THIS ARTICLE SAYS A LOT ABOUT THE CHAIN OF LAKES BOATING EXPERIENCE
Chuck it all on the Chain Loving the laid-back life in the Key West of the Midwest
Robert McCoppin, Daily Herald Staff Writer
When a restaurant owner on Fox Lake complained about customers coming in with ripped shirts and shorts, boater Andy Schneider of McHenry told him he shouldn't be surprised. "If you want suits, go to Lake Geneva," Schneider said. "This ain't Lake Geneva. This is the Chain."
That's the Chain, as in Chain O' Lakes - a watery playground with a laid-back, Jimmy Buffett party vibe that makes it in some ways the Key West of the Midwest. The Chain's 450 miles of shore are lined with open-air bars, classy restaurants, marinas and mansions, in a crazy jumble next to dive taverns, boat-through hot dog stands, minnow-eating drinking clubs and summer shacks.
Frolickers on the Chain range from families with kids to couples in love and singles on the prowl. On a sun-drenched afternoon, young men roar across the water in a giant motor boat, while a party girl dances on a deck with a cobalt-blue drink in one hand, a smoke in the other and a floral tattoo peeking out of her bikini. Barflies tell tales about the history of the lakes. Crusty old men getting off boats holler to their biker friends across a gravel parking lot, calling each other "sluts" just to get each other's attention. Far off in a quiet, shaded channel, a fisherman grumbles about the boaters, while bow hunters silently practice their archery in the nearby woods.
If you like an old-school, no-frills attitude toward fun in the sun, life on the Chain O' Lakes is a hoot. It's about as far as you can get from the daily grind in Chicago, while staying comfortably in the suburbs' own backyard. That's why 65-year-old Mary Ann Bobek, of Southwest suburban Crest Hill, has been visiting the lakes regularly since she was a child in 1944. The welcoming atmosphere is also why she chose a local bar, Bootlegger's, as the site for her upcoming wedding, to a gentleman she introduced to the area, who fell in love with both her and the surroundings. "You never find a sour face here," Bobek said, sitting at the bar with her man, sipping a tropical drink she couldn't identify. "Nobody brings their work problems here. Everybody's here to let loose and have fun."
The Chain forms a Rorschach ink blot of 10 major lakes linked by channels and locks, running from the Wisconsin border to the Fox River in Lake and McHenry counties. Its central crossroads are Rand Road (Route 12) and Grand Avenue (Route 132) in Fox Lake. With 7,100 acres of water, it's the largest water system in Chicago's metro area outside of Lake Michigan. Yet with some 28,000 registered boaters annually, traffic jams at canals sometimes resemble the Northwest Toll way at rush hour.
Don't expect quiet seclusion on the weekends. But if you're looking for a place on the water that offers boating, skiing, fishing, camping or horseback-riding, the Chain has all kinds of action. With summer weather upon us, regulars offer their tips for letting loose on the Chain O' Lakes.
Get on the water
John Barbeau has advice for anyone boating on the Chain O' Lakes. "You need oars," he said, with the wisdom of experience. His speed boat recently broke down and he had to paddle it in 100 yards or so, until he thought his arms would fall off. After getting his craft repaired, Barbeau was back on the water with a friend, drinking at Famous Freddie's Roadhouse & BBQ, wearing his gold-framed sunglasses, joking with strangers and doing his best Elvis impersonation. "It's like another life out here," he said with a wide smile. "One thing about the water is, everyone is friendly. It doesn't matter if you own a $400,000 boat or $1,000 one, everyone waves and high-fives." In fact, Barbeau got his boat for $1,000. It's not as flashy as some, but he can water-ski on it and cruise most of the Chain in a couple of hours. For those who have their own boats, there are several marinas where they can launch. Fees range from $20 at Ben Watts Marina, where workers boast they can handle even the biggest boats, to the Chain O' Lakes State Park, where the boat ramp is free and very busy.
For visitors who just want to try boating life, head to Jet Funn on Fox Lake, which rents gleaming new 18-foot long, six-seat power boats for $260 for a half-day, or $420 for the day. The 190- horsepower boats can pull water skiers or tubers. Jet Funn also rents Wave Runners, pontoon boats and other watercraft.
For a big group, like a bachelor or bachelorette party, head to Famous Freddie's and ride the Love Boat, which offers a two-hour open bar and food for $35 per person.
Outfitters like Barnacle Bob's on Lake Marie in Antioch and the state park rent out fishing boats, canoes and other water craft. To get away from the power boats, stick to 44-acre Turner Lake in the park, where only trolling motors are allowed, or head for the smaller, more remote lakes.
All boats on the Chain require a user sticker available through the Fox Waterway Agency, the park or marinas.
The Chain offers no end of options for drinking and eating. For a classy outdoor meal, try Joey T's in McHenry, an Italian steakhouse that offers carpet-lined docks, lush gardens, fountains, a waterfront bar, and a secluded, shaded patio. A gold-and-blue macaw named Guido might fly onto your arm to welcome you and add a little character to the place. For something more informal, try Big Al's Dog House on the water near Grass Lake Road in Fox Lake, or order a pizza delivered to your boat from Moretti's Ristorante & Pizzeria in Fox Lake.
If you work up a thirst, Blarney Island on Grass Lake draws hundreds of boaters to drink, eat, dance and hear live bands. Its motto is "Beer, Boats & Babes," and it holds special events like "Pimps & Ho's" night and Thursday night boat races. (See our story on Blarney Island Friday in Time out!). For a more exclusive club, head to the Aquarium, on Nippersink Lake, where patrons can join a drinking club by downing minnows with shots. The story goes that the custom got started when a group of fishermen who came in without a catch started eating their bait on a dare.
Or, skip the bars altogether, bring a cooler, and anchor your boat near a sandbar like the one in Petite Lake, where hundreds of boaters gather to wade and mingle in shallow water. Just don't drink too much and drive. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Lake County Sheriff regularly board boats for inspection and arrest drunk drivers.
Greg Guntharp, 31, of Antioch, grew up in the area, and recalled that the Chain was originally popularized by people who came for the fishing and hunting. Now, Guntharp doesn't fish the Chain, because the traffic makes it so busy and choppy. "Now it's turning over to newcomers," he said. "This used to be a small town but now it's one big neighborhood north of Chicago. Traffic, taxes, everything's going through the roof." Still, fishermen can find a refuge on the Chain on weekdays, particularly in the early morning and late evening, and in the smaller lakes and channels, often farther north. On a secluded channel near Grass Lake, Leonid Formanyuk, an immigrant from Ukraine, reeled in a pan fish and tossed it in the tall grass, where its dying thrashes rustled the leaves as Formanyuk put another worm on the hook. Across the channel, swans floated by with their ducklings. A single boat cruised past. Formanyuk fishes here regularly, saying the water seems cleaner than in the lake and the fish smell better. Despite heavy fishing, bass, bluegill, catfish, crappie, muskies, northern pike, walleye and more can still be found in the Chain's waters.
Not far from the water, on an archery range in the state park, three young men are using hunting bows to shoot arrows into hay bales. With a rush like a sharp draw of breath, the arrows suddenly appear in their targets, almost faster than the eye can follow. Alvaro Lopez, of Chicago, said he and his friends come to the park in the fall to hunt deer, turkey and pheasant. Registered hunters can shoot rabbit, squirrel, ducks and doves. Fox, coyote, beavers and badgers also roam the region.
In another area of the park, amid rolling, grassy meadows and forested hills, families picnic, hike, bike or horseback ride on trails. Campsites offer toilets, showers, and electricity, plus a group campground for youths. The park even offers three simply furnished cabins for rent, for $45 a night, and for novice campers, a site that includes a tent, cots, grill and picnic table.
Despite protected areas in the state park, the Chain has been changing rapidly. Created by melting glaciers 10,000 years ago, the lakes were once home to Algonquin Indians who hunted and fished on its shores. After white settlers took over, the Chain took off as a resort in 1901 when a railroad stop near Fox Lake brought visitors from Chicago. With lax law enforcement during Prohibition, resorts like the Manning Hotel thrived, until three gangsters were shot dead there during a beer war in 1930. A vestige of that resort past remains in the landmark Mineola Hotel and Restaurant in Fox Lake, which still displays what proprietors say is Al Capone's hat in the lobby.
Still, much has changed since that early heyday. When John Steitz's grandfather opened Steitz Restaurant on Bluff Lake in 1938, it was a remote sportsman's cabin in the woods. Now, Steitz is a complex with its own marina, boat repair and RV park. Next door, condos are close enough to hear the residents talking on their porch. Metra trains still carry commuters from Chicago, but many now live on the Chain and work in the city, coming back every evening to their refuge by the lake.
The changes are both a blessing and a curse to Steitz, who loves to hunt and fish and even does a little trapping. He's teaching his children his pastimes, and hopes they'll one day take over the restaurant. Steitz gets riled up when new residents complain about duck- hunting on the lakes in the fall. But he knows all the development is good for business. This winter, for the first time, instead of shutting down much of the week, he'll maintain his summer hours. "Now we'll go year-round," he said. "It's 'cause of all the new neighbors."