Under the lush green canopy of trees at the Black Hawk Historic Site, a longtime river advocate worked Saturday to ignite more interest in protecting and promoting the Rock River from its headwaters in Fond du Lac, Wis., to its mouth in Rock Island.
"The Rock River is this huge river of treasure in your backyard," Frank Schier, the founder and coordinator of the Rock River Trail Initiative, said as he led a handful of hikers through the Rock Island park. Hosted by River Action Inc., the event was one of the Riverine Walks held on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the summer.
Weaving bits of history, amusing facts, nature education and poetry reading into the casual 1 1/2-hour walk, Schier also promoted the entire Rock River Trail to participants. The trail spans 320 miles and links 11 counties in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Schier, the editor and publisher of The Rock River Times newspaper in Rockford, Ill., said members of the three-year-old initiative learned in April that the Rock River Trail had been designated the nation's 10th water trail in the National Water Trails System.
The effort began in February 2010, only two months before organizers convened their first meeting of Rock River "shareholders." The Meet the Neighbors event in Rockford drew participation from all 11 counties and 37 municipalities along the Rock. A year later, the group held a legislative briefing with lawmakers as well as representatives of state and federal agencies from the two-state area.
Now, with federal water trail status in hand, Schier said the next goal is to create a Rock River Trail Scenic and Historic Route along roads within the river's corridor. In fact, he said Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker just signed it there on Friday. The Illinois General Assembly has passed a resolution designating the route.
Also on the initiative's radar is developing more riverfront campsites, additional water testing, a dam safety campaign and signage for the water trail and road route.
"We're trying to get people not only to experience the river, but protect it,'' said Schier, who is no casual observer. An avid canoeist, he has been working for 30 years on a Rock River book. A mix of history, heritage and poetry, he read a few of his own words on the hike.
"The Rock River Trail is part-history, poetry and personal experience," he said, adding, "There are places on the Rock where you don't hear a car, a plane and (you can imagine) it can be 200 years ago."
With trail status, he said, more visitors will come to the various river communities and grow the eco-tourism industry.
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"As more visitors start driving up, canoeing it and hiking it, it's going to create more jobs,'' he added.
Among the hikers was Jim Standaert, who learned some new information even though he was only a few blocks from home.
"It's very interesting," the River Action volunteer said, adding, "It's too bad we can't get more people out here."
Part of the Rock River Trail's activities have included teaming up with Quad-City area environmentalist Chad Pregracke's Living Lands and Waters organization. To date, the program has distributed 30,000 trees through the One Million Trees effort.
"As an old Boy Scout, the famous saying is 'Be prepared.' But I say not only 'Be prepared, but act,' " Schier added. "By 2030, we hope to make the Rock River the cleanest tributary to the Mississippi."