Leave Your Engine at Home

Photo by Michael Kleen

Winter has me feeling nostalgic for the halcyon days of summer, when my dad and I would make the long drive up to the Chain O’ Lakes in Northern Illinois to rent a rowboat and go fishing.

The Chain O’ Lakes, including Fox Lake, Grass Lake, Lake Marie, and Channel Lake, near Antioch, has offered summer visitors a unique blend of sporting and entertainment since the late nineteenth century.

Possibly the most famous establishment on the Chain is Blarney Island, “Key West of the Midwest,” a bar located a mile offshore in Grass Lake, where over a decade worth of bras, hats, and business cards used to hang from the ceiling.

Blarney Island – June 2002

But the fond memories of my childhood lay a little to the east, at C.J. Smith Resort. Don’t let the name fool you, C.J. Smith’s is not much more than a boat rental near the shore of tiny Spring Lake that looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1950s. At least it hasn’t changed in my lifetime.

If you are looking to rent large, gas guzzling speedboats, look somewhere else. C.J. Smith’s offers only top quality 14’ and 16’ aluminum rowboats, with a 6, 8, or 15HP motor for an extra cost. Ditch the motor, in my opinion. The experience is much more rewarding if you row.

I first encountered C.J. Smith’s with my dad when I was about 9 or 10 years old. My dad was a child of the ‘50s, so I’m sure the boat rental was aesthetically appealing to him, and I’m convinced he believed rowing him around the lake while he cast lines was a kind of character strengthening exorcise for me.

My dad getting ready to cast outside CJ Smith’s, Summer 2009

I remember one particular day of rowing across Lake Marie when the wind, blowing the opposite direction, seemed to be carrying us backwards despite my best efforts. Stroke by stroke, we crept past the cabins and private beaches along the shore for what seemed like hours on our way back to the channel. Years later, drinking beer at Blarney Landing with my father, I felt satisfied that the boat launch we had just left behind looked exactly as I remembered it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Displaying my catch, Summer 2009

Those quiet days on Bluff Lake or Lake Marie, docking at the Flamingo Lounge for a drink, dipping our lines in the water while my father told me about my grandfather’s old house on Lake Marie, are days I will never forget. Somehow I can’t imagine the memories being the same on the deck of a high powered jet boat or a yacht like the ones you see filling up the Chain O’ Lakes with their noise and gasoline fumes.

C.J. Smith Resort opened in 1929, and is located at 25315 W. Grass Lake Road in Antioch, Illinois. Besides renting boats, the Resort sells bait, tackle, food, and fishing licenses. According to their website, a fisherman once reeled in a 40-inch muskie right from their shore. On my last visit, my father and I caught two striped bass near a beaver lodge in Spring Lake. Hopefully, you will be as lucky.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

2 thoughts on “Leave Your Engine at Home”

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m trying to write about more personal things – I started to get into genealogy and it’s made me more aware of preserving some photos and memories from my own childhood.

  2. What sweet memories! Your recollection of summers at “the Key West of the Midwest” remind me of some of my own outings with my dad in northern Minnesota. Thank you, Michael.

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