a complete Midwestern river outing. The recharge also prepared them for a Saturday battle with a choppy Lake Koshkonong.
“We started off the day bright and early hoping to get a head start on a calm Lake Koshkonong,” Feik posted on the “Kayak for Sabercats” Facebook page. “This was not to be the case. The waves were still coming in as hard as last night (Saturday, May 17), which forced us to seek help traversing the lake. Marty Musgrove was a huge help driving us and our gear to the other end of Koshkonong. This kind act enabled us to continue our trip onward. We are now camped on another gracious farmer’s land south of Indianford. Tomorrow (Monday, May 19), we hope to make our way through Janesville. Nehemiah 9:6: You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.”
The trip reached Janesville Monday, May 19. There, they met videographer Glen Loyd, of the Janesville Gazette, before navigating dams near Beloit, Wis., and continuing toward Rockford.
With still a week in front of their arrival at the Mississippi River confluence, Boucher said conditions couldn’t have been better. Some light rain, overnight temperatures in the 30s and a breezy lake have been no match.
“It’s been great so far,” Boucher added. “The water has been perfect — perfect speed and levels. If I was to do this again, I’d want these conditions. God has been gracious to us.”
To Maranatha officials, the outing is more than a typical paddling trip one could accomplish for two weeks’ worth of vacation time.
“This means a lot to our students and the university,” Maranatha Director of Student Activities Peter Huber said. “It is great to see something like this because these guys are doing this because of how much they love their school.”
From Rockford, the Rock River winds along Illinois Route 2, passing through Byron, Oregon, Dixon and Rock Falls before emptying into the Mississippi River at Rock Island. For Feik, Gress and Boucher, the last leg of their paddle should mirror the first.
“We look forward to being on the water doing what we like to do,” Gress said.
Follow the trip at facebook.com/RockRiverStart2Finish. Updates are also listed at rockrivertimes.com and rockrivertrail.com.
Send donations to:
Maranatha Baptist University Sabercats
745 West Main St.
Watertown, WI 53094
Online donations can be made at mbbc.edu/kayak/. The goal is to raise $10,000 for new athletic uniforms and to help repaint the gymnasium.