In what is becoming a CASKA tradition, a small group of ambitious paddlers circumnavigated Chicago’s nothside, including a couple of suburbs, via Kayak. This year’s group included Tom Bamonte, Humberto Garcia, John Tebbens, Wendy Madgwick and this reporter.
The route begins at the Bahai Temple, follows the North Channel to the Chicago River, continues along the river through the loop and to the lock at Navy Pier. After locking through, we follow the shoreline all the way back up to Gilson Park in Wilmette.
Shortly before launch, we had the usual discussion of clothing and gear. The forecast included cloudy skies and chance for rain. The surface temperature estimate of the lake was 57°F. All five of us brought Seattle Sombrero style rain hats, but none of us chose to wear them at launch time. Humberto, John and Wendy were all sporting Kokotat Gore-Tex drysuits. Tom went ninja-style in head-to-toe black Neoprene while Kris went Gander Mountain style in nothing but fleece pants, fleece shirt, spray top, wool socks and sneakers.1
The sun was rising beyond a cloudy sky just as we launched at 7:15. The turning leaves were beautifully illuminated by the early morning light, making for some wonderful photographs that one would hardly believe were taken from a former sewage canal in the middle of metropolitan Chicago.
At mile 3, we passed the first reminder of our urban environment. The Skokie installation of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District discharges its effluent into the canal just north of Howard St. Seeing the real-time volume of water that is treated and released into the waterway was incredible.2 For a few dozen meters at the confluence of sewage effluent and runoff, the calm surface of the canal was turned into a Class I rapid.
I have heard stories of the aeration facility (bubble bath) downstream of the discharge. Compressed air is released along the bottom of the canal where it then bubbles up while hopefully allowing oxygen to dissolve into the water. As the newly oxygenated water flows towards the river, the oxygen allows friendly, aerobic microbes to do their thing and make the water a little more environmentally friendly.3 Many of us have also read about the decrease in buoyancy that occurs in aerated water. I began to worry about the bundle of power-bars in my stern hatch. Alas, when we finally came to the aeration zone, it wasn’t running.
The paddle was easy with a moderate current behind us. Despite the forecast for clouds, it appeared that we may have blue skies and sunshine. This late-October morning was turning into a beautiful day for paddling!!!!!
Now on the Chicago River proper, no longer paddling through MWRD property, it began to feel like the urban paddle that it really was. I was surprised at the number of houses on the river. I had always imagined that the river was lost to factories that found a convenient site to dump their waste in an ingnorantly blissful bygone industrial era. But some of the riverfront homes looked – almost – pastoral.
As we approached Irving Park and Addison, the riverside cottages gave way to bona fide riverfront condominium developments. Surely the owners and residents were enjoying their 42” maple cabinets, granite countertops, stainless steel appliances and marble bathrooms as we paddled by.5
At Clark Park, we broke our 4.6-mile-per-hour, current-assisted pace to look for a possible addition to our group. Apparently, someone had expressed interest and Tom told her that we would be paddling by the launch at around 10:00 A.M. There were no eager paddlers within sight so we continued on our way.
At about 10:45, we paddled under the new North Avenue bridge. While the new bridge is quite pleasing to the eye, it signaled a nearby landing where we could stretch our aching legs and ease our strained bladders. Humberto, a Lincoln Park Boat Club juggernaut, hosted us to land on the dock used by the Lincoln Park Juniors rowing team, occasionally the LPBC adult teams and of course by Kayak Chicago.6 The ever-smiling face of “Kayak” Dave Olson soon came striding down the ramp with one of his guides and a lone enthusiastic, albeit slightly nervous, customer.
We chatted briefly with Dave about the season gone, the weather, kayaking business and of course the upcoming winter pool sessions.7 After a good stretch, a few good laughs and a spirited debate regarding the time of day when eating chocolate is appropriate8, we re-launched our kayaks and headed into the steel-and-glass canyon that is downtown Chicago.
Once again, I was pleasantly surprised to see the progress the city has made in turning the river into an asset rather than a traffic inconvenience. The clouds lost their battle with the sunshine and the mirrored windows of the city reflected the world-renowned architecture that makes the Big Shoulders of Chicago.
No paddle is perfect, and my only critique of the day was a confusing right-of-way scenario at the intersection of the North and South branches of the river. There were several tour boats on the river, and two of them were approaching the intersection at the same time: one from the locks (our left) and likely turning right, one from the south (opposite us) and likely turning right. Add a disjointed group of kayakers from the north and it makes for some confusion. It was a bit like leaving the bike lane and making a left hand turn in traffic. There is no graceful way to do it.
I have a fair amount of experience with boat traffic, including sail-, motor- and human-powered craft. I usually rely on simple “common sense” when I encounter traffic situations. Unfortunately, five experienced paddlers don’t always share the same thought process when making a common-sense quick decision.
Tom, who was slightly ahead of the group, quickly crossed the channel to the south side of the river. This was akin to making a left turn from bike lane to bike lane. While it would probably be a bit confusing for the two tour boat pilots, it set him up to be on the right and correct, side of the river for our paddle to the lock. Wendy, John and I chose to “avoid all boats” by heading straight for the north shore of the river. We hugged the north wall as if to say “we’re staying right here” to the other pilots on the river. Humberto was farther back taking pictures and probably missed all the confusion at the intersection. 9
Any of the solutions would have been fine as solo boats, but as a group, we probably looked like fez-wearing Shriners on motorbikes at a parade. In hindsight, we should have regrouped before the intersection, picked a leader and made definitive moves as a group.
With the traffic jam behind us, we paddled toward the lock with the towers of Wacker Drive on our right and Kinzie Street on our right. For anyone who has never paddled the Loop, it really is a unique experience. It comes highly recommended.
We arrived at the lock just as the river side was closing, which meant we had a full cycle to wait before locking through. It was a nice chance to raft up, rest and snack. It now seemed that any chance for clouds and rain were gone, so we had nothing to do but take in the Navy Pier sights in full autumn sunshine.
Growing up on the Mississippi, locking through is nothing new to me, but a kayak offers a new perspective on the process. Although a century old, the process is still impressive.
It isn’t often that paddling conditions go from glass to confused seas in 3 minutes. That is exactly what we experienced exiting the lock. The wind was around 12-knots almost straight out of the south, with perhaps a bit of a westerly component. This made for pretty bouncy conditions within all the sea-walls and breakwaters around Navy Pier. Combined with water that I would normally call “dry-suit cold,” I was surprised at how wobbly I felt in the slop. By the time we rounded the MWRD pier, however, I had my sea-cheeks beneath me again and was feeling good.
It was about 12:20 by the time we made it to North Avenue Beach, our predetermined lunch stop. We pulled our ‘yaks onto the beach and enjoyed our Fig Newtons, Power Bars, PB&J on Wonder Bread or Tandoori rice pilaf fortified with chopped pickles.10
At just about 1:00 on the nose, we launched for the bulk of our open water paddling. Our next stop would be Leone Beach, roughly 7 miles north. The paddling went quickly as we drifted in and out of various conversation pairs and trios. The wind and waves were at our backs and we maintained an easy 4 knots.
John, Tom and I spent some time discussing the merits of paddling hard to catch every little wave, then benefit from the surfing action versus just maintaining a steady pace and only catching the biggest waves that just happen to be in the right place at the right time.11 John plays in the water and reads the water’s offerings like a seagull playing in a wind and finds the fun to exploit in every nuance of the water’s surface, while Tom approaches with a more pragmatic methodic approach held to strict forward stroke paddling technique and replete with rhythmic torso rotation to the beat of a hidden metronome only Tom could hear. It was a spiritually fulfilling conversation that I will cherish for all of my remaining days.This was the only point in the paddle where I felt tired. My fatigue, I suspect, was mostly psychological because the stretch from Diversey to Pratt are the most familiar to me and offered the least “new” stuff to see while I’m paddling. John’s technique to combat mental fatigue was to stay focused on the ever-changing wind and wave conditions. With just over three hours of sleep the night before, however, I was having trouble mustering that much concentration.
We pulled up on the private beach behind John’s building (feeling very privileged, I might add) and walked up the street to Geneva Kayak Center – Lakefront, looking forward to a brief tour through the store and some lively conversation with Scott Fairty. Little did we know that they had just switched over to winter hours and Sunday is not a good day to visit the store.12
The break still offered a good stretch of the legs and we all felt ready for the final 5-mile stretch of paddling. I am always pleasantly surprised to see how friendly the residents of Rogers Park are to paddlers.
In order to combat the mental fatigue, I decided to paddle ahead of the group and focus on forward stroke fundamentals. “Swing, rotate, swing, rotate. Feel the pull in the core. Drive the boat with your legs.” I was surprised to find how much better I felt when I focused on good paddling. It convinced me that my technique is not engrained enough yet to the point of unconscious competence. Humberto was slightly ahead of me and remained so despite following every contour of the shoreline. Tom, John and Wendy remained as a group about 3 minutes behind.
The Bahai Temple came into view as we rounded the Northwestern soccer field. At this point, the finish line was in fully tangible sight. Humberto and paddled the last mile or two together talking about the rhythmic trance that only repetitive motion exercise offers. After 29 miles of paddling, we were both feeling the groove.
All in all, it was a great chance to get to know some other CASKA regulars and finish off the summer paddling season with a bang. So now may the gales of November come slashin’!
1 My choice of attire is not as cavalier as it may seem. I dress for immersion, adjusted by the probability of immersion and the cost of immersion. In flat water, the probability is quite low and surrounded by competent instructors, the cost of immersion is also fairly low. Having felt the temperature of the water on the lake, surely cooled by the off-shore breeze, I would have worn my drysuit.
2 So take shorter showers, combine laundry loads and “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.” Just because we live next to 10% of the liquid fresh water in the world doesn’t mean we can abuse it. Shucks, we ain’t never gonna run outta carrier pigeons!
3 Think of the microbes as yogurt for sewage water
4 Technically, the flow is certainly still turbulent, the energy of the largest structures was transferred into the smaller, higher frequency structures giving the appearance of calm flow.
5 They were likely also “sunny,” “modern” and “spacious.”
6 Check with Kayak Chicago and / or the Lincoln Park Boat Club before attempting your own landing at their dock.
7 UIC pool sessions begin the Wednesday after Turkey Day. With enough interest, the pool would open the Wednesday before Turkey Day. Again, contact Kayak Chicago.
8 I believe chocolate is healthy, nutritious and delicious 24/7. Tom (Puritanically) believes chocolate should only be consumed after noon.
9 Perhaps this could make for a lively, Tom-Heineman-birthday-style debate on the recently quiet CASKA group. Common sense, as it relates to rights-of-way on the water, is not so common. It only comes with experience, or reading about other people’s experiences.
10 Wendy, Kris and John stuck to energy bars and sexually-enhancing Goji berries all day. Humberto, the minimalist that he is, ate PB&J on Wonder Bread. Tom, of course, had the pilaf. He claims pickles are the secret paddling food we’ve all been looking for.
11 John believed he experienced a net gain in efficiency by working harder to catch even the smallest waves. Tom believed the work hard, surf hard technique is at best break even. I believe the only way to settle the issue involves strain gauges, accelerometers and paddle-mounted data acquisition equipment.
12 GKC Lakefront winter hours are Thursday/Friday - 12:00-6:00, Saturday 8:00-5:00.
13 We loaded five kayaks on now fewer than five, count ‘em, five cars. Carpooling? Bah, that’s for tree-hugging, spotted-tree-owl-saving eco-weenies!