Navigatable river or tresspassing?

I have a river nearby which I would like to paddle down. The river has good flow now(seasonal)and I could stay in the boat with out a portage. I was informed that it would be trespassing if a land owner did not want me on the river. What rights and responsibilities do I have? Is each state different? I live in Illinois.

IL navagability rules are better than a
lot of states. The waterways are open to the public, but accesses, fences, livestock,etc. are to be respected as private property. If there’s water year round, then it’s a question of how to access it. Parking, putting in and taking out require permission from whomever owns or controls the property. The Illinois Paddling Council has more specific info.

Where are you in IL?

Just do it.
You can waste half your life wondering whether you’re allowed to do something. Just do it.

There are some things which, by their very nature, cannot be owned. Like people… and rivers.

With a little research…
In your home state, find the definition of “navigable” and “river” vs. creek

Currently in PA there is an ongoing debate, litigation concerning the Little Juniata River. I believe in PA the distinction between river and creek has to do with length and area of watershed.

The dispute has to do with land ownership and the definition of “navigable”.

Check it out at your home, there can be ramifications that affect state-wide policy.



Definitions vary
I think I recall reading a water boundary text once that stated that Alabama or Mississippi defined “navigable” as anywhere you could float a toothpick at high tide. I doubt that the courts support that definition any more. However, the laws vary by state and with a little research you should be able to make an educated guess as to whether or not it is navigable. If not, paddle it quietly, respect the adjoining properties by staying in the boat, and see what happens. If you are really concerned or stressed about it, then it isn’t worth the trouble, paddle somewhere else.

I recommend
checking your states website for common laws. Tresspass laws vary from state to state so that is your best source.

Guerilla Paddling in Illinois
The book, “Guerilla Paddling in Illinois” is finally available! If you missed

the authors’ talks at Chicagoland Canoe Base and Canoecopia this past winter,

you missed a gem – but now you can buy the book. It’s not on any web sites

that I’ve seen yet, but you can call Chicagoland Canoe Base (773/777-1489) and

order it by phone. They have a limited number of signed first edition copies


or ya can go
camo like some of us do. They can’t catch what they can’t see.

EXACTLY!! Paddle camo at night &…
Camp during the day…

Paddle easy,


Keep hittin’ those lawbooks, guys!
You’ll get all worried and fearful, while I’m out on the rivers.

Why should a landowner have more protection for the water-street running past his place than I have for the suburban street that runs past my place? If I can’t stop him from going by, why should he be able to stop me?

I’m all for protecting landowners, including myself, but freedom of roads and rivers is a libertarian privilege.

Landowners are reacting to a
litigious society. Somebody injures themselves on your land and sues you. Even if the land is posted, you have to take your time and money to deal with it.

If you have fences and livestock, a lot can go wrong. The landowner is liable if the livestock get out and cause injury or property damage. And it’s no fun for a father to have to tell his daughter that her horse was let out and got killed on the road.

Many property owners will give written permission for you to use their land for access if you approach them in a polite and friendly manner. It helps to have some release/permission forms so that they don’t have to wing it. Making arrangements in advance is usually appreciated. Being a good ambassador for paddlesport may help access issues in the future.

As far as no one owning a river…the property owner pays taxes and property with water is priced at a premium. They are also responsible for maintaining the raparian area according to state and federal laws. People who fish and party are usually the biggest problem, but if someone sees paddlers’ vehicles parked and people on the property, they may think that anyone is welcome.

I know the guys who put together the “Guerilla Paddling in Illinois” book. They’re considerate people. They don’t cut fences and abuse property owners. They’re expert paddlers who are extremely careful about the river environment. They are also active in access issues. Good ambassadors.

Go here and read all of it:

– Last Updated: Jun-25-04 1:49 AM EST –

Basically, if you can paddle a canoe or raft on it, it is deemed navigable and therefore in the public's trust by federal law. You also have right to use (walk on, take a break on) the bank of any river *but* only up to it's high water mark (which may not be very much). Always check with property owners before crossing private land. States are required to provide some sort of access to/from rivers but that's not always the case (or more likely, there's access to the river but it's no where near you!). You are allowed to get to a river from public roads (bridges), and landowners are not allowed to block access at these points.

I live next to a lake (actually a dammed reservoir) that has a small waterpark that has leased Corp of Engineers land. I still have every right to paddle right up to their land or paddle up and watch their skiing exhibitions, lake side concerts, etc if I really wanted to.

I might add that even if a person's deed says they own to the middle of the river, they really don't. Unless the person has owned the land since before statehood (a little unlikely), then he doesn't own to the middle of the river.

not true

– Last Updated: Jun-25-04 6:52 AM EST –

many navigability lawas in the U.S. are handeled on a state by state basis. The term commerce has a flexible meaning as well. In some cases, it may allow you to use a cane or kayak, in others it refers to actually commerce that resulted from larger vessels making their way to market. In some cases the landowner owns the river bank and riverbed. In some cases the state owns teh river bed to the high water mark.

So, before giving out blanket info, it is sometimes helpful to actually look up th e laws.


In Illinois, the list of navigable streams consists mostly of those streams that were shown by “meander lines” on maps created by government surveys conducted during the latter 1800’s and the early 1900’s. The state owns the title of the streambeds of meandered streams and ponds in trust for the people. Consequently, the public can use these bodies of water for fishing and boating, although it is unclear whether the Illinois public trust includes the right of portage.

State Test of Navigability: illinois

Navigable waters open to the public in Illinois include those waters navigable in fact.[1] If a navigable in fact streambed is privately owned (most streams navigable in fact are owned and held in trust by the state), the stream will be subject to a public easement of navigation.[2] Illinois’s “navigable in fact” test is applied in a manner similar to the federal title test, under which a stream is navigable if, in its ordinary condition, it furnishes a highway over which useful commerce is capable of being carried in the customary modes.[3]

Additionally, the beds of streams and lakes shown on maps made by the federal government during various surveys conducted during the late 1800s and early 1900s are also held in trust for the people, whether they are navigable in fact or not.[4] In applying the federal test, the courts will usually look to see whether a stream was meandered.[5] Where a stream was not meandered or declared navigable in the surveys, the courts are reluctant to make a finding to the contrary.[6]

Extent of Public Rights in Navigable & Non-navigable Rivers

The public has the right to recreate on waters over state owned streambeds.[7] This includes “boating, fishing, and the like.”[8] If a streambed is privately owned but the stream is navigable in fact, the public easement is limited to navigation, and does not include hunting and fishing.[9] It is unclear whether activities incident to navigation, such as portaging, are allowed under Illinois’ public trust doctrine, but portaging is probably permissible in many navigable streams because the federal navigation servitude should apply to these streams.


Criminal trespass on private land is a class B misdemeanor and occurs where notice has been given indicating that entry is forbidden.[10]

Now, if it was me, I would do it anyway and if I got caught, take the ticket. Fight the hell out of it and try to force the issue.

Is it a River or a ditch that is normally dry that is now swelled with rain fall? If its that latter then its not governed by the Ryparian laws!

I don’t quite
see the difference between the info you posted specific to Illinois and the link I posted. The state does own the title of the riverbed and bank ‘in trust’ for the people. If someone actually were to own a small stream/river/creek, and if it were navigable, then there is still a public right-of-way easement because of that fact.

The main thing that is determined by states is what is considered ‘navigable’, and even then, it is usually pretty vague. Also, if you plan to fish or hunt, you definitely want to dive deeper into your local law.

Thanks for this post.

– Last Updated: Jun-25-04 11:26 AM EST –

The dispute is usually over what is a meandered or navigable stream. When deciding to paddle or not to paddle, a person should consider how much trouble they want to deal with. Court costs time and money. Property owners may resort to letting air out of tires or may be friends with the local law. In MO, when I was looking down the barrel of a shotgun, I didn't argue that I was below the high water mark. I left.

Thanks, joemess for posting the American Whitewater site and summary. They have done some of the best work in this area.

Hey Pamskee
Where in MO did you have a problem? Never had one myself but 90% of my paddling is on just a few rivers. I’d like to know where I need to “Watch out!” WW

from reading the IL
law, you need to find out if the stream you are paddling has been declared navigable by the state of IL. If so you may opaddle it. If it is deemed meandering you may not, if it is private.

Terry, It was the Jack’s Fork. 1974.
The rivers were just designated as NSR in 1968 (I think)Some of the locals were not amused. We had a few less than friendly encounters in the 4 1/2 yrs I was with the college, but generally everyone was very hospitable.

I took the hubby back to my favorite river (the Current)in Sept 2001. We had a great time, but boy howdy was it different! Plus, the river was a foot lower than normal for that time of year and the floods in the 90s had rearranged a lot of stuff. Still a great river and the DNR treated us very well.

Hope you’re recovering well. Still want to paddle with you guys.

the differance is,
your post was a blanket hey go out and do it, it is the same state to state…

My point is that it is state by state and if you are not careful, you an end up in court. If you end up in court and fight it and win, great, if you end up in court and lose, you add one more example to as to why not allow access in the future. Each state deems what is and what isn’t navigable. And it is best to check local laws and regs. Example. Green river in N.C. deemed NOT navigable by N.C. law. Hundreds of boaters go down it every day. Much of the land is private and tresspss can be an issue. Yes, this is a WW run, but the law is the law as far as river use.