We left the Hampton Inn in Skokie just after 6:30 a.m. and headed to downtown Chicago on I-94 under cloudless skies. Moderate traffic slowed our progress so we decided to take an off ramp and crossed over to Lakeshore Drive, which borders Lake Michigan. Along the eastern traverse we passed over the North Branch of the Chicago River somewhere north of Goose Island. The river reflected a heavy urbanized shoreline on its calm surface and no watercrafts were in sight.
"We'll JJ there's the Chicago River," I said excitedly as we crossed the bridge. "We're getting close now."
"Oh, that's nice," he responded slowly in a low voice and then yawned to show his enthusiasm.
"You're going to canoe in that? You guys are crazy," a motherly voice announced from the back seat, then added, "That doesn't look like fun JJ."
I chuckled to myself and continued our easterly heading until the horizon was filled with the mammoth waters of Lake Michigan. After some helpful back seat navigation, we eventually found our way to Lakeshore Drive and soon crossed over the mouth of the Chicago River just southwest of the Navy Pier at the northeastern edge of downtown Chicago. We took the first off-ramp and made a 180-degree turn to the left and headed into a large parking lot underneath Lakeshore Drive.
A parking lot attendant was on hand to collect a fee of $20 dollars, but after explaining our intended purpose of dropping off our canoe and noting that we had been given permission to use the Chicago River Rowing and Paddling Center dock, she waived the fee. She urged us not to loiter and to watch out for the construction crews and equipment that covered the northern end of the parking facility. We thanked her and carefully proceeded in a northerly direction under the darken confines of the bridge's concrete deck and pillar supports. We found daylight again on the east side of the bridge where the area opened up into a small parkway that bordered the mouth of Chicago River and the City's harbor and pulled off to unload our gear.
JJ and Beth retrieved the gear crammed in the back of Subaru Outback while I unloaded the canoe, a borrowed Wenonah II Kevlar canoe, from the roof rack. We piled the gear in a small mound on the grass under the shade of nearby trees. I prepared a small canoe carrier consisting of two small wheels and a lightweight frame that mounted to the stern of the canoe and then carefully placed our lighter gear in the rear of the canoe. We said our good-byes to Mom, then swung our heaviest packs onto our backs and prepared for a short portage to the Rowing and Paddling Center's dock, which was just beneath the south side of the Lakeshore Drive Bridge.
Just as we were about to depart, a voice behind us proclaimed in a stern voice,
"Sir, do you have a permit to store your canoe in the park?"
The pronouncement startled my wife and son but they were soon relieved when they saw me smiling as I turned to greet Bill Franz, a friend of mine who works in downtown Chicago for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He had taken leave of work to see us off. I introduced Bill to my family then he took our pictures with our cameras. Beth departed back to La Crosse and JJ and I picked up the remaining gear on the ground and prepared to head for Grafton, Illinois via the Illinois Waterway.
Bill grabbed some of the "lighter" gear from our hands and said, "Ok guys, let's get going," almost as if he was member of the expedition.
JJ and I grabbed the front of the canoe and pulled the loaded vessel behind us while Bill quickly led the way to the dock. We were surprised to find a wide 300 ft long lighted passageway under the bridge with walls bearing large ceramic murals and narrative panels depicting and describing Chicago's colorful history, many associated with or near the Chicago River. It was almost as if we were stepping back in time as we made our westward progression with a pictorial display of history unfolding before us. The scenes included efforts to improve the river and the lake front, Chicago's rapid development, two World's fairs, the Great Chicago Fire, Fort Dearborn, early settlers, Native American life and other interesting images of Chicago's past. The final mural on the west side of walkway was the portrayal of Joliet and Marquette's arrival from the south on their infamous 3000 mile journey of discovery and exploration in the summer of 1673.
The unexpected glimpse of history of the Chicago River and the city that sprang up from her shores provided a fitting beginning to our own pilgrimage on the historic waterway. We emerged from the passageway with added excitement with the realization that our trip was about to begin. The narrow river stretched out before us to the west with skyscrapers forming a surreal vista in the cloudless early morning skies. The water was a translucent bluish-green where the bridge and tall buildings failed to cast their darkened shadows on the canal-like waterway.
We quickly found a narrow ramp that led to a dock bordering the south shore just below the Lakeshore Drive Bridge. We loaded 180s lbs. of gear and food packed in waterproof sacks between the front and rear thwarts. We secured the packs by strapping 1 inch wide nylon webbing between the thwarts. Finally, two and a half gallon containers of water were placed at the bow and stern and small personal packs were stowed under our seats. This brought our total supplies up to about 240 lbs. We shoved off from the dock to make an initial stability test to see how the canoe would handle while paddling and asked Bill to see if our load was balanced bow to stern. JJ and I were a bit nervous initially since the loaded canoe seemed to rock appreciably from left to right, and the waterline seemed too close to the gunwale. However, Bill thought the canoe looked balanced and JJ and I soon became synchronous with our paddling strokes. It helped to turn our bent-shaft paddles around since we both were initially holding them backwards, which likely contributed to the rocking motion. We thanked Bill for his assistance and departed on our river tour of downtown Chicago at 8:20 a.m.
We traveled the right bank and were actually heading "downstream because the Chicago River flow had been reversed to carry storm water runoff and wastewater discharges away from Lake Michigan more that 100 years ago (more on this later). We had to be cautions of large water taxis that were ferrying workers into the city or preparing for sightseers. The waves from these vessels could have easily swamped our canoe so we were careful to steer into the large bow or stern waves during their passage. JJ and I gawked at the tall buildings just like country folk visiting a big city for the first time. I must say, I have traveled through or along many cities by canoe but never experienced the overwhelming feeling of being engulfed by an urban landscape until paddling the Chicago.
Staring up at the enormous riparian edifices brought back memories of what my son said when visiting Milwaukee for the first time on a trip away from our former home in Rhinelander, a small town in northern Wisconsin. He was about 3 years old and made a proclamation to his mother and grandparents upon entering the heart of the city, "I can't believe my eyes, these buildings ARE bigger than the courthouse in Rhinelander."
JJ's interest in tall buildings appeared not to have diminished since he was busy photographing the Sears Tower from several vantage points as we made our slow passage through the city. Of course I took my share of pictures too. Our vista provided a remarkable contrast to that observed by Major Long during his western exploration of the area 182 years earlier.
"The appearance of the country near Chicago offers but few features upon which the eye of the traveler can dwell with pleasure. There is too much uniformity in the scenery; the extensive water prospect is a waste uncheckered by islands, unenlivened by the spreading canvass, and the fatiguing monotony of which is increased by the equally undiversified prospect of the land scenery, which affords no relief to the sight, as it consists merely of a plain in which but few patches of thin and scrubby woods are observed scattered here and there."
The "Chicago River" ends abruptly about a mile and a half west of Lake Michigan where the river forks into its North and South Branches. Strong northwesterly winds greeted us at the intersection and provided favorable assistance as we turned to head down the South Branch in a moderate chop. The winds were turbulent and irregular apparently being influenced by the glass and concrete palisades that rose up hundreds of feet on both banks. It was only a few hundred feet upstream in the North Branch that a hole developed in the bed of the river in the spring of 1992 that caused a disastrous subterranean flood throughout Loop and brought the city to its knees. The resulting economic damage and social disruption rivaled the impact of the Great Chicago Fire.
The Great Chicago Flood - On April 13, 1992, the Chicago River began draining into the ceiling of a 100-year old abandoned freight tunnel system that lay 20 feet below the bed of the river. Initially, the source of the flooding was unknown, but an inspection of the river near Kinzie Street Bridge revealed a 4-inch vortex or whirlpool formed by the escaping water into the tunnel system just like the drain in a bathtub. The breach to the tunnel was attributed to pilings driven into the freight tunnel months earlier. The interconnected network of tunnels exceeded 60 miles in length and was used to deliver coal and other freight throughout the downtown area. This greatly facilitated the spread of the underground flood and resulted in flooded basements and electrical controls to more than 300 buildings in downtown Chicago. More than 1 million people were evacuated from the loop as the city faced this catastrophic "hidden" flood.
We paddled under about twenty drawbridges in our first two miles of canoeing. Bridge tenders ignored JJ's facetious request to raise the roadways at our approach. We had the river mostly to ourselves except for the occasional water taxis and families of geese. The geese stayed along the shorelines and they feverish rushed off into the dark shadows and recesses of the steeply armored bank to seek refuge at our passage.
The river's conductivity, a measure of dissolved solids, increased two-fold at the confluence with the North Branch likely a result of upstream wastewater treatment plant inflows. The transparency decreased from about 2 meters at Lake Shore Drive to 0.6 meters at the fork due to an increase in suspended particulate matter from the North Branch. The dissolved oxygen content was below saturation but high enough to support warm water fishes.
Very little refuse or other floating debris was noted initially, but urban flotsam increased noticeably as we headed down the South Branch, especially below storm sewer inflows where the river became more odorous as well. Small signs placed near outfall pipes provided an identification number and warned boaters of "sewage contaminated rainwater during and following rainfall." The signs also requested river users to call a hot line in the event a discharge was observed during dry weather, which would have indicated the potential for an unauthorized discharge. Chicago has combined sanitary and storm sewers and these systems may discharge contaminated wastewater into the canal during periods of heavy rainfall when sanitary sewers may become hydraulically overloaded and the excess sanitary wastes are released to the storm sewers. Many of the signs we observed apparently marked the location of these sewer outfalls.
Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP) - Chicago has been addressing the combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem in a very big way in the past few decades. It has constructed about a hundred miles of deep underground tunnels cut in limestone bedrock hundreds of feet below ground with the largest tunnel boring machines ever built. Underground reservoirs will be added to provide additional storage capacity to the system to contain raw sewage and stormwater during periods of sanitary sewer surcharge. The captured contaminated water is pumped and treated during periods of dry weather. The project has led to water quality improvements in the Chicago River and little need for Lake Michigan water for diluting and flushing contaminated storm water runoff through the Sanitary and Ship Canal
The city of Chicago takes an apparent keen interest in river surveillance for we observed a large pontoon boat traveling up and down the South Branch with a large prominent sign displayed on its side railings proclaiming, "Mayor Dailey's River Clean-Up." The boat carried two male and two female inspectors who were sporting fluorescent lime-green safety vests and sitting comfortably under the boat's green canvas awning as we paddled westerly exposed to the warm morning sun. At one point we observed the craft stopped along the steep left bank with one of the workers onshore. It appeared that he was cleaning a sign with a rag and a bottle of soap, which apparently had become fouled with dirt or graffiti. His co-workers watched carefully from their shaded perches to make certain the cleaning passed their collective scrutiny.
We reached the South Fork of the South Branch of Chicago River just after 10 a.m. The South Fork drains an area of south central Chicago that held the infamous stockyards and meat packinghouses during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This waterway was once so severely polluted with organic wastes from these industries that it was given the name "Bubbly Creek," owing to the gases that rose to a thickly covered colored surface of grease, hair, offal and other organic debris. Bubbly Creek was made infamous by Upton Sinclair's book "The Jungle," which documented working conditions in the packing industry in the late 1800s.
"Bubbley Creek is an arm of the Chicago river, and forms the southern boundary of the yards; all the drainage of the square mile of packing -houses empties into it, so that is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide. One long arm of it is blind, and the fifth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of transformations, which are the cause of its name. It is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths; bubbles will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide. Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished and never been seen again."
The mouth of "Bubbley Creek" presented no visual clues to its dismal condition of 100 years ago. The transparency was more than a half meter and its surface was free of any solid matter. However, the dissolved oxygen concentration was moderately low (5.7 mg/L) for a mid-day reading in sunny weather suggesting dissolved organic material and oxygen consuming bottom deposits may still be contributing to water quality problems in the South Fork.
The South Branch of the Chicago River ends abruptly about a half-mile west of the South Fork just west of Ashland Avenue where it joins the official beginning of the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, a constructed 30-mile steep-sided artificial channel that connects the Chicago River (and Lake Michigan) with the Des Plaines River at Joliet, IL. The canal took about 7 years to build and was opened on January 2, 1900. Channel excavations involved a massive removal of earth and bedrock at a scale never attempted and at a staggering cost of 33 million dollars. This was a major engineering feat and the techniques learned on this project were applied later to building the Panama Canal. The Sanitary & Ship (S & S) Canal actually replaced a narrower but longer waterway, the 97 mile long Illinois & Michigan (I & M) Canal, which was completed in 1871. The I & M Canal connected the Chicago River to the Illinois River at La Salle/Peru (Hill, 2000). Portions of the I & M Canal are still visible and lie just south of the S & S Canal. A large portion of the eastern end of the I & M Canal was buried and resides below or near the I-55 corridor.
Although one of the functions of the I & M and S & S Canals was to improve shipping from the Great Lake to the Mississippi, the primary purpose of the canals was to divert Chicago's sewers and wastewaters from Lake Michigan, the source of the city's drinking water. These diversions were of great public health benefit to the residents of Chicago but the redirected wastewater carried by the canals were not highly regarded by the recipients of the contaminated water who lived along the Des Plaines and Illinois Rivers or even the residents of St. Louis on the Mississippi. Increasing rates of diversion through the S & S Canal and later the Calumet-Sag Channel (see map), raised serious concerns from other Great Lakes states and Canada about potential loss in lake elevations and resulted in several law suites that were ultimately resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court (Changnon and Changnon, 1996). Controversy over water diversions and the hydraulic connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin continues to this day. The most recent debate concerns the inter-basin movement of non-native aquatic species between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River or visa verse that is facilitated by this artificial corridor.
"Typhoid epidemics killed 90,000 in 1885-1886, then more than ten percent of Chicago's population."
"The immediate object of the Chicago Sanitary District, created under the Act of May 29, 1889, is the diversion from Lake Michigan of the sewage of Chicago and its inoffensive disposal towards the Mexican Gulf…the protection of the water supply from pollution by this sewage…the reclamation of the malaria preserves along the Illinois river, to the benefit of the public health of those regions and, ultimately, the improvement of the navigation between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River."
January 14, 1900 - "Water in Chicago River Now Resembles Liquid. The impossible has now happened! The Chicago River is becoming clear!"
Sanitary and Ship Canal
Sewer odors became more objectionable during our run down the S & S Canal and the water contained some items that were rather repulsive and more fitting to the inflow of a municipal wastewater treatment plant. Although no fecal matter was observed we did see an occasional condom, diaper and other grotesque personal hygienic items. At RM 318.4, cooling water from Commonwealth Edison's Crawford Power Plant raised canal temperatures on the right bank to 90oF. The combination of the hot water, warm sunshine and foul odors contributed to uncomfortable conditions during our brief tour of the S & S Canal.
An oily sheen was observed in portions of the canal below Cicero (RM 318), the remnants of a major marine accident involving an exploding barge carrying 588 thousand gallons of clarified slurry oil in late January 2005. The fiery explosion was seen for miles around and resulted in the partial closure of the canal and navigation restrictions for several months while oil and the sunken fuel barge were recovered. Fortunately the U.S. Coast Guard opened the waterway for daytime recreational traffic just shortly before we departed on our journey.
The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant discharged a voluminous effluent along the right bank near RM 316. This municipal treatment plant is reported to be the largest facility of its kind in the world and discharges an annual average flow of about 800 million gallons per day (mdg) to the canal though the maximum flows may exceed 1400 mgd during wet weather periods. Although the outfall contributed to an appreciable increase in the canal's conductivity (dissolved solids), the turbulent effluent was clear, contained little foam and emitted only a mild sewer odor.
We encountered a few large cigar-shaped speedboats that raced swiftly down the middle of the canal which contributed to moderate waves that reflected off barges or vertical sheet piling driven in along the banks. Not one of these vessels slowed down during our descent in the narrow channel. On the other hand, larger yachts, some 30 to 40 ft in length, reduced their speed and greatly minimized their bow and stern waves as they passed our small craft. The captains of these vessels provided friendly waves and we were thankful for their respect and consideration.
At 1 p.m. we reached the Harlem Avenue Bridge (RM 314) and scouted for a takeout. We had planned to portage to the Des Plaines River, which was only about ¾ miles north of the S & S Canal at this point. This portage would have been in the general vicinity of the western end of the historic portage route that linked Lake Michigan (via the Chicago River) with the Mississippi River (via the Des Plaines and Illinois River). A national landmark, including a statue of Marquette and Jolliet, marks the last vestige of the Chicago Portage just off Harlem Avenue only a quarter mile north of the S & S Canal. However, the banks on the canal were too steep and contained loose gravel which would have made for a dangerous transfer of our cargo and canoe to the top of the canal's bank. I was frustrated that we would not be able to depart to the historic landmark and instead headed downstream with some disappointment. I learned later that Pete Redmon, a friend and recently retired U.S. EPA employee, was waiting at the Chicago Portage monument with hamburgers and cold beer since he thought we would be passing through the area mid-day. Had I known that, we would have called and arranged for a different rendezvous. Sorry Pete!
Chicago Portage - "This is the only place where you can stand on the same ground walked upon by the explorers, early settlers and creators of Chicago. You can stand on the dam in the short remnant of Portage Creek, stretch out your arms and know that Jolliet, Marquette, La Salle, Tonti, Point du Sable, Kinzie, Hubbard, Ogden, and countless others from discovery and creation of Chicago passed within arm's length of you. Tribune columnist John Husar called it Chicago's "sacred ground." It is certainly Chicago's Plymouth Rock."
Major Long's tour of the portage in 1823 - "We left the fort on the 7th of June, in a boat which, after having ascended the river about four miles, we exchanged for a narrow pirogue that drew less water; the stream we were ascending was very narrow, rapid, and crooked, presenting a great fall; it continued so for about three miles, when we reached a sort of swamp designated by the Canadian voyagers under the name le petit lac. Our course through this swamp, which extended for three miles, was very much impeded by the high grass, weeds, &c. through which our pirogue passed with difficulty. Observing that our progress through the fen was very slow, and the day being considerably advanced, we landed on the north bank, and continued our coarse along the edge of the swamp for about three miles, until we reached the place where the old portage road meets the current, which was were very distinct towards the south. We were delighted at beholding for the first time, a feature so interesting in itself,…the division of waters starting from the same source, and running in two different directions, so as to become the feeders of streams that discharge themselves into the ocean at immense distances apart (Gulf of Mexico vs Atlantic Ocean)".
I had the good fortune of contacting Richard Lanyon, a long time employee of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago only a few weeks prior to our departure. He provided very useful information about the S & S Canal and Des Plaines River. I asked him about the possibility of taking out above the I-55 bridge (RM 313.4) where recent aerial photographs obtained from the Internet (Google Maps) appeared to indicate an old half-mile long roadway that paralleled the I-55 that led to the Des Plaines River north of the canal. He personally checked it out then e-mailed me with the results of his reconnaissance indicating that a take-out was possible underneath the I-55 Bridge. He indicated the bridge piers would provide protection from passing boat waves and the bank's slope was not excessive. The portage route would be on an abandoned road and would terminate near a lightly vegetated bank on the Des Plaines.
Failing a take out at I-55, we would have had to continue down the S & S Canal and negotiate the narrower, walled portion of the canal that was carved out of limestone and the banks consisted of shear vertical walls of rock. Waves from boats and commercial tows would present a more serious threat to our uncovered canoe. There was also an electrical current in the water at one location that spanned the width of canal to impede the passage of non-native species of fish between the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds. However, the most serious problem was the inability to pullout of the canal if an emergency arose or to find camp for the night. The thought of traveling down this gauntlet was worrisome and I told JJ that my desire was to following a course more similar to that traveled by the early voyageurs rather than following the path of Chicago's wastewater. He readily agreed.
We reached our alternative take-out below the I-55 bridge on the right bank at about 1:30 p.m. The area was just as Richard Lanyon described - a moderately steep bank, but there was no vegetation and the bridge abutments protected us from boat waves. Huge dump trucks carrying unknown cargo sped by sporadically on an adjacent roadway immediately at the top of the bank that passed beneath the interstate bridge. We carefully hauled up our gear, stepped over a metal guardrail then crossed the roadway where we assembled our cargo and prepared our small two-wheel canoe carrier for a short half-mile portage to the Des Plaines River. We were soon on our way walking down an abandoned road heading west in the hot mid-day sun while traffic raced by on I-55.
We reached the muddy bank of the bank of the Des Plaines River shortly after 2 p.m. after passing underneath a gate, traversing some brush piles, then slicing through small willows and underbrush. On the whole, the portage was relatively easy with the exception of climbing out of the S & S Canal were loose rock and gravel was encountered. While not the official portage to the Des Plaines, it certainly one that should be noted given that original Chicago Portage route had been lost to urban development many years ago. We don't know if previous travelers have officially named this crossing, so we will tentatively proclaim it as the "Lanyon-Sullivan Portage."
At 2:30 p.m. we were underway again paddling down a brown, boat-free Des Plaines River. The current velocity seemed meager but appeared greater than that observed in the S & S Canal. The river was free of objectionable materials observed in the canal but did have higher conductivity indicating a greater concentration of dissolved solids, likely from upstream wastewater discharges and groundwater inflows. The river was supersaturated with dissolved oxygen suggesting active photosynthetic activity by free-floating algae rather than submersed aquatic plants which were not observed.
Shorelines along the Des Plaines and were thickly vegetated with deciduous trees and shrubs and portions of it were within Cook County Forest Preserve. Little riparian development was noted from our vantage, a striking contrast to our brief excursion down the canal. Although the riparian vegetation and floodplain looked more natural, the river itself had been realigned and straightened in the process of constructing the S & S Canal over 100 years ago. A few scattered boulders were observed in the stream and portions of limestone bedrock from the Niagara escarpment began to rise out along the shoreline below the I-55 Bridge (near RM 310.5).
We observed numerous waterfowl and other birds during our afternoon paddle down the Des Plaines in the hot afternoon sunshine. The species included mallards, wood ducks, Canada geese, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, cormorants, green herons and an assortment of common and unknown songbirds.
By 5 p.m. we had our fill of paddling for the day and started to search for a suitable campsite. After several failed attempts due thickly vegetated banks or irregular rocky ground, we finally found a small low-lying island on the north side of the river about a mile upstream of Lemont Road. As we directed our canoe into the emergent vegetation at the island's edge, a large doe looked up from the tall grass then bounded away into a wetland on the island's north side. We quickly set up our clandestine campsite under a thick canopy of silver maple trees and ate our freeze-dried dinners while hordes of marauding mosquitoes searched for theirs. JJ resorted to putting his rain pants, gloves and head net on to ward off the assault. It was too hot and humid for me to wear extra clothing, so I favored a head net, bug dope and perseverance.
We set up our small tents under the island's tree canopy over mostly bare silty soil. We used separate tents so that we had more room to spread out our gear and ourselves. I also didn't want to bother JJ with my snoring or restless legs. Just as I was about to fall asleep, JJ bemoaned that his tent was hot and mentioned an air temperature of 86oF at 8 p.m. His nylon tent was without screened windows and I felt sorry for him, especially since the inside of my tent registered a relatively cool 79oF. I suggested that he remove his rainfly since I didn't think it would rain and that seemed to help, at least I heard no more complaints. This was JJ's only complaint during our trip today and he held up well to our first day of paddling in the heat, an apparent adaptation from living in Tucson. I was enjoying his company and soon fell asleep with thoughts of the trip ahead.