Chicago-pedia: The Outdoors

An encyclopedia of the terms that define our city. In this edition, we cover some related to the outdoors.


Friends swim, jump and post for a photo at Lake Michigan.


Some call it “Chicago-ese,” or “Chicago-speak.” Whatever you call it, we’re capturing it here, in Chicago-pedia — highlighting our local terminology and linguistic quirks (sometimes with humor and obvious exaggeration).

SPRING: Generally regarded as the two-week transition between winter and road construction season when the weather warms and landscape crews fill downtown flower beds with bright blooms. A season similar to autumn. In “Chicago: City on the Make,” Nelson Algren wrote, “An October sort of city even in spring.”

THE BIG SNOW: Not the Blizzard of 1979 that famously cost Mayor Michael Bilandic his job. Rather, it’s the blizzard of ’67. On Jan. 26 and 27, 1967, a whopping 23 inches of snow was dumped on Chicago, shutting down the city and forcing thousands to abandon their cars, plans, etc.

SKUNK: Smelly creature that lives on every single block in the city and suburbs; Darwinian victor, rivaling rats, raccoons and opossums as the dominant alley creature in parts of the Chicago area.



Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

PARKWAY: The grass between the curb and sidewalk that’s technically public, but that Chicago homeowners treat as their own — planting flowers, mowing and casting angry stares at dog walkers.

THE ROCKS: A narrow strip of large square concrete or stone blocks running along certain segments of the coast of Lake Michigan, including in Evanston on Northwestern University’s campus; a place where teenagers smoke weed and fool around.

THE HAWK: 1. Intense Chicago wind. Disputed: Sweeps up children and cats. (“All mighty Hawk. Talkin’ about Mr. Wind. Kind of mean around winter time.” — singer Lou Rawls)

2. Andre Dawson, 1980s Cubs outfielder. Origin: Intense playing style.

3. Ken Harrelson, former White Sox announcer. Origin: Prominent nose.


The Woods.

Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

MUSKIE: A humongous freshwater fish that allegedly resides in Lake Michigan but that nobody in Chicago has ever seen or caught.

THE WOODS: 1. Cook County Forest Preserves.

2. Peaceful plots of wilderness in the city and suburbs where people go to unwind, hold family picnics and take the kids for a stroll.

3. Places to find anonymous sex, dump a body or abandon unwanted pets.

SWIM ADVISORY: The Chicago Park District’s delicate way of saying there might be too much bird poop, sewage or something else gross in the water, so you might not want to venture in. (Or that conditions are too treacherous for swimming.)

CRIB: 1. A city of Chicago water intake facility in Lake Michigan a couple of miles offshore. There are two working cribs, each linked to the city by underground tunnel. (There are other cribs no longer in use.) Designed by Ellis S. Chesbrough, they were built away from land to draw cleaner water, with the first completed in the 1860s.

2. One’s home.

3. A bed for babies.

SNARK: 1. Mythical half snake, half shark, residing in Lake Michigan and select Wisconsin waterways.

2. That tone.

DOG BEACHES: Source of warmest water on the shoreline.

DOGS: Required accessory to live in certain North Side neighborhoods, West Loop.

RAINBOW BEACH: Named for the U.S. Army’s famed “Rainbow Division” that fought in World War I. In 1908, a small patch at 79th Street opened as “Rocky Ledge Beach,” so called because of “rocky terrain” in the area. It became so popular, an adjoining beach soon opened just north. Christened “Rainbow Beach” in 1918, it eventually merged with its neighbor.

OAK STREET BEACH: Largest concentration of sunburnt suburbanites in Chicago region, except for perhaps Six Flags Great America.

BUBBLY CREEK: Informal, colorful name for the man-made south fork of the south branch of the Chicago River. Was used a century ago by the meatpacking industry as a dumping ground for discarded animal parts. The sediment long produced gases that bubbled to the surface. Novelist Upton Sinclair described it this way in his 1906 classic “The Jungle”: “A great open sewer ... constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans were disporting themselves in its depths. ... Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens will walk on it, feeding ... every now and then the surface would catch fire.”

SMELT: Sleek, silvery fish once so plentiful in Lake Michigan that nets often bulged with the little creatures as they were hauled in by Chicago-area fishermen from piers and harbors during the evening and overnight hours of April. With lawn chairs fanned out, steel drums ablaze and coolers packed with beer, smelt fishing was a festive annual ritual. The fish were considered a Chicago delicacy, to be battered, fried and eaten whole. But with the smelt population plummeting over the last two decades — which some blame on invasive mussel species — the lakefront tradition is dying out.



Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

ALEWIFE: Speaking about dying out, these little fish used to croak and wash up en masse on Chicago-area beaches, making for stinky visits to the lakefront at certain times of the year. But they, too, are in decline — good, perhaps, for beachgoers but not for the salmon who eat them.

COYOTE: Wild canine that’s boldly moved into the city and suburbs over the past two decades and is now so prolific, there’s one hunkered down behind the bushes in every yard, awaiting the chance to eat a small dog.

DAN RYAN WOODS: A 257-acre wooded refuge, complete with a sledding hill, operated by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County near 87th and Western, the highest point in natural elevation in the city.

WOLF LAKE: An 800-acre lake on the Illinois-Indiana border with a lot of history and intrigue, beyond the fact that 12-foot sturgeons are rumored to be prowling the murky depths. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were said to be visitors to the waters in the 1800s, with Mrs. Lincoln reportedly almost drowning once. In 1924, thrill killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb left the body of their 14-year-old victim, Bobby Franks, in a culvert by the lake in a case that became a national obsession. Since then, countless other bodies have been found there, with serial killer Andrew Urdiales using it as a dumping spot in the 1990s.

PRAIRIE: A vacant lot in the city, especially one your parents or grandparents played in. Often contains large weeds, rocks, broken glass and trees — some of which can be used as based for baseball games. Usage: “Ma, we’re going over to the prairie to play.”

Chicago-pedia copy purchase

Chicago-pedia makes a great gift for anyone who loves Chicago. Order a copy today.

The Latest
Shortly after 11 p.m., the university said police were on scene near 70 Arts Circle Drive investigating reports of an active threat. About 11:44, police issued an all clear, saying no one had been shot.
Police said the victims, including a 14-year-old boy, were inside a home in the 8000 block of South Vincennes Avenue in Chatham about 7:33 p.m. when two men entered and shot them.
Jashawn Forest, 20, was identified by the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, which ruled his death a homicide.
Rather than seeing his players give in to the growing adversity, coach Billy Donovan watched them turn the second half into a brawl — and eventually a win.