In a country where the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has increased over the past 35 years, it is refreshing to happen on a place where all are treated alike.
I strolled into Lawrence Fisheries, a classic fried fish restaurant perched on the south bank of the Chicago River next to the Canal Street bridge, in full winter paddling regalia--booties, bright yellow Kokatat drytop, wet sprayskirt, tow belt, PFD, with my hood pulled down around my neck like a scarf. There was still snow on my drysuit because I had been forced to shimmy my way under a fence and then hike over a pile of snow to get from the dock to the restaurant entrance.
Lawrence Fisheries From The River
The good folks at Lawrence Fisheries didn't bat an eye when I sidled up to the counter to place my order. Looking around I saw ironworkers, traffic control aides, laborers, urban hipsters, snotty-nosed kids, business people in suits, and police officers. I was just another guy in a funny uniform. Nobody stared, nobody commented. We were all equal--just folks with a few bucks and an appetite being cared for by a group of hardworking restaurant folks. An unstuffy and refreshingly egalitarian urban space.
Dock at Lawrence Fisheries With Approaching Barge
The food at Lawrence Fisheries was well worth the paddle down from Clark Park. There was perfectly fried food, coffee that had aged nicely on the burner into a slightly bitter brew, cole slaw imported from Medina, Ohio, impossibly white and puffy dinner rolls, and Lawrence's own brand of hot sauce. No whole grain has likely ever found its way to Lawrence's kitchen and who needs poaching or grilling when you can fry this well.
This paddling day had not begun well so it was great to get this lift. No one had opted to join me on this "Paddle to Grease" even though I advertised the paddle on the CASKA Yahoo Group. As I was preparing to leave my wife asked me "don't you wonder why people didn't join you on this paddle?" She may have been referring to the fact that it was late February and it was grey and cold or questioning my safety sense in paddling solo on cold water, but I started to get paranoid about my people skills and wondered if I would ever have a paddling friend again.
The river helped restore some sense of emotional balance and I stopped wallowing in self-pity. I like launching from Clark Park in the winter. It is quiet and the frozen mud is less nasty than the viscid muck that comes when the weather warms up.
Clark Park Launch
The first part of the trip south of Clark Park features examples of the residential developments that have sprung up along the river over the past decade.
Chicago River Apartments
The river becomes more industrial as one paddles south. Bridges are frequent, including this saber-toothed rail bridge.
Metra Rail Bridge Just West Of Ashland
Kayakers have the Loop almost to themselves in the winter. There are no tour or pleasure boats, only an occasional towboat. This allows you to paddle along and enjoy the skyline.
View Up From Lake Street
There are no sanctioned landing spots along the river in the West Loop. However, I noticed a little pile of rocks on the northwest side of the Washington Street bridge, next to the Boeing building. It would be a rough landing, but with a bit of climbing and hopping a small fence one could get to the riverwalk and access to restaurants and the like. This might be a nice adventure for a group of guerrilla paddlers who wanted to demonstrate the benefits of giving paddlers access to the river in the Loop. They could land here and walk over to the new French market at the Metra station a block west and pick up lunch.
"Beach" At Base Of Washington Avenue Bridge--Access To Riverwalk To The Right
The river parallels the railroad tracks running south of Union Station. South of Roosevelt Road is the Amtrak Yard. On the east side of the river across from the Amtrak control tower is a tiny and quite rude cove. If one has a generous imagination you can also see a beach that can accommodate a couple of boats. This is unfortunately the best Chicago can do when it comes to accommodating paddlers in the South Loop area.
Rude Cove Between 14th & 15th Streets On East Side Of River
View North From 15th Street
From here I passed the stately pavilion at Ping Tom Park, which is on the north side of Chinatown. My wife and I had shared several very happy birthdays here with our train-obsessed son a decade ago. He had picked the spot because the park is surrounded by active rail lines so he could spend the day watching trains go by.
Ping Tom Park
From Ping Tom Park it was a short paddle to Lawrence Fisheries. A crew was working on the bridge and when I landed I talked awhile with the towboat captain who had brought the work barge. I've found that these seemingly blocky towboats are very nimble in the skilled hands of their captains. As if on cue, a towboat materialized and deftly squeezed through the gap under the bridge left by the two work barges.
Towboat Squeezing Through--Not A Lot Of Room For A Kayak--Stay Alert On The River
Soon I was standing at the window in Lawrence Fisheries watching the river while my order was being prepared. To my surprise a kayak went zipping by. I waved and beckoned for the kayaker to stop, but to no avail. It appeared that this paddler was hell-bent for the Mississippi River.
While paddling home I came across this same paddler at the north end of Goose Island. It was Zach Carrier, an attorney at a prominent local law firm, who has been bitten by the kayaking bug. Come to find out we had both launched at Clark Park and were both lawyers. What is it about the law that drives its practitioners to paddle in a degraded river on a cold February day. After all, we could have been curled up in front of a nice fire re-reading Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.
Instead, we were two feral attorneys enjoying the biting north wind on our faces, the sweep and hum of the plump, short-winged ducks that filled the river, and the delicious feeling of getting a touch of wilderness in the urban maze.
Next Wednesday, CASKA is sponsoring a kayak pool session at the UIC's unmatched Olympic size 50-meter swimming pool! The first 10 paid members to register at firstname.lastname@example.org will receive free admission. All others will get a $5 discount off the $15 admission fee. Certified kayak instructors will be on hand for the first hour to provide training to anyone who wishes to learn.
I was notified by our President that only 4 people have signed up to take advantage of this offer as of February 11th. At the moment, volunteer instructors outnumber participants by 50%! "That can't be true!" I am thinking to myself. I think it is probably my fault, too. You see, I copied the announcement from our Yahoo! Bulletin Board to CASKA Blog but the e-mail links did not transfer. If you tried to register via CASKA blog prior to February 7th, your registration did not go through! Hence, this message to correct this terrible oversight.
Here's also a personal testimony. Hope it will help you get a picture of what to expect and how to decide. I attended a similar session two years ago. It was the spring of my sea kayaking career and it was my first point of contact with CASKA. I joined seduced by the offer. Two years later, I am irreversibly addicted to the sport and sit on the board of the organization that has paved my way to what I hope will be a life-time hobby and passion.
Photo by Alec Bloyd-Peshkin
The two-hour session itself started slow for me. At the time, I was gently nursing a newborn Eskimo roll and joined a rolling group at the beginning of the event. There were several other groups that focused on more basic skills each with a coach of its own. The rolling instructor asked me to show him what I got and I managed a reasonable roll on the first try. That was the end of the lesson for me because other new CASKA members in the group desired introduction to rolling.
That sounds disappointing. Far from it! I took the feedback from the instructor to ground myself and proudly paddled off to practice rolls on my own. That was the day that I gained an incredible boost of confidence in my basic skills. The roll itself escaped me multiple times since that day but the confidence of "I can do this!" stayed firmly rooted.
During the remainder of the session I met several experienced sea kayakers on the water. Two of them asked me to join them in practicing rescues and, by that, the kayak pool session morphed into a sort of an initiation ritual. One of these paddlers has become my most reliable day-paddle companion on Lake Michigan for two years now and counting. I've met both fellow newcomers as well as the aces from that pool session on multiple paddles and in many paddling events around the city. In other words, perhaps more important than the skills you may or may not pick up, the kayak pool session is an opportunity to come face-to-face with the most enjoyable part of paddling—the community of like-minded people who love this sport and pastime.
Whether you merely curious about sea kayaking or if you already know that you like it, don't miss this opportunity to become a member of CASKA, learn or improve some skills, and meet other paddlers in the area. CASKA membership for a year is $15—the cost of admission to UIC kayak pool session—and you can join with a Credit Card of PayPal account here.
NOTE!!! If you tried to e-mail CASKA directly through the links below, the address was wrong before noon on Sunday, February 7, 2010
CASKA, in conjunction with Kayak Chicago, is offering a night at the UIC pool this February, 17th from 7:00p.m. until 9:30 p.m. The first 10 CASKA members (paid up for 2010) who register with Alec Bloyd-Peshkin (email@example.com) will get in free. All other members will get in at the reduced rate of $10 ( down from the normal $15). If you wish to use one of Kayak Chicago's kayaks, you need to reserve a boat for $10 by calling them at (630)336–7245.
Photo: Lynn Stone
But wait; there's more! For the first hour, ACA-certified instructors will offer complimentary lessons ranging from basic boat control, stroke refinement, and rescues to rolling.
If that isn't enough, we will also be giving out to all paid members the must-have kayaking accessory of 2010: the CASKA logo-imprinted, BPA-free, polycarbonate 36-oz. water bottle and carabiner. Wait; there's more! Most importantly, you'll have the chance to come, paddle, goof around and get to know your fellow CASKA members. We hope that that many of you will be able to come, and this will be a great kick-off to the 2010 season for CASKA members.
Notes: If you haven't come to the UIC pool, you can find directions on the link below: tinyurl.com/yged45k. Entrance to the pool is at the end of the sidewalk , probably next to where the Kayak Chicago trailer will be parked. If you are bringing your own boat, please make sure that it is clean and free of sand or dirt. Dress for a relatively cool pool. While many people park their cars behind the UIC pool building, officially there is no parking there, and people occasionally get ticketed.
Contact Alec at firstname.lastname@example.org to register. Make sure you are a current CASKA member first! (That means you've paid in 2010.) You can pay via PayPal at www.caska.org