Saturday, June 22, 2013

Paddling an actual Great Lake

Rough outline of trip (~75 miles total)
What: I cut my teeth lake paddling on Lake Champlain, but by Great Lake standards it just ain't the same as real lake paddling (Lake Champlain has been recognized as a Great Lake by Bill Clinton and later "unrecognized" by Leahy and congress). I went to college in Chicago, but never got to explore it by boat. With my time off I wanted to return to the Windy City and find some of the hidden wildlife popping up along the water's edge.

I drove in to Chicago Monday afternoon. Shortly after arriving I went for a jog with a couple of other reluctantly declared "former" runners, definitely not yet ready to call ourselves joggers. We ran along Lake Michigan's shore and the lake looked angry. It was one of the few times I've ever turned down a post-run swim. The wind was strong and out of the north. The length of the lake runs a little over 300 miles from north to south and, at the southern edge, a long northerly wind can build up powerful and dangerous swells, certainly nothing I'd want to paddle in. I decided to play it by ear on Wednesday - if the wind and water had calmed significantly I would give it a try, otherwise I'd look to paddle elsewhere.

The weather played in my favor and had died down significantly and the wind switched directions and was coming out of the east. The swells continuously shrank and by dusk were a pleasant roll. My primary concern was the daunting conditions around Navy Pier. The tourist boats throw up large wake and threatened to capsize my boat or flat out run me off. I hugged the break wall, where I got to hang out with impossible willows growing out of rock, nesting red-winged blackbirds, and acrobatic barn swallows.

My first stop after leaving 57th St beach was at Montrose Beach on the north shore. I ate a late lunch and rested for a couple of hours (about 15 miles of lake paddling is exhausting). I had some really wonderful conversations with curious folks; a handmade boat is a great conversation starter. People were both surprised at the length of my trip and that I was actually paddling in the lake. On my whole trip I didn't see anyone else paddling a boat they owned (I saw a few folks near the few 1/2 hour rental spots).

The evening section of my first day's paddle was surreal. Dusk swept across the sky in dramatic fashion. To the north a deep purple settled over the distant suburbs, while downtown shifted to a glowing orange from the sodium vapor lights. The waxing moon rose as the sun sank and I had the great fortune of seeing the gulls making their daily migration to roosting spots. As I followed their flight over my shoulder I heard thunder, which turned out to be a fireworks display downtown. Perhaps the ubiquity of gulls renders us blind to these amazing birds, but nobody seems to know or at least write about this daily phenomenon. I enjoyed watching the gulls, both ring-billed and herring, in their elegance diving for fish or hawking insects over the water. Poet and storyteller Martin Prechtel says that each species has its own eloquence that manifests at different times of year. Watching the gulls reminded me of that elegance that seemed so far from the domesticating scavenging I'm more familiar seeing. The hundreds (maybe thousands) of gulls seemed to be heading off in two directions, one to the south (possibly the break wall off the shore from downtown) and one to the east (possibly the water cribs in the lake). Their flight was quiet and mirrored the stillness of the lake. I was transfixed.

I continued on to Evanston and camped out at Northwestern's campus. Sometime in the middle of the night I awoke surrounded by a family of 6 raccoons. They scared what I think was a chipmunk right into me. I threw some sticks at them in my stupor and fell asleep too tired to secure up my food bag. I got lucky and woke to find all of my stuff still in place.

With a sunburn heating my skin and a sore left elbow I ate breakfast, packed up, and heading north on the lake to Lloyd Park beach in Winnetka. I took my time consolidating my gear as I knew the 2 mile portage in the heat of the day to the North Branch of the Chicago River was going to be a long one. The North Branch, in short, is majestic. It is a true refuge for wildlife and wildness in a city that can seem relentlessly urban. Amongst the chorus of catbirds, indigo buntings, and awkward grunts of great blue herons, I felt an older wildness welling up inside me. The chorus of sirens, cars, and trains faded into the background and became part of the noise of the woods. I felt my rhythms slowing. I relished my encounters stalking the young of raccoons out foraging or being graced with the presence of a young buck watching me intently from the banks.

While it feels old, I know it's young. This wildness is enclosed by a relatively immature forest akin to Vermont's riparian corridors and floodplains (e.g. boxelder, silver maples, cottonwoods, black willow). The river bends and winds in what feels like a natural meander. Walking a short distance from the banks in parts reveals old meander scars and tiny oxbow "lakes", though much of the even wilder stretches are heavily channelized and reinforced with rip rap, and I know that the story of how the river got its shape is a long and complicated one, the intersection of glacial geology, massive industrialization at its zenith, and human health concerns.

Because Chicago gets its drinking water from the lake, the Chicago River, which in its native form drained into the river, carried all of our urban effluent into our drinking water supply. In reaction to outbreaks of disease, namely cholear, in 1885, Chicago undertook a massive effort to reverse the flow of the river through a series of locks and dams. The city was then able to send its waste water to the Mississippi River rather than the lake; it's always worse downstream. There are a few tiny dams and a couple larger ones on the North Branch that, along with sections that were reinforced and deepened, increase flow of this section to more efficiently move water out of Chicago. These dams were a minor annoyance on the paddle as though only a foot or so drop required me to get all my stuff out and "portage" across the gap.

Next to the gulls, my favorite part was dusk on the second night. Around the time I reached Addison the green herons and great blue herons started packing it in for the night and heading to bed as the black-crowned night herons came out in droves. There were dozens of them, their eloquence on display. They're as graceful as great blue herons in all the ways GBHs are, and graceful in all the ways they are not. I loved the few encounters I had where they flew right over my boat as if to say hello.I couldn't help but be concerned for all these birds (great blue herons average life expectancy in the wild is about 15 years) eating fish out of these polluted waters.

The sun set lazily and, wearing just shorts, the warm wind was my blanket. My arms and body totally fatigued from the 30 miles of paddling and the 2 mile portage, I dreamily paddled from Belmont to downtown. I felt alone - though not lonely - like a voyeur looking in on a city's dirty secrets. Signs lined the river warning me not to let my skin come in contact with it, the Morton salt plant had left a crystalline patina on the surface of the water, and a weird foam oozed in great swirling patterns somewhere else along the way. Perhaps fear is why people only enjoy the water from the comfort of a brief stop on an overpass. Condos line the water's edge, the windows open to the river, giving glimpses at private worlds, someone on an exercise bike, quite conversations on balconies, the Miami Heat winning the championships. And while so much of me intellectually understood the gravity of the waterway's impaired health, I couldn't help but feel past this and see this totally wild, totally beautiful ecosystem thriving in this big forgotten expanse cutting through the heart of the city

I finished my paddle at Navy Pier sometime around 1am, greeted by the US Coast Guard trolling around asking where my life jacket was. I backtracked a bit and found a boat landing where tour boats park along the channelized edges (the concrete banks are about 10' high in places). I pulled my canoe up next to me as a visual block and camped out for the night, the lights from Navy Pier casting shadows across the water. I felt so safe down in my tiny hideaway. After all, I'd been almost completely undetected for about 30 miles and people rarely deviate from the beaten path so I felt confident I wouldn't be detected. Plus, I planned on getting up with the sun.

Sunset greeted me in full splendor. I ate a hasty breakfast and then portaged my boat 3/4 of a mile south to the Chicago Yacht Club (the lake is blocked by a dam, again to control flow of the Chicago River so it doesn't drain directly into the lake). It was actually frustrated trying to find a publicly accessible boat launch here. All the retention walls are super high and the closest beach was a mile north and out of the way.

The last 7 miles or so of my trip were easily the longest. The warming weather must have come in on a warm front from the south. The winds were stiff and the lake had become choppy. I was totally drained and had to continuously paddle to avoid getting blown backwards. I chose the less wise path of cutting the tangent from Shedd Aquarium rather than hugging the coast to save on distance and risk capsizing. It worked out, but had I tipped I would have been in big trouble. Progress was slow and the winds continuously strengthened to maybe 20 mile an hour perfect headwinds. I pulled into shore exactly where I had started about 48 hours earlier, having traveled a little over 70 miles by water and 4 miles by land. I was totally spent, sunburned, and in a complete state of bliss.

Birding wasn't my primary focus so I probably missed quite a few, but I did keep an informal bird list while out on the trip. With the canopy fully closed now it's hard to identify most species visually so I wish I were a better birder by ear. With the exception of a couple, all of the birds below were identified visually.

Bird List:
  1. black-crowned night heron
  2. green heron
  3. great blue heron
  4. turkey vulture
  5. ring-billed gull
  6. herring gull
  7. common tern
  8. Caspian tern
  9. chimney swift
  10. barn swallow
  11. cliff swallow
  12. tree swallow
  13. eastern wood pewee
  14. eastern phoebe
  15. mute swan
  16. Canada goose
  17. mallard
  18. wood ducks galore!! So many fledglings everywhere
  19. pigeon
  20. mourning dove
  21. American crow
  22. blue jay
  23. northern cardinal
  24. downy woodpecker
  25. hairy woodpecker
  26. yellow-shafted flicker
  27. red-bellied woodpecker
  28. European starling
  29. common grackle
  30. red-winged blackbird
  31. catbird
  32. American robin
  33. house sparrow
  34. house finch
  35. killdeer
  36. belted kingfisher
  37. indigo bunting
  38. eastern kingbird
  39. great-crested flycatcher
  40. song sparrow
  41. Cooper's hawk
  42. red-tailed hawk 
  43. red-breasted nuthatch
  44. blue-gray gnatcatcher
  45. cedar waxwing
  46. Baltimore oriole