Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Chicago Series Part I: The Chicago River's North Branch

Greetings from the Des Plaines River! We left Chicago two days ago and began our river journey in earnest. Now that we have access to internet and a day off from paddling, it's time to take a deep breath after our hectic days in Chicago and reflect on everything that has occurred. Chicago was such a compact bundle of experiences that I've decided to split it up into several blog posts:

Part I: The North Branch 

On Sept. 6th, after several days filled with packing, traveling to Chicago, and finalizing trip preparations, we loaded three canoes into the North Branch of the Chicago River and took off on our paddling adventure. We started this section eighteen miles north of Chicago and paddled it into the city on our first day on the water.

The North Branch appeared to be a completely different river than the stretch of the same river we would paddle the following day. Most of the North Branch is surrounded by forest preserve. As the Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin later told us, Cook County is home to the largest forest preserve district in the country, housing over 69,000 acres of preserved land. Wildlife sightings were a constant: mostly birds like herons, egrets, and cormorants, but also several deer and a very lethargic snapping turtle! The human spottings could be almost as exciting, like the time we ruined a very romantic moment for a couple of teenagers who were smooching by the river. We were also constantly spotting bikers and hikers through the trees enjoying the preserve's trails on a Saturday afternoon. There were no other paddlers on the river though. No surprise there - the narrow, windy North Branch did not make for easy paddling. Every few minutes, we were forced to pull over to the bank and carry our canoes around a fallen log that had made the river impassable. It's very possible that this was only bad timing - an intense storm had blown through the day before, knocking limbs off trees and causing power outages. The frequent stops slowed us down considerably, but I can't complain too much. An obstacle course makes for exciting paddling.

The dense canopy of the forest preserve is a beautiful example of a natural habitat, but it is an illusion of wilderness, surrounded as it is by human habitat. Several times during our paddle, we were reminded of this when the forest would yield to the pristine lawns of a golf course and a curious golfer would call out to us, surprised to see three canoes weaving through their water hazard. Over the 18 miles we paddled that day, we crossed under nearly 50 bridges upon which cars and trucks roared overhead. It is an odd feeling to embark on an outdoor adventure while people pass by on their daily urban routine, heading home or to work. The things that seem normal in everyday life come across as very abnormal, and thus interesting, when seen from the river.

I'm not accustomed to paddling through such heavily populated areas, but on every canoe trip I've been on, I've come across some reminder of the presence of humans. When you're expecting nature, human artifacts stick out like a sore, sore thumb. I think the opposite is true as well. When you're expecting to see the built human environment, it comes as a shock when a cormorant takes off a hundred feet in front of your canoe. We saw a dramatic transformation in the North Branch once it widened after a confluence with another river. The river came to be walled with concrete and metal in places, and framed by houses or industry. Despite the geometric angles of the river and the lack of greenery, herons and egrets still found this length of the river livable. It just goes to show how nature can cling on in the most unlikely of places. And in the places where people had stopped maintaining the river's walls, weeds and trees busted through the rusted-out iron. It's true; nature always wins.

We took out our canoes at the landing at Kayak Chicago that night, and headed back to the home of our wonderful hosts, Susan and Gary Johnson, aka Anna's parents. The home-cooked meal and showers were much appreciated after our long, physical day on the river.

No comments:

Post a Comment