Lawyers Gone Wild: Chicago River Kayak Trip Report
By: Tom Bamonte
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.