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The improbable possibility of Bubbly Creek: Of fire and water

A mural, by Rahmaan Statik, on the 35th Street bridge by a fire ring by woodworker Gary "Hal" Link.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Gary ‘‘Hal’’ Link said a few cattails are growing on Bubbly Creek.

That wasn’t the oddest thing Wednesday. I was talking to a strapping man in a kilt.

I went to the Chicago Maritime Museum for a panel discussion titled ‘‘The Past, Present and Future of Bubbly Creek,’’ put on in conjunction with the McKinley Park Development Council. Panelists included Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner Debra Shore; Ald. Patrick Thompson (11th); Phil Willink, a former senior research biologist at the Shedd Aquarium; and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restoration biologist Frank Veraldi.

Beforehand, the cocktail crowd wandered out on the deck by Bubbly Creek. When I snuck off to photograph a mural on the 35th Street bridge, I found wood scraps piled by wooden benches and seats around a fire ring.

Mary Ann O’Rourke, who handles communications for the CMM, said, ‘‘You should meet Hal,’’ then led me through the basement of the Bridgeport Art Center (Racine and 35th) to Link at his Halldoor Woodworking shop.

He said Rahmaan Statik did the mural under lights in a few nights.

‘‘Taggers won’t tag murals because they respect other artists,’’ Link said. ‘‘Professional courtesy.’’

Back of the Bridgeport Art Center, with the deck from the Chicago Maritime Museum on the end, along Bubbly Creek as seen from the 35th Street Bridge.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times
Back of the Bridgeport Art Center, with the deck from the Chicago Maritime Museum on the end, along Bubbly Creek as seen from the 35th Street Bridge.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Link is a curious chap, the original artist in BAC. He plants native wildflowers, primarily for pollinators. He usually has beehives, but not this year after a hive was stolen. He had a small jar of his Bubbly Creek honey, which Arthur Schattke, an electrical engineer down the street, and I dipped our fingers into.

BAC is the kind of place where anything seems possible.

‘‘There are solutions to Bubbly Creek, but they cost a lot of money,’’ Shore said while listing some of the wilder ideas.

The basic plan the Corps has would cost around $20 million, 65 percent of which would be covered by the federal government. Authorization could come by 2020. In the best case, construction would begin in 2022 or 2023.

The South Branch and Bubbly Creek do not yet have the grandiose development plans there are on the North Branch. But Thompson noted there is already serious residential development near Bubbly Creek.

‘‘It is such an asset, we should treasure it,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘It is a place for families to come down and enjoy.’’

He mentioned fishing and picnicking, then drew laughs when he said, ‘‘Don’t know if we will go swimming in there.’’

‘‘What would be the closest in nature to Bubbly Creek?’’ Veraldi asked rhetorically. ‘‘It mimics backwater swamp conditions of a large river system. There are huge flood pulses, times when it is really ripping through, times when the backwater is stagnant and has very low oxygen levels.’’

As for sediment, he said the best plan will be to cap it, which will be tough. There is as much as 16 feet of muck, which is the consistency of pudding. The Corps plan would cap it with sand, gravel and rock.

‘‘Never had a raging mountain stream full of trout here,’’ Willink said. ‘‘The main currents are artificial ones from [the Racine] pumping station.’’

He thought likely fish species would be largemouth bass, sunfish, catfish and a number of minnows.

‘‘If you create the habitat, they will come and utilize it,’’ he said.

‘‘The ultimate point is to get people back down to the river,’’ Veraldi said.

On open-studio nights on the third Friday of the month, Link has as many as 75 people around the fire ring, a symbolic lighting and enlivening of Bubbly Creek.

Rowers are already among the changes along Bubbly Creek.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times
Rowers are already among the changes along Bubbly Creek.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times