Good Times on the Illinois River

“Bring a towel, a pillow, and a blanket” were my only instructions as I plugged a new address into my iPhone maps. Packing light, I headed north to the Illinois River for a 4th of July celebration with my friend Shannen and her family. 

I’ve always heard about a beautiful stretch of the Illinois that meanders through a small part of northeastern Oklahoma. But somehow, in all these years, I have never taken the opportunity to visit it.

I followed a winding road through small towns, past green acres of farmland, and into a densely wooded area. As the blue line on my iPhone took me farther and farther from civilization, waving evergreens and wooded hillsides reminded me of Colorado.

Eventually, I started passing canoe rental shops and hand-painted signs advertising the notorious “float trips”, for which the Illinois River is known. Old school buses and church vans, repainted in rainbow colors, retrieved sunburned and weary river-rafters and kayakers along the road.

I knew I was getting close. I rolled the windows down and turned up the radio. Country music was the only option, and it was perfect.

When I arrived at “camp”, I was amazed! My version of camping involves taking a hike in the woods, and pitching a tent, bathing in a creek (or not at all), and using nature’s bathroom facilities (i.e. squatting behind a tree). 

Shannen’s family’s style of camping is next level! The dwelling in the forest was equipped with a general store, a huge (and clean) shower/bathroom facility, and tents and campers galore. (Not just “campers” as in people who go camping… “Campers”, as in the big fancy RV things!) 

I wish I had taken some pictures of camp.

I was greeted by a large group of smiling faces and handed a cold beer. A few were familiar, but there were several new faces. Hugs and handshakes went around, and I knew I was in great company. Shannen’s folk are the type of people who have never met a stranger. Within minutes, I knew everybody’s name and we were carrying on like old friends. In their years of camping, Shannen’s crew has befriend another family with a camper, and now they coordinate their camping trips together around holidays and special occasions. 

Between the two groups, they have thought of just about everything!

They had large awnings for shade, picnic tables, fans that provided a constant breeze, grills, griddles, deep fryers, refrigerators, freezers, comfy chairs and a fabulous array of food and drink. And this was all outside! We were not just camping, we were glamping. What joy! (Glamping = glamorous camping).

I was stepping into a foreign world, and I had about a hundred questions to ask. My hosts graciously answered all my queries: ranging from – How does the toilet work/where does it all go? To – does a camper run from electricity or gas? Does it stay warm in the winter? It was all exciting to me! Ah, the thrill of a new experience. 

The interiors of the campers were equally impressive. I was fascinated by how cleverly designed they were: sleek yet charming and cozy, with maximum utility of space. Nearly everywhere I looked, there was a smart-looking trapdoor that folded into a table, a bed or a storage bin. There were 10 of us in the group, and everyone had a bed to sleep on. 

The first evening, we floated down a stretch of the river in massive inner-tubes. One of the gals even had a blow-up float that attached to tote an ice chest! (Like I said: they’ve thought of everything!) Dawned with cowboy hats, bandannas, and star-spangled American spirit, we sipped our beers and enjoyed the simple life. As the sky darkened, we headed back to camp for a good ol’ fashioned 4th of July cookout with hamburgers, hotdogs, and the works. We watched the sky fill with fireworks and sang a couple of patriotic tunes. It felt great to be an American.

The next morning, we woke up early to find Shannen’s mom, Brenda, cooking blueberry pancakes on the griddle. We stuffed ourselves to maximum capacity, loaded up in pickup trucks and headed back down to the river for a day of kayaking. 

I’m so grateful that I got to share the holiday weekend with such fine folks. Their warm hearts and friendly spirits truly embodied “southern hospitality.”

(P.s. It’ll be hard to go back to roughing it in a tent after a camping experience as great as this one!)

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