CHICAGO (AP) - The pod of idling kayakers waited for the right moment to
shoot across a jumble of intersecting shipping and tour-boat lanes on the
Chicago River, taking their cue from a guide who signaled it was safe by
letting loose a motivational battle cry.
“Are you ready to paddle down the canyon of steel and glass?” shouted Sam
Huff, a bearded 26-year-old, enunciating each word with the gusto of an
announcer at a monster truck rally.
The eight paddlers in orange and yellow kayaks pushed off through the murky
water, dwarfed by skyscrapers and drawing occasional horn blasts from
hulking sightseeing boats.
After decades of heaping scorn and pollution upon the Chicago River, the
city is opening urban waterways for kayaking and other recreation. Similar
efforts are taking shape in other cities, including New York and Grand
In Chicago, that vision is running into the reality that the river is still
an industrial superhighway for tows and tugs hauling salt, scrap metal and
cement in barges strung together in floating fortresses.
“We’re just kind of dodging a tragedy,” said Cmdr. Jason Neubauer,
commanding officer of a Coast Guard safety unit that helps keep the
commercial and recreational traffic out of each other’s way.
As many as eight barges a day operate in the city, making several
roundtrips. A fleet of water taxis and tour boats makes about 100 daily
trips. And now kayakers - up to several hundred on a nice summer day - are
in the mix on a river with narrow passages and high concrete walls that
offer few safe refuges for paddlers in trouble.
No major accidents have been reported, but there have been near-misses,
including kayakers getting too close and having to be rescued by commercial
vessels, Neubauer said.
Guides for long-established outfitters are well aware of the dangers.
First-time kayakers setting off on their own, though, have drawn comparisons
to kids playing on railroad tracks or riding bikes on expressways.
“It’s a very dangerous thing,” said Lynn Muench, a senior vice president at
The American Waterways Operators trade association, describing how it can
take around a mile for a barge to stop.
“You’ve got kayakers out there that pull in front of them. And our guys are
blowing the whistle, saying, ‘Get out of the way,’ and they sit out there
and wave,” she said.
Besides the lack of quick maneuverability and blind spots, tugs and tows
pushing barges have powerful engines that can pull smaller vessels toward
them, especially in narrow channels.
There are other hidden hazards on the Chicago River: blasts of wind ripping
through gaps between skyscrapers and sewer and storm water runoff chutes
that act like giant Jacuzzi jets, pushing unsuspecting kayakers into the
middle of the waterway and into the path of much larger vessels.
“There’s times when you’ll feel a little uncomfortable,” said Huff, who
guides groups for Kayak Chicago, which began offering tours in 1999. He grew
up in Durham, N.C., and kayaked down backwoods rivers before adjusting to
the challenges of paddling in an urban setting.
Huff and other guides working for Kayak Chicago get special training and are
equipped with radios to communicate with each other and with barge
operators. They also carry air horns, tow lines to pull customers out of
harm’s way, first aid kits, water pumps and lights.
Other outfitters can be dangerously lax. Veteran kayakers say they’ve
frequently witnessed companies taking novice paddlers out without life
On a recent afternoon, Huff and another guide took a group through downtown,
past industrial relics, architectural grandeur and occasional gaggles of
geese and other patches of scraggly wildlife.
His colleague, 21-year-old Steven Bourke, warned paddlers to stay on the
right, saying, “We’re pretty much the bikes on the highway. We have no right
Minutes into the excursion, one first-time paddler lost his balance and
spilled into the water. Bourke shot over, emptied the kayak of water and had
the paddler back in his seat in around a minute.
“It’s not that bad, actually,” the rescued kayaker, Ryan Postel, shouted to
the others, who looked skeptically at the dark water fouled in spots with
Styrofoam cups and other litter.
At points in the river with obscured sight lines, Bourke surged ahead to
scout for boat traffic and radioed the other guide when it was safe to bring
the group forward. They also kept watch as paddlers took their eyes off the
waterway to snap photos of the skyline.
“I think when the first boat rode by, it was a little nerve-racking, but you
get kind of used to it,” said Postel, a 30-year-old Chicago native.
Chicago plans to open four boathouses on the river to offer more access to
rowers and paddlers. The first facility opened in June in Chinatown on the
river’s south branch. Many large cities are doing the same. New York
announced plans this month to spend $7 million to transform a desolate
waterfront area of lower Manhattan into a recreational destination for
kayakers and others.
Partly to draw kayakers, Michigan is putting the rapids back in Grand Rapids
by restoring boulders and gravel that were removed over the past century and
a half to aid commercial navigation.
In Chicago, the establishment in July of a harbor safety committee to get
all users of the river talking with one another has eased some concerns.
But a lack of awareness on the part of recreational boaters and kayakers
still poses a serious problem around the region, the shipping industry says.
Muench, who is based in St. Louis, often watches in amazement from a
favorite waterside watering hole in Grafton, Ill., as jet skiers wake-jump
“A lot of them don’t know the rules of the road,” she said. “A lot of them
don’t understand the basic physics of how big these vessels are and how hard
it is to maneuver and stop them.”