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Canoeing the South Branch of the Chicago River

The river's industrial section on the South Side features wildlife, barges-and condoms.

Interesting things I saw floating in the water during a four-hour canoe trip along the South Branch of the Chicago River:

  • A waterlogged 16-inch softball
  • Geese, ducks, a great blue heron and other assorted wildlife
  • Lots of panty liners
  • More condoms than I could count

With the possible exception of the owners of those condoms, the gritty southern stretch of the river is no pleasure trip. But despite the garbage- and bacteria-laden brown water, the riverbanks boasted a surprising amount of green space. And if cool old bridges and construction equipment resembling larger-than-life Erector Sets is your thing, a southbound paddle trip won’t disappoint.

I made the trip with my wife, who has often bragged of her canoeing prowess—something about a Des Plaines River race more than a decade ago. A canoeing novice myself, I figured she was my ace in the hole. I was wrong.

Ryan Chew, the proprietor of Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, agreed to meet us at the launch point behind Lawrence’s Fisheries (2120 S Canal St, 312-225-2113), a lakeside eatery with a 50-year history of serving all manner of deliciously breaded creatures of the sea. He loaned us a canoe and the requisite gear, and provided a quick lesson. (While Chew doesn’t currently offer South Branch tours—and doesn’t recommend the trip for beginners—he’ll rent you a canoe for the day for $60.) But once we pushed off, I knew it was going to be a long afternoon.

We were blessed with an unbelievably beautiful day, sunny with low humidity, but we began our journey heading into a stiff wind. Our vessel zigged and zagged as my wife, Jen, whose skills had gotten rusty, sat in the stern (back) and attempted to steer. It was a very exhausting first hour.

And then the first of several scary barges appeared. This part of the river is still highly industrial, and as a gravel-filled barge the size of a football field chugged its way toward the Ozinga Concrete Plant on the north bank, we directed ourselves against the nearest concrete wall and prayed.

When we resumed paddling, our canoe rocked in its wake. I reminded my wife to keep her mouth shut—not because I didn’t want to hear her sweet voice, but because of my earlier conversation with Margaret Frisbee, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, who explained the river’s flow is 70 percent sewage effluent, which has bacteria left over from the wastewater-treatment process. “You definitely don’t want to drink the water,” she warned.

After cruising under the Dan Ryan and past the Fisk Coal Power Plant (just past the Halsted Street bridge), we finally made it to the junction with Bubbly Creek, an offshoot that was once the dumping ground for the stockyards. The adorable name refers to the decomposition of animal blood and organs, which caused the water to bubble.

About 50 yards in, we discovered the creek still bubbles today. But despite its disgusting history, this part of our trip was actually the most pleasant. The water is calm, with not an animal carcass in sight, and woods and plant life are lush on each side. A gaggle of geese even floated next to our boat. As we returned to the main branch, we passed two guys fishing who claimed to be hooking carp the size of dolphins. (I’m not sure that’s a good thing.)

We proceeded southwest past a massive abandoned grain elevator and toward the Damen Avenue Bridge, where the Chicago River becomes the Sanitary and Ship Canal. This waterway didn’t even exist prior to 1900, when it was dug to reverse the flow of the river to get the sewage out of Lake Michigan. Today, it conveniently pushes our waste water south to the Des Plaines River.

Soon after passing Damen, we found ourselves spent—and still facing the return trip. But even though we were pushing against the river flow, the wind was at our backs. The wife had mastered her steering, and our paddling took on a relaxing rhythm. All in all, we traveled about 10 miles in just under four hours, and when we floated under the decorative iron of the Cermak Bridge toward the dock at Lawrence’s Fisheries, I found myself almost disappointed the trip was over.