A River Adventure


Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen and Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

I can’t swim and I’m afraid of water, so I never would have imagined in a million years that I would ever go kayaking. But right before school began, I got a chance to try it with my fellow Eco Youth Reporters. And it was one of the most rejuvenating experiences in my life.

Our tour guide was Noah Stein with the company Chicago River Canoe and Kayak. He was wonderful and completely understanding but he was really serious about safety and the risks of being on the water. I was sort of reluctant to get in a kayak by myself, so Noah decided it was in my best interest to partner up with Alisha Jacobs, which was a great idea.

Noah went over all the important logistics about kayaking. We had to first pick out single or double kayaks. After we had done that, Noah helped each of us change the gears in the boat for our own comfort. For the ones who were in double boats, we had to decide if we wanted to be a front paddler or a back paddler and gear changer. At first, I thought I wanted to be in the back paddling and changing gears. Then Noah explained that experienced kayakers usually sat in the back because it would be difficult for a beginner to focus on paddling and changing gears. So I was switched to the front.

Once we got our gears checked, we had to go through a paddle tutorial. Noah told us that we should always choose paddles that are about our heights in length, never too short and never too long. Then we went over how to paddle properly. The paddles should always be facing a certain direction.

Noah then went over how our bodies should react to the boats and the water waves. He also warned us that not all boat drivers follow the rules of the water and there would most likely be someone speeding, causing wild waves that could cause us all to tip over.

Noah told us that when we feel the water getting wild, we should roll our hips with the waves to ensure that we don’t fall.

After going over the importance of everything, we finally started kayaking! When I first got in, I felt like I was going to immediately lose my life. Then I started getting used to it. After a while, it was really relaxing. Although the water was incredibly filthy and possibly toxic, it was really fun.

Alisha and I started to become very competitive with the other guys. We started having races, competitions on who could turn the best and what team could paddle best in-sync. Of course Alisha and I won.

As we went by Canal Origins Park off Ashland, we saw lots of different native plants and trees.

“There are mulberry trees and grape vines that are abundant with fruit and feed birds and insects in the summer,” said Noah. We also passed by the Fisk coal plant, which used to be a controversial major polluter but has been closed for over a year.

Right before we hit Bubbly Creek, we spotted a blue heron. Bubbly Creek is where they used to throw the carcasses from the cows slaughtered at the nearby slaughterhouses. As they decompose, it causes the creek to bubble.

We went down Bubbly Creek to 35th Street. Then when it was time to go back, the paddling became arduous. Alisha and I decided to create a system of reps and rests. For example, we would do 20 reps and have a 10-second rest. As we got closer to land, we increased our reps and decreased our rests.

As our group paddled through the water, we noticed garbage bags, water bottles, clothes and food.

“The water is dirty, toxic,” said Noah. “It is from over 100 years of industrial and civic abuse. Industrial waste continues to pollute the water daily and every heavy storm drives vehicle runoff and trash from the banks and streets into the river, as well as sewage directly from the sewer system.”

But there is still life out there.

Noah pointed out that in addition to the Great Blue heron, we saw night heron and green heron.

“We saw young ones under 6 months and more mature ones,” he said. “There are also kingfishers, ducks and geese. Beaver and coyotes and foxes also make the river banks their home.”

We finally reached our launching point and it was time to exit our kayaks. We got out one by one. When I got out, it felt like I went swimming instead of kayaking because I was soaking wet!

We launched from Lawrence Fisheries in Chinatown, so after the paddle, we all changed over into dry clothes and ordered some great food and dessert.

Chicago River Canoe and Kayak is helping make the Chicago River healthier by getting people out there. Though the river still has a long way to go, Noah said, “Things are looking up.”

“Wildlife populations increase annually,” he added. “Plant life continues to reclaim nooks and crannies and crevices and cracks. Patience is nature’s virtue.”

Environmental activists are still working on raising awareness about issues like sewage overflows into the river.

“Water quality is being addressed through federal, state and municipal agencies, non-profits and paddlers like you and me,” Noah noted. “The four of you who paddled in with me can continue to bring positive attention to the river by talking about it with peers and family, asking your teachers about it, and making the river central to some of your seasonal outdoors activities.”

It’s important to raise awareness and have everybody’s input on water quality regulations, to get our voices heard as the government considers how to take action. The river is too important to be ignored and neglected.

“The river and its natural, social and industrial history tell us a lot about ourselves, our city and an ever-evolving relationship to nature,” said Noah.

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