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Time paddling the Chicago River: Seeing up close the changes

Scenes as a paddle by conservation groups begins on the Chicago River.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

Do I dare soak my Chicago Marathon baseball cap in the Chicago River? To cool my bald head?

Enough parroting T.S. Eliot’s ‘‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’’

But I did wonder as we set out Wednesday from Kayak Chicago, south of North Avenue on the North Branch. That’s the place with the half-moon of colorful Adirondack chairs, with kayaks stacked like surfboards speared in sand on a Hawaiian beach.

Openlands pulled together the paddle with its conservation partners: Forest Preserves of Cook County, Friends of the Chicago River, Sierra Club, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Metropolitan Planning Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Sen. Dick Durbin’s office and Housing and Urban Development.

We met at Urban Kayaks, the place with green kayaks east of ‘‘The Tiki Bar,’’ between Columbus and Lake Shore Drive along the Riverwalk.

As we waited for buses to Kayak Chicago, Colin Deverell, the program manager for the Midwest office of the National Parks Conservation Association, gave official reasons to interact with other groups doing the paddle.

Then he added: ‘‘Plus, it is just great to be on the water.’’

Whoomp, there it is.

That might be the most significant fact in the last 20 years about the Chicago River system: It is just great to be on the water.

Wilderness Inquiry spread the group into six 24-foot voyageur canoes. WI’s Sara Jane Teal captained our canoe, which was dubbed Swift Dragon by Danielle Nelson of IDNR’s Coastal Management Program.

We went around the east side of Goose Island and stayed on the right side of the river.

Starting out, I got a river view of the floating gardens planted by Urban Rivers.

I saw Canada geese, mallards, one coot, gulls and swallows (under bridges).

We paddled by the Carbit Paint water tower. The first view of the Willis Tower came down the river.

A night heron (the first of two) patiently watched us from man-made shoreline. I am used to seeing night herons in the wilder North Shore Channel, but not so much in the more urban areas.

Changing scenes along the Chicago River.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times
Changing scenes along the Chicago River.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

I’ve been through this stretch of the North Branch off and on for years. On Wednesday, paddling and being more intimate with the water and the surroundings, it really struck me how much has changed. Condos, other housing and commercial spaces now faced the river, truly an asset. There were quite a number of larger pleasure boats tied up.

We passed the back of the East Bank Club, a rather imposing old-school sight. At Lake Street, still staying on the right side of the river, we crossed to the main stem. The right side of the river was more important on the main stem, with water taxis and sightseeing boats mixed in.

Back at Urban Kayaks, in a sort of community affirmation, a group effort lifted the canoes from the river and passed them to shore.

‘‘Imagine being 14 years old and doing this,’’ WI executive director Greg Lais said at the wrap-up. ‘‘Does this count as wilderness? I think it does.’’

I pondered that while walking the subterranean blacktop to the South Water Street Metra, then Luis Gonzalez messaged updates of the dam removal of ‘‘The Waterfall,’’ where the North Branch used to pour down to join the North Shore Channel.

It was time.

Removal of the dam, “The Waterfall, where the North Branch of the Chicago River joins the North Shore Channel.<br>Provided/Luis Gonzalez
Removal of the dam, “The Waterfall, where the North Branch of the Chicago River joins the North Shore Channel.
Provided/Luis Gonzalez