Claude Walker | Bicentennial-By-Buttons

A Sanitary Centenary

by Claude Walker

While we Cubs fans duly noted the 100th anniversary of the last you-know-what and everyone's talking about Daniel Burnham's Plan, another centennial is flowing past us right beneath our noses: the construction of the North Shore Channel.

A backdoor link between Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, this man-made waterway flows from Wilmette Harbor to the Chicago River's North Branch near Foster (at Chicago's only waterfall).

The Channel was designed to divert lake water into the meandering - and then truly disgusting - Chicago River, as well as flush suburban wastewater away and host recreational boating. (Where "the affluent could go boating on the effluent", it was said.)

As described in Libby Hill's engaging book, The Chicago River: A natural and unnatural history, the official "Shovel Day" was in September 1907, but the real digging occurred in 1908 and 1909. Excavated clay became Wilmette's Gillson Park or Rogers Park bungalows. Lake water flowed on November 29, 1910.

Today, busy commuters traverse over and along the North Shore Channel by car, bike, bus and CTA train, most thinking it's the Chicago River. Locals call it the "Drainage Canal". It is sluggish, unloved and perfectly straight, except for that elbow in Evanston. This active wildlife corridor and flyway is a preferred route to Downtown Chicago for deer, coyotes and possibly the cougar who was shot six blocks from the Chicago River, just downriver from the Channel's confluence.

To celebrate this "sanitary centenary", I launched my 11'-kayak from the Channel's Oakton launch recently with a plan to paddle the entire length of the Channel, and back again.

Destination of the first leg: 4.3 miles upstream to the mouth of the North Shore Channel at Lake Michigan.

I set off on a brisk May morning in high, murky water. Except for some forsythia and splashes of purple wildflowers, it's too soon for much foliage on the banks and trees, baring the Channel's straight-edge topography. Cyclists and walk-a-thoners huff by on the path hugging the west bank.

I enjoy the splendid Skokie Sculpture Garden in a new light from a new angle. The Gandhi statue glistens in the early sun. He would have been a good kayaker, I think; the man could go with the flow. I recall being at the statue's unveiling as a helicopter dropped 10,000 pink rose petals onto the Mahatma, an amazed crowd and into the Channel.

As I paddle north the water gets clearer. Turtles crowd up a sewer pipe. A furry critter swims past me into a den on the bank. Signs of busy beavers. I see herons, geese and a screechy kingfisher who dive-bombs me, then tags along for awhile. After waving to CTA Purple Line riders zipping high overhead by Central Avenue, I spot a bloated deer carcass on the bank...can cougars swim?

Leafless trees allow a spectacular approach to the Baha'i Temple, its intricately-latticed stone dome beaming in the cloudless sky. I paddle up to the Wilmette pumphouse/sluice gate: vintage civil engineering with a hint of Art Deco. During previous voyages, I've seen lake water gushing in through the gate, but all's calm today. Boats could once steam past Gillson Park, through locks here and all the way south to the Loop, but the locks were sealed decades ago.

This leg took 90 minutes. There's no dock, so I stow the paddle and just drift awhile under the Baha'i Temple and pumphouse. I try to imagine the Channel's creators 100 years ago: the planners' vision, the politicians' will, the engineers' precision, the workers' aching backs. I think about MY aching back.

Wind is howling off the Lake...time to turn back. A slight current eases the return trip. I pass Ryan (Dyche) Stadium and a golf course. I can't really see either one, but I've heard football crowds and seen golf balls arc over the Channel in previous treks.

A mom with two kids on a bridge waves andaims her camera at me. I yell, "Hey, is this the way to New Orleans?" She plays along: "Take this to the Mississippi River and turn left!"

I paddle under ten bridges each way: some ancient stone monoliths, others sleekly steel. There's evidence of homeless folks under a few viaducts, along with death-defying graffiti and elaborate bird nests. At Dempster, I meet a high school rowing crew; the kids are working hard. The Channel's straightness and minimal current make it a nice venue for college and prep rowing races.

The North Shore Channel has grown from an 1860s raw sewage ditch to a valued - but unheralded - component of our region's hydrology. It is growing into a lush greenway hosting wildlife and an occasional boater. Some public officials and advocates such as Friends of the Chicago River are working hard to clean it up, protect the natural corridor and enable more recreational use.

I land back at the Oakton launch, muscles screaming. I'll save the Channel's southern leg for another day. That's a fun trip, too, navigating the "rapids" at the Howard sewage treatment outflow and Devon Aeration Station, or paddling past Thillens Stadium as Little League fans cheer.

From 1907 to 1910, thousands of shovel-wielding laborers braved malaria and brutal conditions to turn a ditch into an engineering marvel. The North Shore Channel has become a vital component in the living, breathing organism we call northeast Illinois. It is now host to elegant herons, cell-yakking joggers, panting kayakers and a gilded Gandhi. I wonder if those workers in 1909 figured that it would be another century before the Cubs won another you-know-what?

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