Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi and other Natural Wonders

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Minnesota Museum of the Mississippi and other Natural Wonders

Chicago River Expedition - Monday, September 3, 2001

A trip down the North Branch of the Chicago River from Foster Avenue to Lake Michigan, by kayak and bicycle.

We begin our journey at the confluence of the North Branch and the North Shore Channel near Foster. There is a River Park here where the North Branch flows over an artificial waterfall or dam built 10 years or so ago to help aerate the water and improve the lives of the poor fish that live here. South of the dam there is a rough gravel bank which will suffice as a boat landing.

Its a fine morning in the park and the elaborate soccer tournaments have already begun for the day. We unload the Workhorse bike, pulling the rolled up boat from its milk crate on the back of the bike and the collapsed paddles and life vest from the extra baskets and racks. Inflating the boat with a foot pump always draws attention from the anglers who sit along the wall across the river near the dam. But quickly we have the boat ready to go, paddles snapped together and set. Since we have only one boat and two bicycles, Sue will paddle the first stretch, I'll lock the Workhorse to a tree in the park, and follow along downstream on her bike.

This first part of our journey is the most wild and "natural." The river flows through quiet neighborhoods with private boat docks and wooded backyards right up to the banks. This is where you'll be most likely to see wildlife, lots of mallard ducks (why are mallards in Chicago so frightened of people that you can't get within 50 feet of them?) and perhaps a wood duck, squirrels and possibly possums and skunks. There may be beavers living in the banks, but earlier this spring, when canoeists coming upstream reported a beaver up ahead, I found only a woodchuck busily rooting around in the grass.

Despite all the natural activity along this section of river, we are still in Chicago. The riverbed has been straightened, re-routed, dredged and channelized from its natural meanderings. The photo above shows the actual dull grey/green color of the river. And you need to be alert for the occasional speedboats-on-steroids that come roaring up the channel with crashing wakes in tow. In places strange tunnels protrude from the banks, but a few feet inside the tunnel, the entrances to these underground worlds are sealed with wooden doors. I was a little nervous about paddling near the doors, but you needn't worry about being sucked in: there is no inflow or outflow from these tunnels, at least during fair weather when we visited.

There are few boat landings along the North Branch, but at Berteau Avenue, next to the boatyard, there is a fine landing built by the Riverbank Neighbors. At the landing, a sign explains well the character of this section of the river:

"Our Strange River"

"The channelized, man-handled Chicago / Illinois river system is an anomaly that defies description or comparison to a natural watershed stream. To speak of restoring the system to a natural ecology goes beyond what is possible. The north shore channel has no natural catchment area. Its watershed, its "headwaters," are located in the toilets, sink drains and gutters of a million urban homes. These waters carry their load of dissolved and suspended nutrients into the venous system of sewer trunklines and arrive at the system's "wetlands," its kidneys, the water reclamation plant at Howard Street in Skokie. There, much of the nutrient load is removed and de-toxed. What's left is poured into the channel and comprises the main source of water and current in the North Channel. Upstream of the treatment plant, the channel waters are in a no-flow, or linear lake condition unless water is added by opening the sluice gates in Wilmette to allow lake water to flush the system."

Well, I didn't tell Sue about the source of the water she was paddling in until after we were out of the water for the day. We met again at the next boat landing, in Clark Park behind Lane Tech High School.

Here, at the landing, Chicago River Canoe and Kayak had set up a tent in the grass for boat rentals. A group of novice kayakers got an quick lesson in paddling and pushed their boats out into the water. While all the kayaks headed north for a relaxing nature tour, Sue landed the Red Rat against the boulders and after we traded places, I pushed off to continue our expedition south. From here on the river would change. No more quiet tree-lined banks to creep along looking for birds. No more friendly neighbors greeting the lone boaters from their backyard decks. No more neighborhood parks or boat landings. From here south the river would become more and more industrial in character, with barges and factories and iron walls lining the banks.

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Copyright 2001 Matt Bergstrom.