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The Kankakee River is a tributary of the Illinois River, approximately 90 mi (144 km) long, in northwestern Indiana and northeastern Illinois in the United States. At one time the river drained one of the largest wetlands in North America and furnished a significant portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. Significantly altered from its original channel, it flows through a primarily rural farming region of reclaimed cropland south of Lake Michigan.
It rises in northwestern Indiana, approximately 5 mi (8 km) southwest of South Bend. It flows in straight channelized course southwest, through rural northwestern Indiana, past South Center and English Lake , curving west to enter Kankakee County in northwestern Illinois. Approximately 3 mi (5 km) southeast of the city of Kankakee it receives the Iroquois River from the south and turns sharply to the northwest for its lower 35 mi (56 km). It joins the Des Plaines River from the south to form the Illinois, approximately 50 mi (80 km) southwest of Chicago.
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 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. Kankakee River State Park is located along the river northwest of Kankakee, Illinois.
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