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     July 29, 2020      #23-211 a2z

Logjam on Kankakee River at state line

By Jeff Bonty

In June 2018, Illinois Conservation Police officers John Farber and Matt Anderson led the effort to retrieve the body of a Chicago man who drowned in a boating accident in the Kankakee River about 30 yards west of the State Line Bridge on the Illinois-Indiana border.

The victim, Mike Stefano, his dog Buster and friend John Hubona, of Grant Park, were thrown into the river after the boat they were in capsized when it hit a massive logjam near the opening to a lengthy backwater trail of the river.

Hubona was rescued. Stefano and Buster went under and became tangled in the logjam.

Farber and Anderson worked 13 days taking apart the mangled mass of dead trees that were covered in thick vegetation.

A year later, after a significant amount was removed, the logjam was back to 25 feet wide and 25 feet in depth.

“That was packed in tight,” Farber recalled last week, as he gave a tour of the river and logjam along with Conservation Police Officer Brian Elliott.

“We dismantled about half of it before we recovered the body.”

Farber said they cleared a portion on the south side of the jam that rests on an island. In order to use the flow to take logjam debris down stream.

“We worked for eight hours. We’d come through the backwaters. We had to clear the debris when we left each night,” Farber recalled.

Last year in June, the river was high and the current swift. Divers could not be used since the current was 13 knots.

Sonar provided by Dennis Wyllie verified the location of Stefano’s body.

Kankakee County Sheriff’s Patrol Commander Chad Gessner has a wealth of knowledge about the river since he was a member of the now defunct Kankakee County River Patrol and ran the county’s Emergency Management Agency for several years.

“That jam causes a problem when the river floods,” Gessner said. “And now, it has caused a drowning.”

Anthony “Tony” Wilkas said he has helped pull 10 to 15 people out of the river in that area over several decades. He owns land on both sides of the river. Land that has been in his family for a few generations.

His mom, the late Sophie L. Wilkas ran the Lazy Livin’ Campgrounds and Resort along with Tony’s dad, John, for many years.

Tony Wilkas said he can remember as a kid the logjam was further down the backwater channel. He said the current logjam has been in place for 30 years.

This past spring, Wilkas took pictures of a water crane that cleared trees from the Indiana side of the river, including the State Line Bridge.

Farber credits Momence Fire Chief Jim Spoon and his department for assistance, as well as Kankakee County Coroner Bob Gessner and Chad Gessner, of the Kankakee County Sheriff’s Department, with lending help and resources during the recovery.

Farber said Thomas Cotton, St. Anne Township road commissioner, offered equipment to remove the logjam to help in the recovery. A day before the equipment was to be used, Stefano’s body was recovered.

Chad Gessner was in charge of the county’s Emergency Management Agency before being promoted to patrol commander.

He knows it will take a group effort to remove the logjam and clear the river that runs 90 miles through northwest Indiana near South Bend to where the Des Plaines and Kankakee Rivers converge into the Illinois River.

Funding is the hurdle to overcome.

“Who’s going to do it. That’s the million dollar question,” Gessner said.

In June, State Sen. Patrick Joyce, D-Essex, announced he secured $7 million of state construction money through the Rebuild Illinois program and will dedicate all of those funds to aiding the river in terms of dealing with its vast sedimentation issue, which has led to greater issues of flooding.

The funding is likely to be delivered in one to two years. Dredging the river is at the top of the list.

Gessner said maybe some of the funding can be used to clear the logjam, as well as other areas on the river in the eastern part of the county of other fallen trees.

It could even fund a return of the river patrol, which helped clear jams among its duties. Along with the state’s Department of Natural Resources, they could identify locations along the river to be careful, using a buoy system.

Gessner said action needs to be taken soon.

“Time is ticking away,” he said.

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Jeff Bonty
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