Before I signed up as a Friends of the Chicago River volunteer canoe guide, there were only two sections of the Chicago River I had previously paddled. I had paddled into downtown from the north and from the south . Both of these trips were with the Leinenkugel’s Friendly Float. This year I have discovered several other places where a Chicago River canoe adventure can be found outside of downtown.
In the past two years as a guide with Friends of the Chicago River, I have discovered several really beautiful sections of the river. There are times on these stretches that it is hard to believe you are in the Chicago area. Not only are they really green, but they are hardly ever used by other canoeists. I now understand why a lot of my fellow guides prefer these stretches over the crowded area downtown. The downtown stretches are beautiful too as they give a wonderful view of the skyline, but they do not compare to the solitude, the scenery, and wildlife you see on these other areas.
Unexpected Chicago River canoe adventure
The Skokie Lagoons are the Boundary Waters of Chicago. Once the biggest Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) project during the New Deal in the 1930s, the Skokie Lagoons are a network of pools, channels, and islands that wind through several Northshore suburbs and also flow into the beautiful Chicago Botanic Gardens. This water world is a great escape from the city and suburbs and great for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, and birding.
You can canoe for miles through this maze of water and then find a comfortable grove for a picnic. Of the three sections in this post, this is by far the most used by other outdoor enthusiasts. Despite the number of other paddlers and fisherman on the lagoons, the area is so extensive that it is easy to find your own space. Just paddle around the corner.
The section of the Skokie Lagoons in the Chicago Botanic Gardens is off limits to paddlers most of the year. You can still enjoy the lagoons here, but you have to enter the Gardens and experience on foot. One weekend during the year; however, you can explore the Chicago Botanic Gardens by canoe. On Father’s Day weekend, you can register and paddle the Skokie Lagoons with Friends of the Chicago River Canoe guides. Bookmark this weekend next year and sign up at the Botanic Gardens website.
North Branch of the Chicago River
At the very southern tip of the Skokie Lagoons is a dam. On the other side of the dam, the North Branch of the Chicago River begins. As soon as you enter the canopy of trees say goodbye to civilization for six miles except for going under a few bridges, a section through Chic Evans Golf Course, and a few glimpses of houses and people on the bike path. Apart for those few reminders of urban life, you will feel like you are on a river in Wisconsin or Michigan instead of a river only 20 miles from downtown Chicago and in the heart of the northern suburbs.
In three trips along this stretch this year, we have not seen one other boat on the river outside our group. All three of these trips were done on a weekend. There is no livery service or rental company that services this section, so you have to have your own boat or book a trip with the Friends of the Chicago River. Because of the lack of people on this stretch, the animal life thrives. Great blue herons and black-crowned night herons fly from trees around every bend. Green herons and kingfishers also patrol the shorelines as do sandpipers, red-tailed hawks, and turtles and frogs.
An impressive variety of mammals can also be seen here. On an earlier trip this year for the Ralph Frese Memorial Paddle, we saw two mink and several deer. Muskrat, beaver, and even river otter might also be spotted if you are lucky.
There are two potential portages on this stretch due to dams depending on the water level. There are also might be a few trees to either saw through or portage around due to storms. We paddled on consecutive weekends and on the second trip a huge tree had fallen, so the river can change from trip to trip, but these obstacles just add to the adventure.
Little Calumet River
When I saw that I was on the schedule for a trip on the Little Calumet River, I was not all that pleased. That area of the city is rather run down and not too attractive. My thoughts on this river changed drastically about five minutes from the put in. Although not as scenic as the North Branch of the Chicago River, the Little Calumet as it meanders through Kickapoo Woods is really pretty.
While not technically the Chicago River, the Little Calumet River is part of the same watershed, so it is in the purview of the Friends of the Chicago River. There is another arm of the Little Calumet that is wider and is busy with large transport vehicles and is not as conducive to paddling as the scenic stream we enjoyed.
The wildlife was again a real surprise here. We saw herons, egrets, kingfishers, and a doe with two fawns coming down to the water’s edge for a drink. There is the possibility of seeing bald eagles on the Little Calumet, but we did no see any. On this stretch, we also did not see another paddler.
Three sections of the Chicago River from north to south that have similar attributes. They all offer great paddling, scenic waterways through beautiful green forest, surprising wildlife, and a great way to escape the city and suburban crowds.
Check out the Friends of the Chicago River events page for a canoe trip to enjoy one of these beautiful sections. There is a canoe and kayak rental located at Skokie Lagoons. Check out Chicago Canoe & Kayak for information.
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