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Along the Illinois River, life is a byway

The Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway mixes sights like Canton’s TMan-style water tower with wild scenes such as waterfowl

The Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway mixes sights like Canton’s Tin Man-style water tower with wild scenes such as waterfowl rising off Wightman Lake in Sparland (above). | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 23, 2013 8:27PM

ILLINOIS RIVER — I took the road I didn’t know.

For some reason, at the intersection of Pine Bluff Road and Route 47, instead of going north to take Interstate 80, I went straight and wandered back roads, some dirt, by the southern bluffs along the Illinois River.

It perfectly set up a tour of the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway.

The upper gateway is Ottawa. There’s a kiosk downtown at Lafayette and LaSalle, in the park north of the Abe Lincoln mural. Kiosks have maps and suggestions. Other gateways are Canton, Princeton, Peoria, Pekin and Havana.

Byway attractions are called waypoints, which come with street address and a latitude and longitude coordinate (for smart phones or GPS devices).

My trip began with driving west on Route 71 toward Starved Rock State Park. As I entered the park hills, a bald eagle flew low over the car, a good sign.

Most know Starved Rock, with more than a million visitors annually; I was married there and called my wife as I passed. The byway gives hundreds of options beyond Starved Rock along the river.

I crossed the Vermilion River, then drove south on Route 26 through Hennepin to one of my favorite wild spots in Illinois, the Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin and Hopper Lakes. After surveying the backwater restoration from the observation tower, I continued south along the river to Lacon to meet Ducks Unlimited biologist Eric Schenck, my guide for the lower end of the byway.

I had previously visited the Charles Perdew Museum in Henry, open Sunday afternoons beginning April 6. Perdew was a famous decoy maker.

We met at Julie’s Corner Store. For men, it’s the kind of place — knickknacks, fudge, flavored coffees, teas, wine tasting — that earns brownie points with your significant other. I bought a quarter pound of fudge for my wife.

Schenck first took me to Wightman Lake across the river in Sparland. The former DU site, now state-owned, is a unique wetlands restoration. The byway draws travelers to Wightman to learn about wetlands and restoration. Schenck was amazed by the nearly 100 people so far who have used the geocaching options of the byway.

Wightman is home to the decurrent false aster, a federally threatened species. Best to see it in August when it blooms (white with a purple cast).

There are 85 nature sites listed by the byway website. I’ve been to a few dozen of those listed, but I have notable misses, such as Wildlife Prairie State Park.

Hundreds of Canada geese and mallards lifted off as we walked Wightman. Schenck talked about how good wood duck habitat is similarly good habitat for promontory warblers.

Our next stop was at Chillicothe Bottoms, a new DU project on the edge of town. That’s unique, and a cooperative effort by DU and Audubon.

‘‘I think it’s a great partnership,’’ Schenck said. ‘‘Think of the economics of hunters and the economics of birdwatching.’’

Audubon members already have documented more than 125 bird species.

‘‘We are thinking of ducks, but we are also thinking of the social benefits,’’ he said.

That kind of nails the idea of the byway: combining the social benefits of the river towns and the natural areas along it.

We rushed through Peoria and the new Peoria Riverfront Museum, then to Canton.

It was time.

Another Sunday, we will tour Canton, a Downstate city on the comeback with hooks to the outdoors, and return with stops along the lower Illinois.

To plan a byway trip, go to

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