Water Trails of Northeastern Illinois

Unique Trips
By Gary Mechanic
  |  Gorp.com

Passing through the urban canyons of the main stem and South Branch of the Chicago River in the Chicago River's downtown area is unlike any paddling experience in any other big city. While there is a system of launchsites around New York City and a watertrail on the front doorstep of Seattle in Puget Sound, no where else in this country can you canoe or kayak through the midst of skyscrapers of such architectural grandeur and significance as in Chicago's loop.

Access to the downtown area is currently not close or easy. The amount of commercial boat and ship traffic and their wakes, the width and depth of the river and the nearly continuous vertical steel and concrete walls with few ladders make this an area for more experienced and well equipped paddlers. However, it is a navigable waterway and non-motorized watercraft have the same legal right to enjoy these stretches as the commercial and recreational motorized craft.

Put in at the I&M; Canal Origin site at 2701 S. Ashland where the Chicago Park District is creating an innovative new public park and small boat access. The I&M; Canal was hand dug mostly by Irish immigrants between 1836 and 1848 when it was opened. This artificial connection between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River system is largely responsible for Chicago becoming the major city of the midwest. This site is nearly four river miles to Wolf Point, at the confluence of the north and south branches. It is another 1.5 miles east down the main branch of the river to the Chicago Locks. Out-of-towners can rent gear at Chicagoland Canoe Base, (773) 777-1489.

While most paddlers look for river trips that take them away from the development of urban areas, the Calumet River and the O'Brian Locks [Map] provides access to the giant rusting relics of the past industrial age. Like colossal sculptures, cranes, old factories, huge conveyor belts and ocean-going ships provide the scenery along the Calumet River.

Put-in at the Cook County Forest Preserve District's Beaubien Woods Launch Ramp (on the north side of the river, on the west side of the I94 Bishop Ford Freeway). An alternate put-in for a slightly shorter trip is at the Riverside Marina at 13601 S. Calhoun at the dead end of 136th St. on the east side of the river. Pass through the O'Brian Locks at about 134th St. Approximately 6 miles north are dry-docks on the right bank just before passing under the enormous Chicago Skyway Bridge. 1.5 miles downstream is the mouth of the river at Lake Michigan. Check the weather and waves before entering the lake. The take-out at the Calumet Park Boat Ramp is 1/2 mile south of the mouth of the river.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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