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There’s lots to see on the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway

Early morning EmiquPreserve is special sight lower end Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

Early morning at Emiquon Preserve is a special sight on the lower end of the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 22, 2013 6:34AM



CANTON, Ill. — I left off last month leaving Peoria.

And I don’t mean in a symbolic sense.

Just that I separated out a two-day trip on the Illinois River Road National Scenic Byway into columns on the lower and upper ends.

I pick up with Ducks Unlimited biologist Eric Schenck, my guide for the byway, as he led me out of Peoria to new country.

Barreling down Route 24 on the west side of the Illinois River is a regular trip for me on visits to Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area for duck hunting or to Emiquon Preserve, the backwater restoration by The Nature Conservancy. The difference last month was swinging west, where Route 9 splits, to Canton.

We wound through Canton to the Canton Harvester Inn, a newly redone boutique hotel, to meet Dana Smith, Canton’s tourism and marketing person. She gave us a tour of the downtown square area, complete with its throwback Jones Park, murals from postcards on building walls (especially neat when lit at night) and the Tin Man-style water power.

Canton was once the home of International Harvester. When it went away three decades ago, Canton took a beating, like other small cities. But it is coming back, in part because of the late Bill Cook and his medical-device company.

‘‘We are doing great things while other small towns are floundering,’’ Smith said.

Part of that is connecting the past of the downtown square with the present. Old buildings are being restored to former glory, but they house boutique businesses such as the Sweet Shoppe, Alice Herrick’s local confectionery shop, and Bistro 101, which would fit nicely in Lincoln Park.

As we wrapped up the tour, Smith asked a question for ages: Is there some way to get the outdoors crowd (sightseers, bird-watchers, hunters) visiting the area to use Canton as a base? Would connecting with an outfitter do it?

It reminded me of the glory days of goose hunting in southern Illinois and how hotels sprang up along Interstate 57. In winter, camo-clad goose hunters lugging cased shotguns in hotel halls were as common as tired businessmen.

Considering her question takes more words than I have. But figuring it out is key to keeping tourism money in Illinois, rather than strewing it around surrounding states.

In the morning, Schenck and I helped band bluebills (a column last month), first swinging through Lewistown (Dickson Mounds Museum and fodder for Edgar Lee Masters’ classic Spoon River Anthology), then Havana, the southernmost point of the byway. Banding began at Emiquon, a project every right-thinking citizen should visit.

Steve Havera, the author of Waterfowl of Illinois and a senior professional scientist emeritus for the Illinois Natural History Survey, described the backwater restoration this way: ‘‘It is like a time capsule, better than if it had been attached to the river.’’

Time, past and present. That’s a swing down the byway and into Canton.

After Emiquon, it was across the river to Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, my first real visit. A bald eagle sat along a levee. As we drove, Havera pointed to where the ashes of late waterfowl expert Frank Bellrose were spread on the Chautauqua waters.

It was time.

Driving out of Chautauqua, I turned left and, in the spirit of the journey, began a twist of roads by instinct northeast, ending up on Manito blacktop and the familiar territory by Powerton Lake outside of Pekin.

I should’ve stopped at the last place Schenck recommended, Willett’s Winery and Cellar in Manito. Next time.

For byway information, go to illinoisriverroad.org.



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