Tales of a Vanishing River
Library of Alexandria
Somewhere in a large swampland, about fifty miles east of the southern end of Lake Michigan, the early French explorers found the beginning of the river. A thread-like current crept through a maze of oozy depressions, quagmires, seeping bogs and little pools, among patches of sodden brush, alders and rank grass. With many intricate windings, the vagrant waters, swollen by numberless springs and rivulets, emerged from the tangled morass, became a living stream, and began its long and tortuous journey toward the southwest, finally to be lost in the immensity of unknown floods beyond. The explorers called the stream the Theakiki. In the changing nomenclature of succeeding years it became the Kankakee. It was the main confluent of the Illinois, and one of the first highways of the white man to the Mississippi. The crude topographic charts of the early voyagers on the river naturally differ much in detail and accuracy, but, in comparing them with our modern maps, we wonder at their keen observation and the painstaking use of their limited facilities. The annals of their journeys are replete with description, legend, romance, disheartening hardship, and unremitting battle at the barriers of nature against her would-be conquerors. The name of LaSalle, that resplendent figure in the exploration of the west, will be forever associated with the Kankakee. There are few pages of historic lore more absorbing and thrilling to the admirer of unflinching fortitude and dauntless heroism than the dramatic story of this knight errant of France, and his intrepid followers. Among the woods and waters, and on the desolate frozen wastes of a strange land, they found paths that led to imperishable renown. They were avant-coureurs of a new force that was to transform a wilderness into an empire, but an empire far different from that of their hopes and dreams. LaSalle’s little band had ascended the St. Joseph, and had portaged their belongings from one of its bends about five miles away. They launched their canoes on the narrow tide of the Theakiki and descended the river to the Illinois. The incentives of the expedition were to expand the dominions of Louis the XIV, to extend the pale of the cross, and to find new fountains that would pour forth gold. For gold and power man has scarred the earth he lives upon and annihilated its creatures since the dawn of recorded time, and for gold and power will he struggle to the end, whatever and wherever the end may be, for somewhere in the scheme of creation it is so written. The moralist may find the story on the Vanishing River, as he may find it everywhere else in the world, in his study of the fabric of the foibles and passions of his kind. The old narratives mention a camp of Miami Indians, visible near the source of the river, at the time of LaSalle’s embarkation. We may imagine that curious beady eyes peered from the clustered wigwams in the distance upon the newcomers, the wondering aborigines little knowing that a serpent had entered their Eden, and thenceforth their race was to look only upon a setting sun. The river flowed through a mystic land. With magnificent sweeps and bends it wound out on open fertile areas and into dense virgin forests, doubling to and fro in its course, widening into broad lakes, and moving on to vast labyrinths of dank grass, rushes, lily pads, trembling bogs and impenetrable brush tangles. The main channel often lost itself in the side currents and in mazes of rank vegetation. Here and there were little still tarns and open pools that reflected the wandering clouds by day and the changing moons at night.