BY MARY GOFEN
When you walk down the Kinzie Street Bridge to the Chicago River, hear music playing from a passing yacht, and see a kayak instructor dancing on the walkway, you know you are in for a fun afternoon.
“There will be no dancing on the docks!” the instructor smiles, as several soon-to-be kayakers join the impromptu dance party.
This will be my first time kayaking and who wouldn’t be nervous? I don’t know how to maneuver a boat in quiet water, much less on a busy waterway with huge shipping barges, River Cruise boats, private yachts, and water taxis. Also, I have a torn rotator cuff from a trapeze injury.
Among three kayak companies in the city, I choose Wateriders History and Architecture Tour, with its launch point behind East Bank Club and just a short paddle away from the heart of the city.
As we stand on the dock listening to instructions, a 300-foot-long barge floats by—I stare at the barge, then our kayaks, and back again. It would take more than 20 kayaks lined up in a row to span the length of the barge. Soon we all will be sharing the river.
Meanwhile, the guide demonstrates efficient rowing technique (“punch the paddle handle forward, like you’re boxing”) and tells us, basically, not to wimp out. (“Native Americans used to paddle 15 miles per day down the river, and you’re just going three.”) The most important safety lesson: always “stay right” on the river. There will be four Wateriders instructors guiding about two-dozen tour members. Most people climb into single kayaks; I choose a double. The colorful boats are surprisingly comfortable, with adjustable foot rests and water bottle holders.
We settle into our boats, and the first thing I notice is the quiet. At 20 feet below street level, traffic noises fade away, replaced by the sound of paddles slicing through water. On this sunny day, the occasional splash on my legs is welcome. The river is calm—it essentially runs still—so there are no currents to battle, just the occasional wake from a passing boat. Paddling starts to feel routine for most. We smell chocolate from the local chocolate factory. I feel transported out of the city.
The second thing I notice is that the water looks surprisingly clean. Longtime Chicagoans may remember seeing mattresses and other debris floating down the river many years ago. But now, after nearly 40 years of Herculean effort by Friends of the Chicago River and other groups, the water is cleaner than ever: 70 species of fish and lots of wildlife, including Great Blue Heron birds (we spotted one on our tour), snapping turtles, beavers, muskrat, and mink (most often found in the outskirts of the city).
It is a short five-minute paddle ride to Wolf Point, where the three branches of the river connect, and there we get our first dramatic look at Chicago’s amazing cityscape. We float there for about 15 minutes, gazing in all directions, while Wateriders owner and tour guide, Charlie Portis, talks about the river’s history, architecture, commerce, and feats of engineering.
To our immediate left, construction crews work on a new tower apartment building. In front of us is the curvy River Point office tower, with its reflective mirror effect. Down the main branch sits the showpiece 300 North LaSalle, and farther down, the iconic Wrigley and Chicago Tribune buildings. Along the South Branch, our tour goes by the grand Civic Opera House. The Willis (Sears) Tower sits further ahead. We are seeing Chicago’s present, past, and future in one tableau, all from a unique perspective.
The Main Stem is the river’s busiest stretch, and we share it with water taxis loading and unloading passengers, a few leisurely private motor boats, and the imposing First Lady River Cruise that holds 250 passengers. Our group of 24 kayaks feels like a small but mighty flotilla, and we hold our own amongst the biggest and baddest motor vessels on the river.
While we paddle, a fish jumps out of the water at shoulder height, a Great Blue Heron stands a few feet above us on a wood pillar, and a bride taking photos with her wedding party waves at us from the River Walk. With our water level vantage point, this is an experience shared by no one else on the river.
At another stop, our guide continues with gangster lore and ghost stories. We stop near a “haunted” spot near the Clark Street Bridge, the site of a 1915 disaster in which a boat filled with two-thousand Western Electric employees and their families rolled over and sunk at wharf’s edge.
My favorite part of the tour passes the River Walk, which feels like a small city within the city: a walking/hiking/biking trail, numerous restaurants, an ice cream and gelato shop, a grass park and flower garden, museum, taxi system, and even “parking spaces” for private boats at the City Winery (you can reserve a spot on a river parking app). If you haven’t been to the River Walk, go. You will see why the Chicago River is emerging as a recreational, commercial, and economic treasure.
I ask Portis, who has sailed and kayaked throughout the world, to compare the Chicago River to others he has visited. The Seine, Thames, and Hudson rivers are too big, fast, and busy for safe kayaking, he says. The Canals of Amsterdam, which web through the city with calm water, come closest. But none really compare to our river, with quiet water that runs, essentially, still; its bustling River Walk; world class architecture; storied history; and natural beauty. Plus, our river has the most movable bridges of any metropolis in the world—that in itself is an uplifting thought.
The tour ends back where we started. Most of the paddlers finish with tired and sore muscles. I, for one, am ready for a treat and decide to head to City Winery for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc on the River Walk.
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