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Chicago by Canoe 

How to get away from it all without going anywhere

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Huck Finn said, "It's lovely to live on a raft." It ain't so bad on a kayak or a canoe, either--not to live on one but to float on one through the city. I'm not talking about kayaking downtown, though I understand the appeal: to paddle the same waters as Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable and look up at the canyons of skyscrapers that have grown up around the Chicago River. But I prefer the north branch of the river, which seems like a tributary of the stream in the old kids' TV serial Journey to the Beginning of Time in the way it takes one back to the days of Du Sable and his canoes while remaining part of the contemporary environment. I remember crossing the Irving Park bridge on a bus and looking down at the river to see a heron flying--another country. That feeling is even more pronounced when one is on the river, paddling its placid waters.

On a recent afternoon I rented a canoe at Chicago River Canoe & Kayak, which does a burgeoning business allowing people to get away from it all without really going anywhere. It's at 3400 N. Rockwell, just south and west of Lane Tech and a stone's throw across the river from Hot Doug's, where I'd fueled up beforehand. The five-year-old business, which rents its vessels for $14 an hour, $10 on weekdays, has grown every year; the day I was there, owner Ryan Chew had to rush out for reinforcements, but was back in ten minutes with more canoes and kayaks stacked on a trailer. (He'll be open weekends through October.) I went north against the current, thinking I'd paddle for an hour, then turn around and have a relatively easy trip back.

Trees lined the river on both sides, blocking the city off and muffling its noises, but a factory loomed up behind them as one last reminder of the surrounding urban environment. The factory rattled and churned at a steady rhythm, and someone was paged on a loudspeaker.

Just beyond it, however, calm settled in as tactile as a mist rising from the river. Turtles sunned themselves on fallen tree limbs. A cardinal flitted across the river as if swinging from a clothesline strung from side to side. Ducks and geese paddled by, unruffled by the scent of the foie gras sausage I'd just had, but then I spooked a great blue heron. I'd seen it up the river from a hundred yards back, unfurling its wings like someone shaking blue sheets to be folded, but when I rowed up in its direction I lost sight of it. Then it took flight with a squawk and a few loping flaps of its wings, dragging its legs like regrets, circled far down the river, and came back to perch in a tree overhead, where it ruffled its throat feathers at me as if delivering a silent scolding. On an earlier kayak trip I'd seen kingfishers in the trees, sitting there looking like the old White Sox player Walt "No-Neck" Williams, their big, bill-heavy heads growing right out of their bodies. But on this day they were missing--perhaps hiding in the shade somewhere to get out of the midday heat.

Every once in a while I paddled past someone fishing from the shore. Fish jumped occasionally or hovered just under the surface of the water--mostly carp with silver-dollar scales and bloated bellies. I saw a few floating belly up, too, including one bass--a good sign, but for it being dead. Yet I never saw anyone onshore catch anything, and the anglers rarely raised a greeting. It must've been the innate jealousy of those on land for those at sea, because everyone else in a canoe or kayak--and there were several groups heading in both directions--all smiled and said hello.

I paddled on one side, then the other, dropping the oar every few strokes to steer. A motorboat came by, leaving a wide, low wake, and just to be safe I turned at a diagonal to meet the waves head-on. The canoe nodded like a horse at the mild excitement and continued on its peaceful way.

I crossed under the Irving Park bridge, where traffic hummed above as if it were the city's respiration, and the loose joists on either side clanked in that familiar way one hears on the bus when it hits them. A pair of boots sat on a cement platform under the bridge, as if someone were tucked in nearby having a nap--and perhaps someone was. Dragonflies hovered momentarily alongside the canoe before continuing on, patrolling for mosquitoes.

Some 1950s apartment buildings sometimes poked through the trees, but there were also beautiful town houses with cedar siding. Other homes had docks and boats, and rough stairs leading down to them. It's one thing to live in the city and have a sailboat at Monroe Harbor or a speedboat at Diversey and head out on the water at the end of the day; this was humbler and more homey, a boat behind one's own house to sit on or, if the inclination strikes, to motor down the murky waterway for a while. A beautiful gold-brick house nestled next to the Wilson bridge, which has its own stately elegance. Further on, a CTA train rattled across its own bridge on its way down to the street-level tracks that conclude the Ravenswood line--another reminder that just beyond the trees the city bustled away.

I paused under the Wilson bridge before turning back. The wind blew up the river and actually pushed the canoe back against the current, which left a line of dented whorls in the surface of the water as it brushed by the prow of the canoe. Some exotic bird came hurtling upstream. What was it? A kingfisher? A smaller heron? No, just a pigeon, heading for its nest under the bridge.

A few days later I was back on the Irving Park bus looking down at the river. It no longer seemed like a different place. No, it was my river, our river, for all those willing to discover and cherish it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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