BY BRIGITTE TREUMANN
In an earlier edition of the Perennial Biker, I wrote about what a pleasure it is to see the sun glinting off the North Branch of the Chicago River, watching the changing colors and lights throughout the year. I often head to its banks within the city and farther out, closer to its source, in the shady glens of Edge Brook Woods in the Cook County Forest Preserves. I love to photograph this river from many points along its course and in every season, and thus the images I have taken to capture its beauty and its poetry are the inspiration for this column.
I am also fascinated by the distinct and different riverine environments: the apparently untamed nature in the Forest Preserve, where flowers grow wild and old trees lie fallen among bushes, creating a friendly sort of mini-jungle which surrounds the young river as it snakes southeast, mingling waters with the North Shore Channel in River Park in metropolitan Chicago.
It’s a fairly long, and occasionally sweaty, ride from my Andersonville pad to those sylvan expanses—grassy picnic areas, golf courses, and well-maintained hiking and biking trails. But the effort feels immensely worthwhile once I follow the gentle curves of the river, pedaling slowly, enjoying the green silence, inhaling, exhaling; being at peace.
South of River Park, the environment becomes increasingly urban but happily, and thanks to ongoing efforts by the Chicago Park District and neighborhood associations, the river is ever more accessible and its banks greener. I tether my bike and walk through Ronan Park on a newly-laid path along the river to Lawrence Avenue Bridge.
One of my favorite spots to indulge in river bank and prairie vistas is off Berteau Avenue in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. I discovered it one splendid sunny afternoon and return to it many times throughout the year.
The River Bank Neighbors Association has created a Tall Grass Prairie above the river where a profusion of Brown-Eyed Susans, luscious Tiger Lillies, and other prairie plants and flowers make for great beauty. How cheerful to see the to-and-fro of kayaks and canoes making the river come alive!
Here also some lines of a poem, The Boundary, by the Chinese poet Bei Dao come to mind:
…I want to go to the other bank
The river water alters the sky’s colour
And alters me
I am in the current
My shadow stands by the river bank
Like a tree struck by lightning
I want to go to the other bank…
As the North Branch continues its course toward downtown Chicago and Wolf Point—its meeting place with the Main Stem—it presents increasingly starker views. To capture this aspect, I set out for Division Street and the so-called Clybourn Industrial corridor on a cool and windy March day, the skies grey and threatening rain, hoping gusts of wind and rain wouldn’t keep me from finding the perfect angle from the Division Street Bridge.
But somehow, even on a grey day and with little vegetation to soften its aspect, the water shows a beauty all of its own, with a copse of still wintry weeping willows growing on its bank, and the skyline as a dramatic backdrop.
Knowing about my interest in collecting images of the North Branch, some friends invited me to their magnificent apartment on the 25th floor of one of the more spectacular high rises near Wolf Point, where the North Branch meets the South Branch and flows into the Main Stem. Needless to say, I was delighted and exited to be able to photograph from this vantage point: the end, but also a new beginning, of this river. Thanks to the famous engineering feat of reversing the flow of the Chicago River, our North Branch—the modest stream that rises in Cook County’s grassy hinterland—contributes to the grand connections between Chicago and the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway (as well as with the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico). Not so bad for that modest stream.
I shall continue to explore its banks and beauty with interest and joy.