Friday, September 12, 2014

The Chicago Series Part II: Paddle Downtown!!

The second installment in our Chicago Series:

Paddle Downtown!!

Unlike some urban rivers, the Chicago River is a proud centerpiece for the city. It was pivotal in the formation of Chicago as an urban, industrial center, and it remains relevant today, as the recreation and tourism industry use it more and more. On Sept. 7th, we made use of the river ourselves during our mass paddle through downtown! Our canoe fleet didn't end up being quite as massive as we had hoped, but we were still happy that our friends Ann Raiho and Martha Brummitt came, and that Nick and Natalie got to paddle (they're both playing a support role for Paddle Forward this year instead of paddling the whole way).

The views of skyscrapers and historic buildings were as breathtaking as expected, but the thing I didn't expect was the level of boat traffic on the river. Nearly all of it was recreational: dozens of architectural tours, water taxis, Sunday pontooners, and a couple groups of kayakers. Our little group of canoes had to stay to the side of the waterway and ride out the waves created by the larger boats. Like the urban center itself, there was an atmosphere of hustle and bustle on the river.

The architectural boat tours have become one of the preferred ways for tourists to see the city, and we could understand why. The perspective from the river offers a clear view into Chicago’s dynamic history. From a single point on the river, we could see multiple drawbridges that represented different time periods in their architecture and mechanics. As a permanent fixture in the Chicago downtown, the river has been a constant, while all around it buildings rise and fall, burn down and get rebuilt.

That’s not to say that the river hasn’t changed. An untouched river will change its course over thousands of years, but a river in the middle of a major metropolis can go through dramatic transformations in short amounts of time. In Chicago’s 181-year history as a city, the Chicago River has been severely polluted, reversed in its flow, connected to the Mississippi watershed by canal, and now cleaned up to some extent. We’ve seen signs that warn against “any human body contact” with the water, but I’m very pleased that we’re not paddling the river as it was a century ago, back when the stockyards dumped dead cattle and industrial sludges into the river until the water bubbled from methane. Gross.

Gary Johnson speaks at Lawrence's Fisheries
While we were in Chicago, we were lucky enough to have several local experts share their knowledge about the river with us. At the end of our 5-mile paddle through downtown, we docked our canoes at Lawrence’s Fisheries to be treated to a lunch of fried seafood/chicken and some great speeches from Larry Suffredin, Cook County Commissioner, Gary Johnson, President of the Chicago History Museum, and Kurt Schweig, Vice President of Lawrence’s Fisheries. They shared stories of the changes undergone by the river, both positive and negative. There are hopeful signs of progress in returning the river to a cleaner, more natural state. One example stuck out: Lawrence’s has invested in a permeable pavement parking lot that keeps dirty runoff from flowing into the river. As the owner of a business that depends on the water for its survival, this kind of stewardship is admirable.

Millenium Park with Leslie on her QuinceaƱera 
After paddling through the middle of the city, we decided to move onto land for a little publicity stunt: a portage through downtown. I took the first shift, hoisting the canoe onto my shoulders and taking off down the busy sidewalks. The effect was oddly similar to paddling through water. At every crosswalk, the sea of pedestrians parted around the canoe and then closed back around it. Our portage took us to Millenium Park and the famous reflective Bean. There were gawkers, there were people taking pictures of us, there was even a girl on a photo shoot for her QuinceaƱera that really knew how to pose in front of a canoe. We’re hoping that some of these people were curious enough to Google Paddle Forward and/or Wild River Academy, both of which were spraypainted to the sides of the canoe. No matter what, we got some great photos. You can check them all out on our Facebook or watch our video from that day on YouTube.

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