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.

Continuing south, I paddle out from the boat landing and head downstream. Across the river there appears to be remnants of a silted-in boat slip branching off from the river, but I set off along the left bank instead. Meanwhile, Sue is following the river by bicycle, exploring the dead-end streets, industrial warehouses and gated condo developments along the river. There are no paths or continuous riverside trails along the river after this point, so following the river south by bike is not easy.

The quiet, shallow areas behind the supports of bridges are settling areas for items thrown down by passersby from the streets above. Near the bridge at Diversey, the river becomes a lost shopping cart graveyard, with no less than 13 carts scattered here and there along the banks. The ducks have adopted some as perches to keep a watchful eye on boaters passing by. Who knows how many more lurk just beneath the surface? Its enough to make a person in an inflatable boat a little nervous.

Approaching the big red bridge at Damen, Sue was waiting with her bike above. She pointed out an even greater pile-up of shopping carts on the landing above the water, twenty or thirty filthy carts probably plucked from the river on some cleanup day.

After the bridge the rough banks are replaced by tall iron, concrete and wooden walls. I'm glad I don't need to stop along here, but if there was a boat problem I'd be in trouble, as the walls provide no way to climb up out of the water. Up above, the backs of random industrial and commercial buildings are visible. Most of the businessess don't take advantage of the riverfront location. Many of them have simply paved over their land nearly to waters edge, for use as parking lots or truck storage. Just past the Damen bridge I encounter a flowing pipe straight of an ecology comic book.

This stretch of the river is overlaid by a fascinating network of bridges. Auto bridges, railroad bridges cross at every different angle, while the river wanders gently back and forth under the city grid above.

Each bridge has its own story and style, from the shiny new Damen bridge to the rusty swinging railroad bridge just past Cortland. This Art Deco bridge tower with industrial bas reliefs is at Ashland.

The Ashland bridge is followed immediately by the Webster bridge. I hadn't realized how these two bridges meet at a right angle right at the riverbank. There is a lot to look at, but the paddler must beware, because a water treatment plant spews frothy aerated water from underwater pipes on both the left and right bank just above and below the Webster bridge. The danger for a small boat is that, in addition to the turbulence near the pipes, the aerated water may not provide enough buoyancy to stay afloat, causing the boat to tip or capsize. I picked my way past the foaming roiling water carefully.

Across the river, a great pile of brick industrial buildings towers over the water. This is the Gutman Bros. Tannery, nearly the last of the once numerous tanneries along the river. The building is an lively extravaganza of haphazard brick additions and outbuildings, hissing pipes, mysterious steel vats leaking brown fluid and funny smells. A wonderful carnival of nineteenth century industrial activity for the paddling tourist to drift by in silence and wonder.

Soon I drew closer to the large Finkl & Sons steel mill near the Cortland Bridge. But what is this in the river? A stranded barge? For some reason, a full-sized empty barge has been tied up awkwardly in the center of the river. I've seen it while biking over the Cortland bridge for at least a year or more, but down on the river it was difficult to tell just why it was there. There were cables tethering it to the nearer shore to the west, but it was not tied up next to the shore. Perhaps it ran aground and is too difficult to remove. Or it functions as a sort of gate to keep larger boats from ascending the river past this point. Someone had placed a home-made beacon made from a lightbulb and a nine-volt battery on the downstream corner of the barge to warn boaters of this immense water hazard blocking most of the river.

The slow current of the Chicago River seems well suited to gathering flotsam and jetsam. Periodically I'd paddle around a corner and push through some eddy choked with floating cigarette butts, styrofoam particles and things too disgusting to mention. But I felt obligated to rescue a few of the more notable items. So far in the day I'd collected several baseballs and playground balls, which I threw back on shore hoping a dog or kid would find them worth playing with. At some point I found a spent fire extinguisher which I lugged along for quite a way, hoping to find a place to dispose of it. But just past the abandoned barge, I came across the most interesting find of all. I looked down and there in the water was Christ, doing a backfloat. It was a wooden cross with a printed icon image on it of the crucified Jesus, surrounded by the apostles, a souvenir from Greece with a little hook to hang on the wall. He wasn't even too damaged from drifting in the current, as if someone had just cast him upon the water just an hour before. I placed him on the front of the boat as a little mascot.

Passing the steel mill, the river widened. To the left I could see the rusty iron mountains of the Scrap Metal District. To the right scrappy weeds and chain link fences hiding storage yards and small sheds. As the river turned toward the south, the headwinds increased, making each pull of the paddles an incremental creep along the concrete walls of the channel. But the wider spaces also brought the first clear view of the still-distant towers of downtown, our destination and a reminder of how far my tired arms must yet paddle this sluggish little rubber boat.

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Copyright 2001 Matt Bergstrom.