Paddling down an urban canyon

The more I write and talk about kayaking, the more friends I discover who like kayaking, too. Take my former Plainfield, Illinois, neighbors Michelle and Dan, for example. Whenever we get together, we challenge each other to game after game of intense bean bag competition, but in conversation during our last visit, we learned they’ve taken up kayaking. Therefore, I bet you can guess how we spent our recent July visit. Kayaking, of course!

Taking the history and architecture tour by kayak through downtown Chicago has been on my summer must-do list since February when I mentioned it as great Valentine’s Day gift idea for somebody who loves kayaking. Yes, my husband got the hint! And my friend Michelle said to let her know when we were going because she and Dan wanted to join us.

Our kayaking group grew from four to eight when I invited my daughter Megan and her boyfriend, Brian, Chicago residents, and daughter Rebecca and her boyfriend, Ryan, both avid kayakers, who drove down from Milwaukee. We all reported to our launch point at the East Bank Club for our 1 p.m. departure with Wateriders Chicago Kayak Tours and Rentals.

Our journey was led by Joel “the tour guide” along with Charlie and Derrick. We launched close to Wolf Point, the visually stunning confluence of the three branches of the Chicago River. It’s true—the views were magnificent! I was constantly averting my gaze from the water to the skyline, shielding my eyes from the sun, trying to peer to the tops of the skyscrapers.

We paddled through the steel and concrete canyons in the heart of downtown Chicago, while Joel told us tales about the major players in the development of early Chicago and how colossal engineering feats shaped the cityscape.

“Do any of you know what letter is a symbol of Chicago?” he asked. (Note, it is not B for the Bears!) He then explained the Y-shaped symbol found on many buildings and other structures throughout Chicago was inspired by the three branches of the Chicago River.

Joel further explained that the Chicago River is the only river in the world to be reversed—actually made to flow backwards, opposite its natural direction—by civil engineering. The flow was reversed to head toward the Mississippi River basin, away from Lake Michigan, for sanitation reasons.

We learned that the Chicago Harbor Lock, which separates Lake Michigan from the Chicago River and a major component of the project to reverse the flow of the Chicago River, is the fourth-busiest lock in the nation for commercial use and the second-busiest in the nation for recreational use. The lock chamber is 600 feet long, 80 feet wide and 22 feet deep and can accommodate up to 100 vessels at once.

The Chicago River was certainly bustling during our Saturday afternoon tour, a steady parade of sight-seeing boats and jaw-dropping yachts. Our guides kept our large group close together and safely to the side of the busy river.

We stopped frequently to talk about the history of Chicago and floated for a moment in the location where the Eastland steamship capsized on July 24, 1915, killing 844 people onboard—Chicago’s deadliest day, an event that took more lives in a single day than any other catastrophe in the city’s history.

And we took note of the unique architecture of the buildings along the river, passing by the NBC Tower, the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building on the North Bank. As the river turned slightly to the southwest between Michigan Avenue and State Street, we passed the Trump International Hotel and Tower, and then turning west again, we passed Marina City, the Reid, Murdoch & Co. Building and Merchandise Mart.

Our two-hour tour ended just past 3 p.m. We all enjoyed the tour and made it back to land with no major incidents—well, except Greg’s hat blowing off into the river on the final bend—but no surprise, it is the Windy City!

We gathered our belongings and hugged the kids goodbye and headed out to the suburbs for dinner at Michelle and Dan’s house, which was followed by… c’mon, take another guess here! Yes, we played several games of bean bags until nightfall forced us indoors.

It’s always a joy to spend the day with friends, especially these two Chicago suburbanites who always make us laugh. We don’t see each other very often, but I have a feeling that kayaking is going to give us a reason to get together more frequently.

4 thoughts on “Paddling down an urban canyon

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  1. How interesting to hear about the history along the river. A big difference from being out on a river in the woods. How nice that the whole family was
    able to enjoy the trip wth you. The weather looked perfect for your excursion. Beautiful pictures.


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