The Kankakee River Basin drains 2989 sq. mi. (square miles) in northwest Indiana, 2169 sq. mi. in northeast Illinois,and about 7 sq. mi. in southwest Lower Michigan (figure 1). The Kankakee River heads near South Bend, then flows westward into Illinois, where it joins with the Des Plaines River to form the Illinois River. The area of Lake County which originally drained to Lake Michigan but now drains by means of artificial diversion to the Illinois River is not considered to be part of the Kankakee River Basin study region. Although the Kankakee River basin includes portions of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan, the discussion below will focus on the Indiana portion of the basin.
KANKAKEE OUTWASH AND LACUSTRINE PLAIN A large sandy and poorly drained plain, the Kankakee Outwash and Lacustrine Plain, comprises approximately the southern quarter of both Lake and Porter Counties and is the most recent of the three land scape regions to face the pressures of impending urbanization. Large portions of the area were once marshland associated with the meandering Kankakee River, which, for 8 or 9 months of the year, was flanked on both sides by wetlands. The marsh area was 3 or 4 miles wide and contained water 1 to 4 feet deep (Meyer, 1935). The low marshland was broken by infrequent islands of sand blown into dunes. The sand islands were the sites of Indian encampments and later of pioneer homes. The Kankakee marsh was an effective barrier to early southerly exploration of both counties, but the area has been progressively drained by ditches constructed during the past 60 years.
Outwash deposits occur primarily along the northern border of the basin. The southern half of the Kankakee Basin, south of the main river channel is characterized by the fine grained sediments that are wind driven, forming a series of broad eolian sand dunes and ridges. These are of moderate height. Lacustrine silts and clays are mixed with the various water bourne and winde driven deposits throughout the basin.
The Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service contains current data for river depths.
Contrary to what may be shown in online mapping sites or GPS software, the bridge over the Kankakee River on State Line Road near the public ramp at the Indiana/Illinois state line is closed and partially dismantled. Some fishing maps and websites about the river may include road directions to the public ramp at the state line, with outdated information. The public ramp is located on the north side of the river, and with the bridge out, it is not accessible from the south side, from Illinois Rt. 114 / Indiana Rt. 10.
As of September 7th, 2008 the old iron bridge at the IL/IN state line had been removed from it's concrete supports and was set on the ground, only clearing the water by approximately 3 feet, making it possible to pass beneath only in small boats, canoes, etc.
For more information about this bridge, see State Line Bridge Debate
Up through the early 19th century, the river furnished an important water transportation route through the Illinois Country for both Native Americans and early European settlers, notably French fur trappers. The headwaters of the river near present-day South Bend allowed a portage to the St. Joseph River, which drains into Lake Michigan, as well as furnishing a subsequent portage to the Lake Erie watershed. The Kankakee thus was part of an inland canoe route connecting the Great Lakes to Illinois River and subsequently to the Mississippi River.
Until the end of the 19th century, the river was nearly 240 mi (384 km) long, flowing in highly meandering course through a vast complex of wetlands surrounding the river that were known as the "Great Kankakee Swamp." Encompassing 5,300 sq mi (14,000 km²), they were one of the largest marsh wetlands in the United States. Starting in the late 19th century much of the basin of wetlands was drained to create cultivated cropland. The upper river was also highly channelized with levees to allow easier transport of cut timber from the wetlands to saw mills downstream in Illinois. The channelization aided in the desiccation of the surrounding wetlands and reduced the river to less than half of its original length. Of the original swamp, only 30,000 acres (120 km²) remain, comprising approximately one percent of the original area. The channelization of the river has rendered it especially prone to flooding. Starting in the 1980s, federal and state efforts have attempted to restore part of the original floodplain of the river through strategic widening of the levees.
The river remains a popular destination for recreational canoeing and fishing for warm-water species. Kankakee River State Park is located along the river northwest of Kankakee, Illinois. The 4095-acre Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area is located in Indiana.