Kayaking The Chicago River
A greenhouse learning community at our school took a kayaking trip down the Chicago River to learn about the journey the river has taken to get to the place it is today - far from the meatpacking industry days, but not quite where the city needs it to be.
"When I first got into the kayak I was fully prepared for death.
It’s not like I’m an easily scared person except where spiders, shadows, and moths may be involved but I had never been in a kayak before nor had I ventured so close to the river let alone actually get into it. No, I preferred the river walk or bridges overhead where I could see the sun’s reflection on the water and oh how pretty it all was. But now I was up close and personal as the guides taught me about foot pegs, how to paddle, and now we were lowering the boat into the river and I was in it.
My first thought was that it was cold. Really cold and completely unavoidable as my novice paddling skills scooped the water into my lap more often than not. It was also murkier than I expected. From far away the river had looked just like the sky and the lake reflecting those beautiful blue or grey colors but up close it was dark, clouded and more than slightly intimidating. There was garbage in the water, bags and Styrofoam coolers in pieces that I thought would get stuck on my paddle and at one point we passed a lone high heel floating alongside more plastic. In the midst of all this I looked around and saw for the first time the inside of the walls that held the river, grown green with moss and spider webs. I felt small, like I was another plastic bottle getting carried into the current and as my initial fear started to dissipate it was replaced with a sense of exhilaration.
I was inside of The Chicago River. Looking up at the streets I have walked along so many times and seeing the cars, the people walking, all of the life happening above me I really started to feel the history that I was paddling through. And reclamation of the river may be a work in progress. There is still waste left from years of abuse and dumping but keeping up the work to save our river is so very important. Sitting there in that little kayak, surrounded by my classmates struggling as much as I was, it hit me just how we’re all in this together.
I imagined a city that appreciated the river as it deserves to be. Where the reclamation projects being proposed come through and we can build our parks along the riverside and keep cleaning the water so that when the river leaves the city it doesn’t deposit waste elsewhere. Anything is possible but it takes commitment. We all have to submerge ourselves in what we think is important. Even if it’s cold and scary at first after you’ve been paddling in the water for a little while the path starts to make sense and the paddle gets a little lighter in your hands. It’s a process but learning how to take your own direction and be a part of something so large is really worth it in the end."