August 28, 2012
We got an early start from DuSable Harbor and entered the Chicago lock at the entrance to the Chicago River at about 8:00 a.m. We were the only boat entering the lock – always a good thing.
It was a beautiful cloudless day and with the sun behind us in the east, it was the perfect time to take a slow ride through the canyons of buildings along the river.
Craig and I boated the Chicago River a few times when we lived in Chicago, but that was over thirty years ago. Many new buildings have joined the old classics since then. I hate to admit it, but the new Trump Tower is magnificent. It literally sparkles in the sunlight, and it dominates the view as you enter the river.
But we loved seeing the iconic older buildings that have defined the skyline for so many years – the Wrigley Building, Tribune Tower, Marina City, the venerable Merchandise Mart, and the Sears Tower (unfortunately saddled with a forgettable new name – Willis Tower). It was definitely worth the hassle of taking down our bimini top for all those bridges -- 33 of them on the Chicago River alone!
The best part is short, though. After about three miles, the surroundings become mostly urban-industrial and not very attractive. Lots of debris in the water, too.
After about seven miles, the Chicago River connects to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, about as scenic as the name implies. But we saw an incredible number of birds – great blue herons, green herons, great egrets, kingfishers, geese and ducks. They somehow seem to thrive in these less than pristine waters.
After 20 more miles, the Sanitary and Ship Canal is joined by the Cal-Sag Channel and next stretch of the waterway is described in the cruising guides as “Twelve Miles of Hell” – narrow, congested and busy with tow traffic (barges). We had no problems, though. Traffic was light and the tow operators were very courteous.
A couple of miles past the junction we encountered the electronic fish barrier, intended to keep the invasive Asian Carp from spreading into the Great Lakes where they could conceivably destroy the lakes’ commercial and recreational fishing industries. There are large warning signs as you approach the barrier, where electrical charges are shot into the water. Other than the warning signs and radio instructions from the Corps of Engineers to limit passage to one boat at a time, you’d never notice it. I expected to start seeing the famous jumping carp immediately after the barrier, but we never saw a single one all day.
We went through two locks with little waiting time, and walked the dogs and had lunch at a riverside restaurant that we’d probably never set foot in if we weren’t looping (think Harleys, full-sleeve tattoos and colorful verbal exchanges). The staff was very friendly, though, and pampered our dogs with cold water and treats.
We continued past Joliet and pulled into Harborside Marina in Wilmington, Illinois, where we were met by Marc’s Ark. Nice marina, but the water was full of duckweed, a tiny bright green plant that floats on the surface of the water and carpets large areas of the river around here. Bailey, a normally reluctant swimmer, must have thought it looked like grass because she dove into the harbor and came out covered in green. After a hose-down, she dried out on the dock before coming back on board.
A nice surprise that evening was another visit from my brother Scott and nephew Brian who live not far from here. It was great to see them again so soon after our long visit in Chicago the prior weekend. Scott wore his Blue Heron shirt and Brain said he had worn his to school that day.
All in all, it was a more pleasant day than we might have expected from what may be – except for the spectacular start in Chicago – the least picturesque stretch of the entire Loop.
Next, the Illinois River, low water and Hurricane Isaac.
(Real-time update as of September 17: Yes, we are still at Green Turtle Bay on Lake Barkley, KY. Planning to leave Wednesday morning and head south.)