Kayaking into the urban canyon

July 13, 2015 , By MPC managers Kara Riggio and Danielle Gallet

Ryan Griffin-Stegink

Waiting for a barge to pass while kayaking on the Chicago River

On Tuesday, June 23, a few MPCers went out with the Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association to kayak the South Branch of the Chicago River from Ping Tom Park in Chinatown to the western edge of the new downtown Riverwalk extension. Here, MPC Managers Danielle Gallet and Kara Riggio reflect on their experience.

Danielle's reflections: Chicago as 'urban canyon'

For those of us city dwellers who may also be wilderness adventure seekers, I sometimes find myself struggling to incorporate the latter into my life. It’s true, we Chicagoans enjoy an incredible recreational opportunity living on the shores of a Great Lake, and I have even begun using our city parks to snowshoe in the winter. But I always feel I have to get out of the city to really experience any grand-scale outdoor adventure.

Our recent kayaking tour with folks from the Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association illuminated a different reality for me.

Our sea kayaker guides have paddled a lot; some have paddled in different places around the world, and I would imagine they have seen some pretty incredible views. Yet here they were talking about how the Chicago River provides the best view of a cityscape—anywhere. They waxed poetic about how Chicago’s “urban canyon” is unparalleled; how you can get right up close to the buildings and witness the scale of it all.

To me, there is nothing like exploring a wilderness canyon and seeing the majesty of nature’s power to shape an awe-inspiring landscape. So when our guides were speaking about how incredible the canyon here is, I'll admit I was skeptical. Having lived in Chicago for almost 17 years, I am accustomed to the sights and sounds of the city and to what the urban environment provides. Yet as we approached downtown on our paddling excursion, I was unprepared for how breathtaking the urban canyon truly is with its high-rises soaring, seemingly, right out of the water; the show of lights, boats, trains, people and yes, even wildlife, in action all around you. Chicago’s human-made canyon is something to behold—it is majestic in its own way—and it is the river that provides us with this vantage point.

The river is what in fact brought the metropolis of Chicago into being, and it is the river we ought to look to now to capitalize on our heritage and generate the next evolution of what is possible for our city. By transforming and embracing our relationship to our awesome riverways, we have the opportunity to further drive economic vitality, foster community cohesion, steward our ecosystems and have a lot of fun urban-recreating along the way.

Kara's reflections: Rules of the river

Our adventure with the Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association allowed us to experience the river from the level of the water, and just about everything we saw rose above us: the riverbank, barges, skyscrapers, tour boats and parks. Cities are often described as “urban fabric” and the river seems to be a fabric unto itself. Woven together are the working river: the industries, barge operators, tour boats and water taxis, people whose jobs exist because of the river and whose work continues to help Chicago thrive; the recreational river: the parks and the Riverwalk, the kayakers, recreational boaters and crew teams, people whose quality of life is impacted directly by the river; and the river-dwelling: the tent encampments and fishermen, people whose daily existence seems to depend on the river.

What was particularly striking in this experience, though, was the apparent need for better organization of the people using the river. Through our experience in kayaks, we saw firsthand what many river users have expressed serious concerns about—the ability to use the rivers safely. In one evening, we observed the chaos that ensues when novice kayakers and boat renters are sharing the relatively narrow river with barges, tour boats and water taxis. The theme of safety has been a priority in many conversations that we have had with river users, and everyone we have spoken with so far basically tells us the same thing: “It’s like the Wild West out there,” and “We need better rules of the road” and “We don’t want to wait for something terrible to happen to keep people safe.”

To me, being in a kayak on the Chicago River is like being a cyclist on Chicago’s streets and it seems as though the river could be reorganized and considered in a similar way to how the Chicago Dept. of Transportation is thinking about its streets. As Chicago continues to experience a rise in cyclists, recreational users have grown exponentially on the river. 

“We’re essentially the bikers out here,” says Chuck. The river, once dominated by industrial barges and then large tour boats, has been increasingly populated by smaller craft such as electric rental boats and hand-powered kayaks. As the newest and smallest vessels to enter the open road that is the Chicago River, kayaks, like bicyclists, can be seen as intrusive to larger and more established vehicles used to navigating the river without the heightened alert for smaller, more vulnerable vehicles. As the Dept. of Transportation continues to make great strides in creating dedicated spaces for buses and bikes, providing clear guidelines that tell river users where they should be is a great, near-term solution for improving safety on the river.

Improved communication would also help. The sea kayaking crew monitors the radio during every paddle and communicates regularly with other vessels. This helped our group know when to stay out of the way for a barge coming around a bend, or a water taxi that was about to leave the dock, but if you were using the river independently, you’d probably have no idea this is happening.

A few basic adjustments could help to better organize the river and have an immediate impact on safety. Articulating a basic set of Rules of the River would be a great start, but communication is key. Rules to help boaters use the water safely should be posted at all boat launch sites and on all rental boats. This is a good and new problem for Chicago.   

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