Choose Your Own Chicago River Adventure
The Chicago River, like its surrounding city, has always had to adapt and change. From the days when the Potawatomi carried their canoes over the mud-swamped land between the "Chicagua" and the Des Plaines River, to the building of a canal by European settlers—people have relied on the river’s currents. They have gathered by its waters and altered its trajectory to meet their needs. But industry is less reliant on river networks these days, leaving the Chicago River's branches to become something more than trade routes—they've become resting spots.
With that in mind, spend a day finding a slice of tranquility along these shores by journeying through the current in one of the following adventures.
South Branch | Bridges and Parks
One of the first problems in building a city around a river was finding a way to cross it. By starting at the McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum, you can learn how early citizens used ferries and floating log bridges before establishing permanent, moveable bridges. Probably the most famous of this kind is the Michigan Avenue bridge, whose giant gears rest directly next to the Chicago River Museum's entrance. Once inside, you’ll spiral up five stories of history to learn how engineering ingenuity reversed the current’s flow to keep sewage from the city’s drinking supply. At the museum’s summit is a lookout that grants 360-degree views of the river and the surrounding downtown bustle.
From a dock beside the museum, hop aboard a southbound boat from Chicago Water Taxi. After passing beneath 18 other movable bridges, you’ll step onto dry land at Chinatown's Ping Tom Memorial Park. The centerpiece here is an open-air, pagoda-style pavilion that looks onto the South Branch. After meandering through flower-lined pathways, you can pause at the playground where children slide and swing, or stop on the southernmost bank to study the Canal Street vertical-lift bridge. Unlike all of the city's other movable bridges, which swing up from the sides, the Canal Street bridge rises and lowers while staying completely horizontal, as if a magician was causing it to levitate.
Heading farther down the South Branch, you’ll soon come to Canal Origins Park, which commemorates the 1848 creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Along with fishing opportunities aplenty, the space gives a glimpse into the past through a series of relief cuts carved into a walkway’s stone sides. These carvings depict what it would have been like to float from the Chicago River to the Mississippi on a canal boat. Sculpted eagles lie beside men wielding shovels, showing not only what life was like before settlers arrived, but illustrating the labor and different species that altered the landscape.
North Branch Spillway | Parks and Sculpture
Up north, you can find parks galore dotting the Spillway. Starting at Ronan Park, follow the bike path all the way up to Wilmette Harbor and Lake Michigan, where a beach entices with a post-trip swim. But the fun is in the journey.
Ronan Park's 3 acres play host to a rotating display of multicultural sculptures. Happy Family by Shencheng Xu, for instance, conveys the joy of the human condition with three figures whose elongated necks and limbs push their smiles 13 feet into the air. Also on display is Stephanie Stachura and Ken Mitchell's Skin, a figure stripping down its outer layers to reveal its true, universal form.
But Ronan Park offers just a taste of what's to come. Four miles north, past River Park's outdoor swimming pool and Legion Park's massive fountain and oversize flower beds, is the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park. Here, more than 60 sculptures made by local and international artists glimmer in the sunlight. Heavily represented is Ted Gall, whose work spans the gamut from the realism seen in Sun Worshipper’s back-leaning indigenous American figure to the abstraction of Groundbreaker's Seussian gasket form. Also, be sure to check out John Hock's Table Sculpture: Can't Recall a Time, which looms massively amid the surrounding trees as the park's largest work.
West Fork North Branch | Wilderness
It's also possible to get off the beaten path completely, away from manmade structures and landscapes. On Saturday, August 17, join the Friends of the Chicago River for a 6-mile canoe ride down the North Branch. Starting at 10 a.m. at Linne Woods, Friends will run a shuttle up to the dam at Willow Road in Winnetka, letting the group float back down. During the intervening six hours, the trees of Watersmeet Woods and George F. Nixon Woods provide shade and birdsong, setting the stage for sightings of herons, turtles, mink, or deer.
Illustration: © Dav Yendler, Groupon