During an epic 10-day trip in September 2022, Jenni Kempf Schiavone canoed all 202 miles of the Fox River, end to end.
Launching from the headwaters in southern Wisconsin — where the water was so clear that Kempf Schiavone said she could see straight to the bottom, “like I was looking into an aquarium” — she paddled to Ottawa, spotting herons, muskrat and hundreds of turtles along the way.
The journey ended on a grace note, full of symbolism.
“I saw a fox trotting along the last day of the trip,” Kempf Schiavone, 37, said. A fox on the Fox River? “I thought it was magic,” she said.
Kempf Schiavone’s experiences over the course of those 10 days forms the heart of a new short documentary, “Watershed Warriors,” which will premiere Thursday at a community screening just ahead of Earth Day.
The 12-minute film is part of series that aims to raise awareness of rivers as vital ecosystems. In “Watershed Warriors,” the focus is on the work of Friends of the Fox River — where Kempf Schiavone is director of education programs — and the progress the organization has made in the last 50 years to reclaim the Fox as a natural resource for the people, wildlife and plants that live within its 2,500-square-mile footprint. (A watershed is the total land area that drains into a river.)
During that time, the river has gone from being listed as “endangered” by American Rivers to being considered an asset by communities along its banks.
“We used to turn our backs on it,” said Gary Swick, president of Friends of the Fox River, who grew up in Downers Grove. “Every town now recognizes the tourism value of turning to the river.”
While Jenni Kempf explores different parts of the river, she picks up any litter she sees. The most common item discovered in the Fox River is beverage containers.
Reply with what you typically find when you're at a river cleanup. pic.twitter.com/lZTEz1jm2W
— Rivers are Life (@riversarelife) April 18, 2023
In terms of geologic time, the Fox is a young river, formed by the last glacier some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago.
The ice made quite an impression on the landscape as it retreated.
“Of all the habitats found in the state of Illinois, probably three-quarters are found in this watershed,” said Swick, now retired from a decades-long career as an environmental sciences teacher at Dundee-Crown High School, where Kempf Schiavone was a prized student. “There are ecosystems like bogs, like forested fens — this is the only watershed that they’re in in the state. There are a variety of different prairie types, a variety of different wetlands.”
It only took 100 years of intense settlement to crash this ecosystem, rendering the water undrinkable.
“You can see pictures in Elgin where the piers went out in the river and that’s where the outhouse was,” Swick said. “So people saw the river as a way to take their waste away. One of the early settlers in Elgin said it (the Fox) was one of the finest rivers they’d ever seen and then a following mayor said that God gave us the river to carry our waste away. So it’s a matter of thinking.”
That thinking began to shift in the 1970s, when cleanup began in earnest.
“When I was growing up here,” said Kemp Schiavone, who hails from Algonquin, “my parents would describe the river as ‘stinky’ or ‘dirty.’ ... I think the notion of the stinky and the dirty had to do with the fact that this river was pretty polluted when they were children. A lot of industrial dumping of untreated effluent was getting into this river.”
Significant upgrades in wastewater treatment greatly improved the river’s quality, to the point that residents of communities like Aurora and Elgin can now draw drinking water from the Fox. But that hardly means the work of organizations like Friends of the Fox River is complete.
“The best protection for water quality is for land to be in its natural state,” said Swick. “But as things develop, as we bare soil, and there is erosion, as we pave over areas and reduce the amount of water that can infiltrate, those are all problems.”
Among the concerns is the construction of massive distribution centers — and their impermeable roofs and parking lots — within the watershed, something conservationists can only combat if developers are willing to incorporate stormwater management best practices into their designs.
Phosphorous runoff, which is contributing to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, is another issue. Watershed communities have received federal funds to help with phosphorous removal, “So we’re doing our part,” Swick said.
During her end-to-end paddle, Kempf Schiavone also shone a spotlight on the persistence of litter in the river — having specifically opted for a canoe over a kayak so she’d have room to haul in trash — and drew attention to what is arguably the greatest obstacle to the river’s health: dams.
There are 15 low-head dams on the Fox River, 10 of them between Carpentersville and Yorkville.
“The dams were built when people settled here because they didn’t have electricity, so they used hydropower to grind grain, to cut wood, to run machinery on belts. But now we have other sources of electricity, so those dams have not done anything positive for 80 years,” said Swick.
The dams have had plenty of negative effects on the river and wildlife. “The impact on water quality and biological diversity is highly significant and well documented,” Swick said.
For one, slowing the river’s flow prevents natural scouring of the bottom, and as a result, sediment accumulates on and smothers the bed. Remember the crystal-clear water Kempf Schiavone reported at the headwaters? Downstream, dams create a murk.
“It’s a clean river with a dirty bottom,” said Swick.
In terms of wildlife, the dams create a barrier for fish, which struggle to vault themselves upstream. And if the fish aren’t migrating, neither are the freshwater mussels that rely on fish for dispersal. Mussels, Swick noted, are vital to the food chain and play a key role in filtering algae, bacteria and other particles from the water.
“As you go downstream, you see greater diversity of fish and mussels along the way because the dams aren’t impeding. I think it’s an important lesson we should be sharing in our watershed,” said Swick. “It’s really great when kids want to save pandas and tigers, but we have maybe the most endangered animal group in the world living right here (freshwater mussels), and we can restore that.”
The Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of wrapping up a study on the dams’ impact on connectivity, and Swick is anticipating a recommendation for dam removal.
“I didn’t think I would see a major dam removed in my lifetime,” Swick said, “and I’m hoping for 10 in the next 10 years.”
Video: Fox River’s watershed warriors, Gary Swick and Jenni Kempf Schiavone, discuss their work. (Patty Wetli / WTTW News)
Considering that Kempf Schiavone has traveled the entire length of the Fox River, you’d think that when asked to name her favorite stretch, it would take her a minute or two to consider the possibilities before answering.
But she doesn’t hesitate for a second: It’s the one in her backyard.
“This is very much home to me,” said Kempf Schiavone, standing one recent afternoon at what locals call Pokagan Park.
“Park” is a bit of a stretch for what’s actually a driveway-sized strip of land carved out of a riverfront subdivision, with just enough room for a picnic table and space to launch a canoe into the Fox. This is where Kempf Schiavone has come every birthday since she was about 20, treating herself to a celebratory paddle.
“It’s a totally peaceful, natural place,” she said. “It’s really special that we have this.”
As “watershed warriors,” Swick and Kempf Schiavone are committed to spreading that sense of awe and respect for the Fox. Connecting people to the river, they say, leads to greater understanding of the need to care for this remarkable yet fragile resource.
“Working in conservation and environmental education, now I see how incredible the biodiversity of this river and this watershed really truly is. And we are seeing biodiversity collapsing all around us and it’s more important than ever to preserve and protect the biodiversity that’s here,” said Kempf Schiavone. “It’s maybe the most important thing that I will do in my lifetime.”
Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 | [email protected]