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Shooting “The Rapids at River Park”: Conditions right to paddle into history

Matt Renfree is in back and Jason Steger in front on March 14, 2019 in what is believed to be the first shooting of ``The Rapids by at River Park,'' where the former dam (``The Waterfall'') once stood on the North Branch of the Chicago River at the confluence with the North Shore Channel.
Provided photo taken by Lauren Umek

Matt Renfree and Jason Steger shot ‘‘The Rapids at River Park’’ during the high water and storms March 14. They are thought to be the first to shoot the five step-downs where the former dam (‘‘The Waterfall’’) was on the North Branch of the Chicago River at the confluence with the North Shore Channel.

‘‘It was awesome,’’ Renfree said. ‘‘We were making sure [beforehand] there were no sewage outflows and keeping it safe.’’

He and Steger pulled the feat off in Renfree’s personal 17-foot Old Town Tripper canoe. The flow was at a manageable point.

‘‘I’d call it a Class 2-2+ [rapids],’’ Renfree emailed.

When talking about the revival of the Chicago River, the confluence of the North Branch and the North Shore Channel just south of Foster Avenue would be the epicenter for me.

Twenty years ago, an old guy at Park Bait said, ‘‘I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but they are catching bass at Foster on the river.’’

That Saturday, I climbed down the bank at Foster in the rain and slid into the North Shore Channel but finally made it the half-block south to the confluence. Three generations of men in waders looked at me as though I were an idiot, and one of them pointed out there was a path that came in off the alley.

A few weeks later, I had my first front page in the Sun-Times when Ken Schneider and I caught multiple species there in the heart of winter.

While dams are wonderful for concentrating oxygen, water flow and fish, they really suck for healthy waterways. One of the greatest things that happened in Chicago outdoors in 2018 was the removal of ‘‘The Waterfall’’ on the North Branch. That reconfiguring is an ongoing process.

‘‘In these photos, you can see it’s in a pretty decent-sized hole caused by the rocks below,’’ Renfree emailed. ‘‘The rapid is fairly straightforward, and if you stick to river right, I’d imagine fairly low consequence as long as the river is flowing pretty good. We ran this at 673 [cubic feet per minute], based on the [U.S. Geological Survey] gauge at Pulaski. Any higher, and I’m sure we’d have had a [combined sewer overflow], so this was about as ideal as conditions could get.

‘‘We put in on the bank just west of the pedestrian walkway [the path I mentioned earlier] and actually had so much fun running it that we went three times before we got tired of lugging the canoe back up to the put-in.’’

Truly historic changes come.

‘‘I think it’s important to mention that this portion of the river has been essentially off-limits for recreation until the dam was removed,’’ Renfree emailed. ‘‘And with the salmonids migrating upstream last fall and all the work that’s going into restoration, it’s a huge victory.’’

It’s the stuff we dream about getting done.

That’s exactly how Renfree saw it.

‘‘It’s something I’ve talked about with a whole bunch of friends and we’d always dreamed of doing,’’ he emailed.