I grew up a literal stone’s throw from the Illinois and Michigan Canal in Marseilles. It was a veritable nature’s paradise back in the 1960s and '70s. It contained just about every life form you could think of and just when you thought you knew what to expect it would throw a new surprise at you. We found frogs, snakes, salamanders, crawdads and even fish.
I never understood how the fish got there seeing the canal would dry up in the middle of the summer. One theory is that their eggs were deposited there by water fowl. That’s as good of an explanation as any. It reminds me of Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park when he said, “Life, uh, finds a way.”
In the winter we skated on the ice. If you had the gumption you could skate from one end of town to the other. In the fall we would pull the large, tall weeds and turn them into spears and hand grenades. Our bike paths were the original tow paths. I doubt they still exist.
At some time in the early 1970s the canal was drained. We were just kids and couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. They took away our playground and killed off or displaced a lot of wildlife. That probably couldn’t happen with today’s wetland preservation laws.
We tried in vain to plug the hole that drained our beloved canal into the creek that led to the river. We were devastated. The I&M Canal was dead. We were forced to move on, find something else to do, grow up.
Our ingenuity was idled. Our learnings would be locked away in our childhood vaults seldom if ever again becoming useful tools in life. I miss those days dearly.
To be fair, I feel obligated to provide that the canal wasn’t always such a wonderful place. On Aug. 16, 1929, my great aunt, Mary Margaret Doolan, made headlines in this paper by succumbing to sepsis after swimming in the canal two weeks prior. She was 14 years old. At that time the canal was basically an open sewer.
We’ve come a long way since then. The laws that came about with the advent of the USEPA has cleaned up our waterways virtually eliminating any adverse health issues like those of the past.
I wholeheartedly support re-watering the canal in Ottawa or any town that wants to take on the challenge. It would not bring the old canal back to life but would breathe life back into it by creating a freshwater pond in the middle of town.
It seems like it should be easier than it is right now to put water into a hole in the ground. If I had the tools back in the day, a bulldozer, a backhoe, I might have been able to extend my childhood another year or at least another summer.
I wish I could take my grandchildren back in time and show them how much fun we had in the canal using nothing but our imagination. I’m sure I would get the deer in the headlights response from them as they wondered how do you plug it in.
KEVIN FOSTER is a rural Ottawan, retired and busier than ever.