The Chicago River has a nasty reputation…not for something it did behind someone’s back, but for stuff the city’s been dumping in it for decades. Conservation groups have declared it one of the most polluted waterways in America. Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without a noxious mix of partially-treated waste and runoff full of pollutants!
Say what you will, but these murky green waters are no match for consumerism. Tour companies like Chicago Kayak and Urban Kayak making a living out of sending people out on the Chicago River, with little more than paddles and a life vest to arm themselves.
Fortunately, I have my own kayak, so I don’t need to hand over $20/hour for my toxic recreation. However, there aren’t exactly “Put in your kayak here!” signs posted along the Chicago River to guide self-sufficient paddlers.
After a little bit of Googling, I found two boat launch areas that seemed to be conveniently located. One is the Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown. I went for a run around this park recently and found a pretty decent looking boat launch next to the red pagoda-style pavilion housing none other but, you guessed it…kayaks for rent.
The other launch point I found by hunting through online forums was in Roscoe Village’s Clark Park. There’s a huge boathouse project underway in this park, which might be great someday (but not today). Due to the ongoing construction, access to the launch point is barricaded off and plenty of construction workers stand on-guard to bark at you once you cross into their territory.
Mildly frustrated and itching to get into some filthy waves, a on-site search informed me about yet another launch point that supposedly existed along the Chicago River. River Park at Francisco and Argyle proved to be the river’s saving grace.
Follow the sounds of the water until you see some folks fishing. You’ll feel out of place since there aren’t other kayakers hanging out, but rest assured you’re in the right place.
There are some reasonable put-in spots just south of the dam and just north of Argyle. Within just a few paddle strokes to the south towards downtown, you’ll see an ancient building that probably used to be majestic. It’s appropriately named the North Branch Sewage Station Sanitary District of Chicago.
Continue paddling and you’ll see some excellent exhibitions of graffiti art, some old rusty bridges, some suspiciously white foamy sections of water, and even a glimpse of the familiar skyline peeking through. On nice days, you’ll likely encounter a few other brave souls aboard kayaks, but you’ll pretty much have the waterways to yourself the whole time.
Much to my surprise, there was wildlife thriving along the Chicago River! These geese must be awfully resilient, because they seemed to be having a grant ole’ time pecking through the top film in search of food.
So what’s my advice for my Chicago neighbors looking to kayak the Chicago River? Just keep your mouth shut and do it.
All joking aside, it’s really not that bad and I haven’t even started developing a third arm yet. Obviously don’t drink the water and don’t swim in it, but it’s fine to kayak so grab a paddle and give it a try. The waters are incredibly calm, so beginners will feel comfortable and more advanced paddlers can have an uncommonly relaxing day enjoying the sunshine and the scenery.
For the true nature enthusiast, outdoor recreation is hard to come by in Chicago. To feel like you’re in the middle of it all, you’ve got to settle for what’s around you. Sure, you can drive out to the suburbs or up to Wisconsin for a more pleasant paddle. But if you’re pressed for time or have a limited budget, the Chicago River can build your upper body strength (and your stomach) for bigger and better things.