Main | September 2007 »

August 2007 Archives

August 8, 2007

Boat Blog

As an experiment, I've set up this weblog to report on progress of the trash boat.
Its been a hassle to try to get this thing to work, but I guess I learned something from the effort?

The Chop House


For most of June, this was about all there was to show of the boat. Working alone at the Chop House with all the neighborhood kids dropping by to distract me, I didn't get much done.

To Scally Island

Finally I towed the boat trailer over to Scally Island so Mike could help out. Here's some of the materials he'd collected already for his own boat project.

The Floats

Laying out the frame. Looks like we need more conduit.

The Frame

Walk In The Water

After some deliberation we decided the boat should be propelled by two side paddle wheels instead of one rear wheel. This means abandoning the cool paddle wheel McD gave me, but instead we end up with a boat evocative of the first steamship on the upper Great Lakes, the Walk In The Water:

Launch Point


The Army Corps of Engineers has all the navigation charts for the Illinois & Chicago Rivers online in pdf format. I knew I'd seen these a few years ago, but it took a while to re-find them:

August 9, 2007


On Monday it became clear that we would have to push the launch date back another week. Some of the steps to assemble the boat suddenly became more complicated than they'd first appeared. First of all, getting the pillow blocks for the axle bearings was more difficult than anticipated. Motion Industries, the specialists in such arcane parts, didn't have the size we needed. The larger size would be workable, but they only had one in stock that day.

Pillow Block

Another trip downtown, another day, and we were finally able to position the axle on the frame with both bearings in place.

Positioning the axle

Turns out I didn't plan the frame position very well. There isn't much room to fit the gear so that it doesn't rub against the pipes in back or in front. Fortunately Mike had a spare half-link so we could adjust the chain length so that the axle lies in the center. But now the chain is rubbing against the stays!


After a lot of banging with a hammer and pulling on the pipe bender the chain seems to turn freely.

August 10, 2007

Illinois River in the News

Hey, the Chicago Tribune is starting a 4-part series on the Ilinois River, on Tuesdays.

Paddle Wheels

Before we can do a float test of the boat we need to finish the side paddle wheels. Once we put the axle in place on the boat it seemed that the first wheel that Mike had made would be a bit too large, so we started over with two smaller kid wheels. First the fins, folded and pressed in a vise:


Now we have a few extra wheels. Hopefully we can give these to someone else for another boat project.

Paddle Wheels

Building the Frame

Some photos from last weekend's work on the frame of the boat.

Mike welding supports between the parallel lengths of conduit.

Adding supports to the frame

The conduit is very flexible and easily bent wherever we like

The boat framework

Monday night we finished up the ends

The bow

And the stern, which will double as a bike hitch when towing the boat to the river

The stern

August 11, 2007


With the paddle wheels finally installed we wanted to take the boat down to the harbor to do a little float test. The evening seemed best to avoid getting in the way of any boaters.

Working quickly, we hitched up the tail to a spare bike, lashed a few paddles and spare boards to the top and made ready to head out.

Hitch up the pony

Its only a few blocks down to the park and on to the harbor.

To the Lake!

But as soon as we got to the park and turned off onto the bike path, a cop pulled up in his patrol car. "You aren't putting dat into Lake Michigan!" he said over his megaphone, and I recognized his voice. It was that same cop who closes up the park at Montrose Beach by cruising slowly and intoning from his car in a thick Chicago accent: "Da beach is close! What you guys is doin' here is beyon' me. Scram! Skeedaddle!"

The officer got out of his car and came over to check us out. There was still over an hour before the park closed, so he couldn't figure out what exact reason for why we should leave and get out of his life. "If you guys put dis in the harbor, the marine patrol is gonna have a heart attac'! Dey'll fine you $500 bucks... and confiscate yer craft, too!" Well, it went on and on, him telling us all the trouble we were going to have if we even thought about testing the boat in the water. Never anything specific of why it was against the rules to test a homemade boat there, just that he was not going to leave us alone.

So we turned around in defeat and dragged the boat home to Scally Island. We'll have to figure out another time when it would be good to do a float test without such interference.

But the paddle wheels are working great, on land anyway.


August 13, 2007

Adding decking

On Saturday we were ready to add decking to the boat. But first, some rearrangement of the flotation jugs. Our little excursion to the lake on Friday night showed that one of the floats was too close to the wheels, which nearly rubbed a hole through. We don't have any of these 5-gal jugs to spare, so we can't afford to lose one.

Banding machine

Last week I was fortunate to find some complete sheets of 4x8 plywood in the alley. We were looking for 1/4" plywood, which isn't so common in the trash. The dumpster where I found the wood had some interesting stuff, so I went back later to check it out, to discover that its the warehouse to a magic shop. They are cleaning out 40 years of packrat accumulations of card tricks, newspaper clippings, puppet stages and bric-a-brac. Pretty neat stuff in there.


So, with our magic plywood in hand we set to cutting the decking.

Cutting the decking

I had expected we'd be piecing together scraps to make the decking, but with these two full sheets it was easy enough to lay down the boards and simply trim the corners. With a few jigsaw cutouts to fit around pipes, the decking fits perfectly.

Attaching the decking

While cutting the rounded corners of the decks I noticed again how crooked and asymmetrical our boat is shaping up to be. It bothers me to some extent, as I imagine how sleek and elegant a homemade boat can be. Even the most lowly materials could be coaxed into graceful forms, with the right patience and artfulness to bring out the essence of the material. But I must remind myself that function is the important thing here. That the materials are all basically trash, and it is good enough for them to be used instead of wasted or destroyed. Besides, I know my style of working enough to realize that my tendency towards fussiness often only results in a tendency to not finish things. Let go of symmetry! Let go of plans and expectations! The boat must be finished!


On Sunday we finished up bolting the deck to the framework and then Mike had to head off to work. So I started planning where the gunwales of the raft will go. We had some old 2x4s that a neighbor had given us from a dismantled playground set. However, only one of the boards proved usable. This one had a nice warp to it which would be great for counter-acting the sagginess to the frame that had become more pronounced when adding more weight to the frame.


Once the boat gets into the water it will flatten itself out, and the flexibility of the conduit frame may be of value when riding over waves. But when towing the boat as a trailer, we need a little more stiffness to the frame. The 2x4s will work perfectly, bolted to the frame.

Cutout for bearings

August 14, 2007

It Floats!

Last night we tried again at a float test, hoping to slip into the park and down the bike path unnoticed. The boat is quite a lug to pull behind a bike, especially so because one trailer wheel is badly out of true and rubbing on the frame. But at last we made it to the harbor! A wandering security guard had no trouble with us trying out our craft, and few of the passersby expressed much interest in the boat.

Into the water

Rolling the boat down the steep ramp into the water, it was surprisingly stable.


And the paddle wheels worked well. Without any extra gear this thing moves pretty fast.

Off into the night

We chugged about the harbor for a while, meandering among the crowded sailboats and luxury cruisers. Some boaters were having quiet dinner parties on the ends of their docks, but they hardly looked up over their wine glasses as we pedalled by.

Definitely there are some adjustments that need to be made. The paddle wheels, in particular, throw as much water onto the decks as they push backwards. But these are minor things, and should be fixable as we prepare for a Saturday launch date.


Launch Party

The boat still has more work to do, but I think its safe to plan that we'll be ready to go on this Saturday, August 18. So we're planning a launch party for that morning.

3400 N. Rockwell (Clark Park)
Just south of Addison on the east side of the river
Saturday, August 18


See you there!

Flying Fish

Today's Tribune story on the Illinois River is about the new sport of Extreme Aerial Bowfishing. Guess thats what they do for kicks in Peoria. I am really looking forward to seeing some of these leaping silver carp when we get farther down the river. Our paddle wheel blades are pretty sharp on the ends, it might be like a food processor for flying fish.

August 15, 2007

Source of the Chicago River

The other day I rode up to see the source of the Chicago River. The river has several branches and forks, and its natural source lies far to the north near the Wisconsin border, flowing through the Skokie Lagoons and the Botanical Garden. But it could be argued that the largest contributor to the flow in the river is the Northside Sewage Treatment plant that pumps out an average of 333 million gallons of treated water per day, coming from the entire north side of the city and several suburbs.

Fishing at the Sewage Treatment Plant

Recently the Alliance for the Great Lakes released a report urging the city to change the way it treats its wastewater. The treatment plant cleans the sewage from the wastewater but does little to cleanse the water of bacteria or viruses passing through the system. Most all other cities around the country use chlorination/dechlorination or UV treatment to disinfect wastewater before it is released into open water. But Chicago simply dumps the brew into the river. Some of you Chicago River boaters may have personal experience with these little beasties that can cause gastroenteritis, leptospirosis, salmonellosis, shigellosis, even cryptosporidiosis.

Farther downstream, the river gradually cleans itself up. Below Grand Ave, water seeping through the locks from Lake Michigan gives the river a boost of freshness, only to be lost when passing by the world's largest sewage treatment plant, in Stickney. Beyond there, the river is not recommended for swimming until you get downstream past Lockport.

Human Body Contact

What surprised me while watching the sewage treatment outflow was all the wildlife present there. In just 10 minutes I saw turtles, ducks, a kingfisher, cormorant, night heron, bittern, all in this little spot.

Birdlife at the Sewage Treatment Plant

The fast-moving water entering the sluggish canal must be a magnet for fish. Just downstream of the sewage treatment plant outflow a group of fishermen & women cast their lines. And indeed, I did see a lot of fish jumping and splashing in the murky water.

Fishing at the Sewage Treatment Plant

Just above the scene, the Skokie Swift raced by periodically.

Skokie Swift

The train provides the best view into the workings of the plant, with its circular settling ponds and aeration beds. When it was built in 1927, it was the world's largest wastewater treatment plant, an honor now held by the plant in Stickney. For now, the only vista I could find was this one, from an asphalt knob near Mount Trashmore, looking across the river at the handsome brick towers of the compound.

Bridge view from Mount Trashmore

August 16, 2007

Homemade boats on the web

Some other boat building projects you all might be interested in:

Early Morning Mist on the Water

Punk Rafting on the Willamette River

Rat Patrol Oz makes some astounding bike creations, including the S.S. Mitzie, a floating tall bike couch. Amazing.

An elegantly simple homemade pedal mechanism for a rubber raft, at

August 17, 2007

Full speed ahead

Well, another late evening of work on the boat. On Wednesday night it all seemed discouraging. We had added another pillow block near the center of the boat to try to prevent the axle from flexing so much when pedaling hard. But now its harder to turn at all times. Nothing on the boat is very straight, and the shims we had to add to the axle aren't very round, or on center, so it adds up to extra friction. Not such easy spinning as before, even after all the adjustments we tried. We'll just lay on a bunch of oil and hope the drive train smooths itself out in the end.

But Thursday night we were finally making progress and it was fun again. Adding the last details and drilling holes to fit all the last parts. Its looking good. And now it seems again as if it will be all finished tonight and ready for tomorrow's launch. By then the boat should have a name and be ready for the champagne. See you all there!

Saturday the 18th - 10/11am - 3400 N Rockwell (between Belmont & Addison)

August 23, 2007

Drying out

Well, we're back in Chicago again. We had some mechanical problems with the boat, an accumulation of breakdowns that left us with only one functional paddle wheel. So we pulled up on a landing in Rockdale yesterday afternoon, just south of Joliet, took the boat apart and Andrew was kind enough to drive down to haul us home just as yet another thunderstorm rolled in.

For those standing on shore, it may seem as if this was a short little trip. 5 days can go quickly when you are doing day-to-day things. But from the on-the-water perspective it was a full adventure enough. Of all the bike touring, canoe trips and camping trips I've been on, this was by far the most challenging endeavor. Riding the sewage-filled Chicago River and the brimming Des Plaines in full flood on a not-very-maneuverable homemade boat was not the simple float trip we'd imagined.

So with hindsight muddling the details, I'll try to write down some of our day by day travelogue for your enjoyment.

Churning flatwater - Day 1

Saturday morning started off cool and clear. The weather for the last few days was such an improvement over the heat and humidity of the previous week. The boat was pretty much ready to go from our work on Friday night, so we hitched it up and headed down to the river.

Towing to the river

At the landing at Clark Park a bunch of friends were waiting to see us off. It was fun to see so many people and share the excitement of heading out on a journey.

Launch party

There were some last minute supplies to get, but it meant for more time for everyone to give the boat a try. Foamy brought his own little barrel boat to toodle around near the landing too, and Tim joined us for the day in an inflatable kayak.

The Water Bug

While Nathan and I were goofing around on the boat, zigzagging up and down near the landing, I immediately broke one of the broomstick oars in half, a sign of how flimsy most of our improvised equipment really was.

The Water Bug

After a champagne toast we christened the boat the Water Bug, and loaded it up. A little flotilla of friends rented boats at the landing to join us on the water. It was a charming sendoff.

Casting off

It was good to get underway, pedaling downstream slowly. It was quickly obvious how much faster and more graceful the canoes and kayaks were than us, and they easily outpaced us. But the steady churning of the paddle wheels did push us forward at a deliberate pace and we made our way past the bridges and avenues one by one downward towards downtown.

In time the rental boats turned back upstream, with only Tim left to accompany us. As we chugged along in the slow current, he glided ahead and behind, checking out little tunnels and rusted ladders, exploring the industrial landscape along the river.


And then the rain began. Just a sprinkling at first. We put up the canopy in front and the tarp in back, neither of which was waterproof, but scattered enough of the drizzle to make it not unpleasant. Taking turns pulling on the oars in front or pedalling in back, the day stretched on and we seemed to make little progress creeping around the back side of Goose Island.

Passing a rowing team boatshed, two athletes pulled away on rowing machines in a doorway under shelter from the rain, with their tunes cranked up, watching us. Having broken an oar already, we knew not to row too hard ourselves, but this boat needed all the extra push it could get as we struggled our barge downstream at a snails pace. Our paddle wheels were geared down as far as possible, but still it was like riding a tricycle uphill all day long. Even with styrofoam filling the gaps in the paddle wheels, the fins threw water onto the decks, which flowed across in a steady stream to a puddle right under the seat of the pedaller, sitting in a low lawnchair basically in the water.


Finally we neared the tip of Goose Island, where cooperative yacht club guards allowed us to tie up at the Montgomery Ward building just to get a bite to eat and take a break in the late afternoon. We chatted a bit with a few well-heeled boaters, one of whom exclaimed "I put $500,000 into my boat, and you probably put $50 into yours! Thats great!"

The Water Bug

After some lunch we pushed off again down river. Nearing downtown we entered the tour boat circuit and one by one they paraded by, each with the same spiel on the PA system: "On your right, you'll see the Merchandise Mart, which was once the world's largest office building..." Occasionally tourists came out on deck in the rain to peek at us with a camera flash, but mostly the big boats ignored us and kept to their scripts.

Entering downtown

Approaching the main stem of the river, the skyscraper canyon walls grew higher and the boat traffic thicker. Each slow passing boat still threw a wake which bounced off the cement river walls and swept our decks repeatedly. The little raft was very stable and bobbed in the waves like a little cork, but that didn't mean that we stayed dry.

Through downtown

Now the drizzle turned to a downpour. We made for cover under one of the many bridges downtown, but as most of these are simply covered with gratings, the rain just fell on down, and through our canopies onto us. We were quickly soaked from the top and bottom. Still, the boat traffic kept streaming by: water taxis, tour boats and motor cruisers, waves bouncing everywhere. In our struggle to hurry out of this hectic freeway I crumpled another cheap oar blade and snapped another in half, leaving us only one complete oar. Meanwhile, the gears of the pedal crank were slowly working themselves loose, and the top chainring now flopped and wobbled from side to side with each turn, sometimes even throwing the chain or seizing up with tension.

But the rain made for an interesting downtown scene. Great geysers of water shot out of spouts on various levels of a parking garage at Union Station, while underwater drains frothed and boiled up from below the surface along the back of the Civic Opera House. Pedestrians on the bridges above hurried onward, watching their footing for puddles, never looking down at the strange craft bouncing in the water below.

Eventually the rain died down somewhat and we proceeded again. Slowly we crept on down out of downtown past River City and the frantic traffic faded away. As the day dimmed we made our way to the open land beyond Roosevelt Ave, where Tim scouted out a rough beach with a grassy camping area on the bank above. The climb up the crumbling bank was a bit treacherous, and I fell to the waterline when it collapsed while hauling up gear from the boat, but all in all it was a perfect campsite. Tim loaned us a kayak paddle to replace our broken toys, a good rope, some tools and a waterproof container for our food, then folded up his boat and caught a ride home.

Tied Up

Here we were, camping out in an empty field nearly in the shadow of the Sears Tower. Pretty strange. And fortunate that we'd made it this far in our slug of a boat. The skies cleared and we watched the sun set over the Amtrak yards, where the trains whinied and snorted all night long under orange street lamps bright enough to light our camp. Now in the clean evening air, party boats cruised down the river, with decks alight with food and loud music. From up on our bank standing next to the tent they looked so close by, but nobody seemed to notice us, absorbed in their floating enclosure of drinks and noise.


Day 2 - Combined Sewer Outflow

August 24, 2007

Combined Sewer Outflow - Day 2

Sunday morning dawned with waves of drizzly clouds. From our camp we woke early and decided to go across the river to Maxwell Street Market to look for some odds & ends, like a new lighter, batteries, a 15mm socket wrench and perhaps a real canoe paddle to replace our useless trash oars. Accessing the bridge required bushwacking through a regular tallgrass prairie regrown on this abandoned industrial area. The 6-foot grasses and weeds were beautiful, but so dense and laden with dew and rain we were soaked by the time we found a gap between two walls to scale up to Clark Street.

After a hearty breakfast at the good ol' White Palace, we perused the soggy booths of the market.

Maxwell Street

I've never been down here too many times, but its easy to see that the market has changed in recent years. On all sides the old market is being pushed by construction of big box retail stores and parking lots for Whole Foods, Staples and Home Depot, the prepackaged consumerism that is the very antithesis of the improvisational market scene. Much of the old-timey junk peddler aspect of the 1950s & 60s faded away even before the latest gentrification, but there is lots of new life in the Mexican immigrant booths serving up chilaquiles and ranchero CDs. Its easy enough to find a cheap pair of socks and off-brand house cleansers, but in truth there is little of value for river boat sailors at the market. We found a socket wrench and a gaudy rain poncho and left.

It was good to be out on the river again. The rain seemed to hold off for a while and the skies lifted a bit as we puttered on southward past railroad lift bridges toward Chinatown. Passing the Amtrak yards the security guards stopped their trucks to watch us pass below. They'd probably been watching our parked boat all night and were intrigued to finally see it underway. At Ping Tom Park we watched some canoeists awkwardly loading their boat from the high walls along the water because there is no good landing point there.

Farther down the river, we passed a customer dock at Lawrence Ave Fisheries. If only we hadn't eaten such a big breakfast, it would have been fun to tie up and enjoy a catfish sandwich. There seemed to be a few places where recreational boaters might tie up or stop awhile, but nobody was around. The river was pretty quiet for a summer Sunday morning. And it started to rain again.

We hurried on around some parked barges as the rain increased, making for shelter under the Dan Ryan freeway overpass. Once we made it there we found the canoeists we'd seen earlier, hiding from the downpour as well. Their names were Carlos & Greg, they offered us beer from their cooler, and we ended up hanging out under the bridge for an hour or more as the heavy rain continued. They said they plan such excursions every month or so with various other friends, float trips with a lot of beer and some delicious food, perhaps some sushi and a bottle of wine. They regaled us with tales of day trips on suburban rivers, encounters with the natives in the land of SUVs and other misadventures. It was fun to sit out the rain with them, and Carlos admitted he might even be inspired to build a raft from scraps of wood left over at his deck-building job. Eventually the rain lightened a bit, they headed back upstream and we down.

Carlos & Greg

Mike was sheepish about sporting his new Bears poncho, but as the rain continued, there really was no avoiding it.

Go Bears!

Passing by the mouth of Bubbly Creek and down toward the Sky Factory, we began to notice a lot of debris in the water. A basketball, baseballs, wrappers, even a slime encrusted rubber duckie. And we saw water plants riding on the flood, just like I'd remembered from Disney movies in elementary school.


But the most disturbing flotsam heading downstream with us were the innumerable condoms and tampons drifting just below the surface of the water. If there had been just a few, perhaps they could have washed in off a trash-filled parking lot, but there were so many we assumed it meant that the rains had overwhelmed the city sewer system, which dumps raw sewage into the river from dozens of combined sewer outfalls at various places on the banks.

Sky Factory

The first towboat we saw on the river. The crew of the Kiowa comes out to watch a strange homemade boat float by.


As the river turned west out of the city, it seemed to pick up speed a little, and the going seemed easier. One improvement was that we figured out that the wobbling gear on the crank could be alleviated by pedalling backwards for a while, so we turned the boat around every so often and continued.


Chicago has so many bridges! Here's a cool quadruple lift bridge for 8 rail lines.


From the water level, the open gratings make it look as if the cars were flying overhead in the haze with a roar.

Flying Cars

Onward and onward down Chicago's drain, the river became a long straight canal hemmed in by brush and rusty industrial detritus, a separate world cut off from the neighborhoods and the rest of the city. At one point we tied up to a rusted staircase and climbed up to explore a derelict barge oil pumping station, just to break up the monotony of the humidity and drizzle.

Abandoned Pumping Station

Here and there, pipes dumped more water into the flow. A sign proclaims that this is a combined sewer outflow, and to expect sewage discharge in rainy weather. If you see an outflow during dry weather, there's an 800 number you can call to report it. All along the river we saw the standard warning sign against any human contact with the water, in places where you could only reach if you had already contacted the river water. Its a Catch-22: if the Water Reclamation District assumes the water is too filthy for recreational purposes, they are not legally required to bother cleaning it to the point where anyone might be able to touch it, since the standards are different for rivers used for recreational purposes.

Combined Outflow

Beyond Western and California Avenues we passed a triplet of turntable railroad bridges which once rolled on an axis of little iron wheels in a ring.


We passed two coal-fired power plants along the river. A smaller plant in Pilsen, then the far larger Crawford plant at Pulaski. Each spewed a fast-moving effluent, shoving us across the river. The water was warm, and the entire river seemed as humid and tepid as bathwater.


As the day came to an end, we found a rugged landing point and climbed up through rubble and weeds to an abandoned boat yard under the Central Avenue bridge where we could stay dry for a while at least. Just as we lugged our gear up the bank it began to rain again.

Day 3 - The Portage

August 25, 2007

The Portage - Day 3

All night long the rain fell by the cupful and bucketful, but we felt clever at finding this little hiding place under the bridge. The humidity was so high nothing really dried out, but at least it didn't get wetter. Periodically I was awoken by rumbling diesels of towboats on the water below us in the night, or freight trains on the tracks to the other side of our camp, or trucks on the bridge above and airplanes blasting off from Midway, but all in all it was a snug place to sleep in the rain.


In the gauzy morning we looked across the river at the lush lawns of the sewage treatment plant campus. But really our scrappy campsite was more comfortable than all that green grass. Looking down on the boat, tied to a tree nearby, we could see that the water had risen a foot or more overnight.


While making breakfast a boat came tearing down the canal. Bigger than the usual speedboat, it was a working yacht belonging to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, charging at full speed. We ran to the wall overlooking the river but there was nothing we could do. The enormous wake thrown behind the boat turned into 3-foot breakers as it crashed entirely over our little raft, smashing it against the rocks again and again mercilously.

Climbing down the rough bank, our trail from last night now under the rising water, we finally made it down to inspect the damage. The right paddle wheel had taken the brunt of the beating and was now bent and mangled. It took some twisting and spoke tensioning to get it back straight again and we were ready to set off.


So many things built along the river are now abandoned or simply battered into ruin. The river wrecks everything. The old boatyard where we'd camped looked as if it had been an elaborate undertaking in its day, with concrete foundations showing where there had been buildings, crane footings, stairs and levels. How many years ago was it still open? Maybe only ten? How quickly do these endeavors fall apart?


Other than that Reclamation District boat we saw no other traffic on the river. On the right (north) bank we knew that the world's largest sewage treatment plant was there, but there wasn't anything to see. Just trees along the bank. Kingfishers and green herons flew back and forth along the trees in pairs. Occasionally a fish jumped. It was a picturesque natural scene as we drifted by the many outflow tunnels of the sewage treatment plant.


Finally we crossed under the Harlem Avenue Bridge and headed to the bank to find a place to begin our portage. We knew that up ahead the shipping canal narrowed to half its width and would not be a pleasant place for little boats to play among the barges and powerboat wakes as we'd seen this morning. So we had planned to portage the boat on its little wheels over to the Des Plaines river, which runs parallel to the shipping channel nearly all the way to Joliet.

But these steep banks! Nowhere were there easy places to pull the boat out of the water. All along the river the sides were made of broken concrete and rebar twenty feet high, topped with a gravel road. We pulled our little bike off the back of the boat and used it to scout out the portage ahead. Mike found a way to the other river by following the road downstream, but it involved getting the boat around a gate and a railing. In the other direction, the road lead onto busy Harlem Avenue and eventually to a forest preserve. But first we had to pull the boat up the rocks and put its wheels on.

We unloaded all our gear and hauled it up the bank. How did we end up with so much useless junk? So many little things were thrown on the boat at the last minute, but with the constant rain we'd never really had the chance to sort them out. A last minute paper bag of odds-n-ends was quickly destroyed in the rain and boat wakes splashing over the deck. But now we had to pick up all those loose pieces and bring them up the rocks.

Finally we were ready for the boat itself, when suddenly that dreaded Reclamation District yacht appeared again, tearing back up the canal. I jumped off onto the rocks, but fortunately this time the yacht slowed for us, lessening the wake, and we received no more damage as they kicked up their engines again and sped away.


So we took the front of the boat and pulled it forward up onto the rocks. This was simple enough when the stern was still on the water, but as the boat came up out of the water it grew increasingly heavy. With one of us lifting the side, and another pulling from the front we inched up the jumbled concrete incline, scraping and cursing. Sometimes it would even slide backwards, and we used up all our strength to get it back up a few inches, until it seemed we were stuck. It was just too heavy for only two people to lift up this rugged bank.

Just then a car stopped on the road above. I thought it was just a curious passerby, but it turned out to be a Water Reclamation District cop, who mentioned that we were trespassing on District property, but seemed intrigued by what we were doing. Why were we hauling all this junk up the bank? We explained that we were trying to portage to the Des Plaines to get out of the Sanitary Canal. A good idea, he agreed, and offered to help us. So with the cop pulling on the front rope, and Mike and I hefting the axles on the sides, we scraped and dragged the boat all the way up to the grass beside the road on top. What an ordeal! And what a blessing that a stranger showed up at just the right time to help out!

The Portage

Thoroughly exhausted, we had some lunch and made a run to get water at a nearby gas station and decide what to do. Eventually we got the trailer wheels back on the boat (for some reason more difficult than it had been in the garage), nearly lost one of the wheels as it fell back bounding down the rocks and bounced to a stop just beside the water. Hitched the trailer back to the bike and loaded up all the gear, and we were ready to go.

We decided that the Harlem Avenue route would be better, despite the busy road, so with one of us riding the bike, and another running behind giving a little extra push we rolled on down the road across some train tracks, down over a little bridge over the scummy remnants at the edge of old Mud Lake and out onto Harlem Avenue right by the monument to the Chicago Portage used by Joliet and Marquette and a hundred other voyageurs to cross the continental divide between the Great Lakes and the great rivers leading to the Mississippi.

The Portage

But that was long ago. Over the last hundred years, the Chicago Portage has been obliterated by the filling of Mud Lake, the construction of the Sanitary Canal, reversal of the Chicago River, the rerouting of the Des Plaines and building levee systems to keep it all in place in high or low water. Right now we were riding backwards along the left hand side of Harlem Avenue, a little bike pulling a wide trailer against oncoming traffic. We had found a break in traffic, expecting the stoplight ahead to change and hold up the speeding cars, but it never did. Right now there was a huge panel truck coming right at us, without changing lanes. I was readying a dive for the shoulder in this game of chicken. I don't know what Mike was planning to do.

Suddenly one of the oncoming cars flashed its lights and an undercover cop rolled down his window. "Boys, I suggest you get off the road!!" he barked at us. But even he succumbed to the panic of onrushing traffic and raced off with the rest of them. Finally the cars cleared for a moment and we made a break for the little gravel road leading up to the train tracks that was our goal.

From there we hurried up the two-track road, hoping the cop hadn't seen us, a ramp up the embankment to run alongside the railroad track and on down to a low bridge over the Des Plaines. Hooray! We made it!

Des Plaines in Flood

Day 3 Down in the Flood

August 27, 2007

Down in the Flood - Day 3

Finally we'd made it to the Des Plaines River. I was surprised how high the murky waters were, but there wasn't much to do about it. Now it was starting to rain, and the mosquitos had found us.

Des Plaines in Flood

Initially we'd thought about pulling the boat down a dirt bike trail to a muddy bank under the trees, but when we saw the railroad embankment at the end of the bridge it seemed easier. Away from the worst of the mosquitos anyway. So Mike took the back end of the boat as I held the rope on the front, lowering it backwards down the steep gravel. In a minute it was clear that we were exhausted and not thinking very well. The heavy luggage and food boxes slid down the deck and tumbled off onto the rocks. The food crate, heaviest of all, flipped upside down at the edge of the water, popped open and spilled all our things in a wet pile, ruining our crackers and cigars. Even the tools to assemble the boat disappeared in the brown water, and it took a long time of groping about to rescue most of the little pieces from the flooded river.

Fortunately our trail had put us downstream from the railroad bridge. The rising waters made it so low we would have had a hard time floating underneath. The flood brought a new anxiety to what might be around the bend. Perhaps an impossible passage under a bridge, or a log jam. Would we have time to assess the situation before being swept into it?

For now we chugged out into the river in the rain, boat reassembled and ready to go. The Des Plaines was a welcome relief from the monotony of the shipping channel. This was a more natural looking river, with muddy banks, lots of trees, and meanders hiding what might be around the bend. The water was cool to the touch instead of sickly warm. Flowers and nettles and random flotsam grew along the banks in homey scenes.


The Stevenson Expressway had followed us all the way from downtown. Here it ran alongside us, just out of reach behind a screen of trees. Commuters raced on, oblivious to our little boat floating along calmly. The roar of the traffic grew through the afternoon, and we were overjoyed to finally reach the bridges where the cars turned north and left us behind. As we drifted below, it was fun to look up and see the passengers do a double-take and point us out to their families. At the last bridge, a truck driver stuck in traffic tooted his horn and gave us a big thumbs up.


In the afternoon the sun came out a bit and the day at last became pleasant. We were finally able to pull a few books from the ship's library and read for a while. While the stern pedaller could absent-mindedly crank the pedals forever, the bow paddler had to be wary and look up from the book every few sentences to poke away the many floating logs and keep us on a steady course. But it was relaxing to know that no powerboats or barges would be in our way on this river.


On and on we pedalled, in a flooded forest landscape. There were only a handful of houses visible from the river for miles. Only one house that was actually on the water, where a couple farm dogs tried to chase us, then realized that we were on water only after they were up to their elbows. A white-haired man with snowy beard came out of a shed to see what was up, and he waved, and complimented us on our unusual boat.

There were so few dry places to make a landing of the boat. Suddenly on the bank there looked like a perfect little campsite, with a bank to step out, a fire pit, even a caboose parked in a little mowed picnic area. But we hadn't seen it in time. Charging across the current at full speed we were swept too far downstream, and our paddling and pedalling weren't strong enough to make headway against the rushing floodwaters. This was a one-way journey, and we now realized we had no chances to do things twice. We must be ready beforehand and in the right spot on the river to act.

As we approached Willow Springs in the dimming light we encountered three kayakers paddling upstream who told us about a takeout point ahead. We just slipped below the old Willow Springs Road bridge with inches to spare above our heads and tucked into the flooded picnic area of a forest preserve.


Now about the camping spot. The forest preserve cops seemed to be on the prowl, so we hid the boat awkwardly in a thicket of stinging nettles, hauled our gear across the old road and found an open dusty area under a bridge again to set up the tent and cook another canned dinner. And there was the shipping channel once again, only a few hundred feet parallel to the river.


Now we were glad to be off it. Just up from here the canal narrowed to half the width as when we were on it this morning. And here its sides became solid walls of huge stone blocks as far as we could see downstream. No easy place to get in or out of a little boat. In the dusk, a string of 8 barges glided down, just 20 feet of open water away from us, hardly room for a small boat to pass safely. Just as we watched the lead barge was about to run over a floating refrigerator or some other flood trash. With a tiny crunch the plastic crushed and was dragged along as a bug smacking a windshield. Far in the rear a towboat muscled the barges onward, its twin sad spotlight eyes steady on the route ahead.

Day 4 - Obstacles

Obstacles - Day 4

In the exurbs the morning rush hour begins at 4am. The booms and bangs I'd taken to be thunder in the night increased and revealed themselves to be traffic over the plates of the bridge above us. It was a restless night of worries of where I have come from and what might lie ahead, tossing in the thick humidity of night under a creepy bridge.

Another campsite under a bridge

A walk down to a nearby gas station turned up only Wonder bread and crummy carrot cake. So we decided to hike across the bridge into Willow Springs, on the prospect of finding the internet at a coffee shop. Turned out it was closed, but just getting out of the woods for a bit lifted my spirits and we found more appetizing breakfast at a new convenience store. From high up on the bridge we could see the three parallel water highways heading to Chicago: the original natural Des Plaines river, the old I&M Canal, and the current Sanitary Shipping Channel. All were filled with the same murky brown water and fallen logs, either still or in steady motion downstream.


Returning to the boat, we packed up and headed out into the channel again. The water had gone up again overnight so that it seemed easier to get out of the weeds than it had been getting in. A reassuring light drizzle let us know that we were back to life as usual.

The morning was a leisurely float around islands and meanders as the rain gradually drifted away. A flock of waxwings caught bugs in the air right in front of us. High in the treetops an osprey eyed us nervously. We passed several heron rookeries, with egrets by the dozen and herons of all sorts in the trees and along the shoreline.



One more bend and then our leisure came to an end. With the binoculars we could see a low railroad bridge set on many piers, clogged with flood-borne logs and the flash of whitewater. If there was no safe way through, our journey would be at an end. Visions of overturning and being sucked into a sieve of logs played in my mind. But we tied up on shore well above the bridge and walked a gravel road down to scout it out. We couldn't get too close to the water, just enough to see that there was a passage between the second and third piers open enough for us to make it through.

Donning our life jackets and battening the hatches, we pushed out onto the water again. How maneuverable would our boat be in dodging obstacles? It seemed such a slug when we were on the flatwater heading downtown. The portage proved the boat was heavier than when we'd started. And yesterday afternoon's landing attempt showed how little power we had to paddle against this current. Drifting closer to the chute there would only be one chance. Pointing the bow forward down we went. In midstream we decided the right passage around that log looked better than the left. Paddle, paddle! We hit the edge of an eddy behind the bridge pier and it bought us enough time to move around the log with only a bump of our tail. Whew! I was glad to move on and see that bridge gradually recede around the bend.


Suddenly across the river we caught a glimpse through the foliage of a sparkling tall white pyramid, an ornate Hindu temple, looking like some fantastic ancient jungle vision hovering in the greenery over the river. And then it was hidden again by trees and vines.

Pedalling on steadily again, even the more tangible towers of picturesque Lemont up on the bluffs to the south faded away as well. These towns along the Des Plaines grew up along the old I&M canal, not the river, so that they seemed remote, even inaccessible, to us as we passed on by.

Far ahead we could see another bridge. This one looked very high, a span soaring across the entire river valley on enormous pilings. At least we wouldn't have to worry about bumping our heads on this one. Looking at our charts we couldn't quite place where we were on the map or which bridge this might be. But as we drew closer and looked ahead with the binoculars we could see another bridge beneath it, crossed by construction equipment, and then it seemed like a dam spanning the entire river, piled up with logs. Were they damming the entire river to work on this bridge? What is going on? How could we get around this?

Landing the boat well upstream, we pushed our way through the thickets onto a dirt road and hiked on down to the construction site. It was a massive undertaking, and we realized that this was the new I-355 project connecting interstates 55 and 80, the newest, farthest flung ring road circling Chicago. Let loose the sprawl floodgates! South of here the monster freeway tears through farmland nearly to Joliet. Suburban commuters have been rooting for this pork project for a dozen years, but it will bring nothing but more than endless ticky-tack houses, Wal-Mart warehouses, wasteful pavement and acres of gridlocked traffic where there once was rich farming land.

A front-end loader bounced toward us as we reached the site. "That your Tom Sawyer raft or something?" the driver shouted down to us. We asked him about prospects about getting past the construction and permission to walk around. He seemed happy as a kid goofing around in his big rig, and offered to lift us over the dam on the front forklift. Or maybe that 700-ton crane over there, if we asked the driver, he could lift us high over the obstructions with hardly a thought. It seemed like fun. For the moment, however, we wanted to scope out the water.


The problem here was that the construction workers had built several low bridges across the river for driving their trucks under the bridge. "We don't see many boats coming down here," one worker told us. And no wonder: they had made no provision for boaters to get through at all. But worse, the floods had brought a whole raft of logs and driftwood that clogged up their bridges, damming the river and sending it spilling over into a side area where they were storing equipment. The river had come up two feet overnight, they said, and it seemed that much of their busy activity was to put stone weights on the bridges so that they wouldn't wash away, and rescue things that were suddenly underwater.

For a while we watched a supervisor trying to reach a stranded aluminum boat tied up in the rushing channel. First he drove a cherry picker out into the current, then lowered the boom over to the boat, got in the boat and secured it to the cherry picker instead. It seemed as convoluted and desperate a scheme as any of our ideas about getting around this obstacle, and in the end the forklift driver pushed his giant rig into the fast current up to the axles to lift the boat up and out of harms way. It was a dramatic scene, as I expected the forklift to be swept downstream in the fast current, but the workers seemed unhurried and without worries, and in a while all the trucks and cranes and boats were back on dry ground.

It seemed possible that we could portage across the dam if we could convince a few strong workers to help us lift the boat up and over. But the approach was blocked by logs and fast current, not a safe place to land by any means. When we inquired about specifics of lifting the boat with the forklift, the driver suddenly lost his spirit of fun. "You'll have to talk to my boss," he admitted. Standing on the bridge watching the rushing water and mulling our options, it seemed as if we might be stuck at last and at the end of our journey. A friend with a pickup truck had offered to haul us home whenever we were ready, and with a simple phone call we could end the trip.

So we headed back up the road to the boat. Along the way we found a better landing point, nearly at level with the road, and a path through the trees. Moving the boat there we pulled it up and went to work trying to straighten the mangled trailer wheel from the botched portage yesterday. By propping it on a rock and jumping on it, we managed to make it usable again. Sweating and working slowly we hauled the boat to the side of the road, lifted it up onto its wheels and hitched it back to the bike for another trip on land. What had seemed impossible was now doable, as we rolled on through the construction site past the cranes and trucks.


A small crowd of workers gathered around, pulling out cameras to take pictures and ask about our trip. Lowering the boat down a rough landing more slowly and carefully this time, we were soon reassembled and ready to go again. We felt more practiced at taking the trailer wheels and paddle wheels on and off, learning tricks to make it easier and smoother than before.


One of the workers had warned us of an impassible low bridge three miles ahead. We'd pass through a wide lagoon and then come to a series of islands, so we had better pick the correct channel to find the way through. For the moment we paddled on hopeful that we'd be able to continue, but not really knowing if the end of the trip lay just ahead.

Checking our speed with the GPS as we chugged along, we now found ourselves pedalling along at over 3 miles an hour! The flood was definitely picking up the current from the day before. More sprinkles added to the flow drop by drop as we continued.


Finally, rounding a bend we saw the first island. Which way to choose around it? But there some kind of a sign ahead. From the binoculars we could just make it out. "Canoe Landing to the Right". Aha, the first acknowledgment of any boat travel on this river! We had finally made it to Isle a la Cache, a landmark in voyageur days, and now site of a fur-trade museum.

So we chose the right channel and crept carefully around the island in the increasing current. Where was that landing? The water was moving fast enough now that there were no second chances if we missed it. I was imagining us landing at a real buckskin rendezvous reenactment, beaching our trashboat between birch bark canoes and having a dinner of frybread or Indian tacos cooked on an open fire. But it was a Tuesday evening, and nobody seemed to be around, and there were only flooded meadows that didn't even allow us to scope out the island before we continued.

Around the corner suddenly there was a low bridge, with the current rushing beneath. We had time to take down the hoops of our canopy and only inches to spare above our heads as we flew underneath and there was the landing to the left!

It was a city park of mowed grass now under water. We cut out of the fast water and drifted to a stop next to an inundated picnic bench. Stepping out onto the soggy park grass was a relief from the wild river, a reassuring bit of civilization. Nearby, a kid with glasses was obsessively working the shallows with a wide flat net. "Dad! Dad! I got another one, and its got legs!" he hollered. We peeked in their bucket and saw tiny silver minnows and fat tadpoles with stubby legs and wriggling tails. The man explained that he was a teacher, and that these bullfrog tadpoles took all winter to mature into frogs, so they made a great classroom project. The ones with front legs they threw back in the water, as these would mature by January when it would be impossible to let them go. In the wild, sometimes bullfrog tadpoles take two years to mature, and as adults they can become enormous, the teacher showed us with his hands in a circle.

Two kayakers were climbing into their boats and wiggling across the grass. "You know there's rapids downstream from here, don't you?" they asked. "I don't think your boat will make it, its got a lot of rocks in the river down there." Rapids?? Who knew there were rapids on the sluggish Des Plaines River? I guess we didn't do our homework very well. The farther we came from Chicago the more unfamiliar everything became, and it seemed we were foolishly ignorant of what we might be heading into. Mike at least was optimistic and confident. "I've never really been on the river at all in Chicago, so its all new to me!"

For now we had to find a place to camp. Sitting in the parking lot, pondering our options, a sheriff's truck pulled up. "That your craft in the water there?" the pair of cops asked. "You know the park's closing in an hour, you can't be there." Mike mentioned that we were looking for a place to camp for the night and the cops told us they had no idea. There was a state park 10 miles downriver, maybe we should just head on down there they suggested. So we waited until they left and hid the boat down in the trees around the bend near a flooded walking trail, then headed up the road to find something to eat.


After a relaxing dinner of delicious pizza in a strip mall that passes for downtown Romeoville, we walked back to the park in the darkness, down the flooded path to unload our things. We found a place hidden behind a fake Indian longhouse (made of fiberglass instead of bark) where nobody would see the tent and fell asleep on another sticky humid night.

Day 5 - Big River

August 29, 2007

Big River - Day 5

Another muggy night of restless sleep thinking of the dangers ahead. Another thunderstorm in the middle of the night shaking the tent wildly and then disappearing off into the night. We were up before the park opened and packed our things away on the boat before an egg breakfast in town.

I guess we were dragging our feet a little before heading out into the fast current and down to meet the unknown rapids. Eventually we changed into our wet river clothes and headed down the flooded path to pull the boat out of its hiding place.


The first task was to paddle upstream out of a little side channel to join the fast water around a small island. Our slow boat had to struggle against the current to get around some bushes. But immediately we had a problem. The right paddle wheel, the one that had been bent a few days before, suddenly was grinding against the wood sides of the boat. Floating back into the weeds we got out to look. After bending the wheel back into shape so many times, the rim itself was starting to crack in half. Many of the spokes were loose, and without a tire on the wheel, several of the spoke nipples had worked themselves loose and disappeared along the way, leaving less to hold the wheel together.

I tightened all the spokes to true the wheel as best I could and we pushed off into the current again and pulled hard upstream. This time, the paddle wheel gave a pop and snapped! Well, what to do now? We removed the busted wheel and threw it on the back of the boat.


We thought one of us might have to swim a rope across to the other side to pull the boat upstream into slower water, but on the third try with a better path staying out of the fastest current we pulled hard back to the flooded picnic tables even with only one functional paddle wheel.

Taking a breather here we discussed the best strategy for the rapids ahead. Even getting out of this side channel and into the racing water around the island looked like it would take some planning. If we didn't get ourselves into the right-hand side of the fast flow, we'd be pushed back into the side channel, or onto a pile of driftwood at the head of the island that would not be a good place to get stuck.

Moving gently along the edge of the grass we made it upstream as far as possible in the quiet water, lined up the front of the boat at an angle and then charged out into the racing stream. Pulling hard with the kayak paddle we made it to the far side of the flume, turned the bow downstream and made it perfectly into the current running to the right around the island. Whoo hoo! Now we were on our way!

Riding the fast water around the island we made it back into the reunited river and drifted for a while. With only one paddle wheel we were constantly turning to the right, so there were no more lazy days for the front paddler. It took a strong pull of the kayak paddle to match the push of the paddle wheel and keep us heading in a straight line. Now it was clear how strong the paddle wheels had been in driving us along.

The floodwater pushed us along quickly and we drifted for a while through wild country without seeing any houses. When we reached the rapids our plan was to stop and scout them out to see if they were runnable. Besides being bulky and difficult to maneuver, our raft had metal bars hanging down below the floats, the dropouts for attaching the trailer wheels. If there were any logs or rocks ahead, the worst thing that could happen would be to become hung up in the middle of fast water and flip over.

But first we rounded a bend and spotted another low bridge ahead. Hadn't we had enough of these yesterday? This one seemed completely clogged with logs yet again. And here there were no roads along the banks, only flooded meadows without any easy way to land and check it out. But sticking to the left shore we found a passage through the grass and stagnant water over to a rugged bank.

Scrambling through the buckthorns, we came to a high chainlink fence topped with barbed wire. There wasn't much of a trail, but we were able to crawl along the fence to a low spot to squeeze under it. Inside the fence was a cleared area and some kind of settling pond used by a nearby power plant, and beyond was our road over the bridge. A constant stream of dumptrucks roared and downshifted over the bridge and around the corner to some nearby gravel pit. Ahead of me, Mike found another place to squeeze out of the fenced area and duck through the weeds down toward the head of the bridge. "Its clear," he reported, far on the left side.

So, back through the brambles and back on the boat. Creeping slowly along the left shore, the boat was difficult to control with only one paddle wheel. The fast current pulled us one way, and the paddle wheel pushed another. If we were going to make it into the right chute under this bridge pointed in the right direction we'd need more control than that. Fortunately there was a little eddy along the shore just before the bridge, so we were able to line up correctly before heading under the bridge instead of drifting sideways and smashing into the piers. Another bridge cleared and on we go!

After a while on the open river we saw islands ahead and knew this was the rapids. There must be some strata of bedrock just below the surface here that resists the free erosion of the muddy river and splits it around small islands. I know now that they are known as Fishnet Rapids for the way they divide around the many islands and are one of the few sets of rapids in northern Illinois.

But as we drifted closer we had no idea what to expect. Choosing a channel around the first island we chugged across the current to place ourselves in the center of the quickening stream and turn the bow downstream. Not much else was possible except to keep pointing downstream.

As we bobbed along I knew that we were amazingly lucky that the Des Plaines was in full flood right when we'd reached this point. With our low clearance there was no way we'd ordinarily be able to run rapids in our raft. But the high water covered all rocks and cleared all obstacles in our path. Our raft proved itself very stable as we dived straight ahead into 3-foot standing waves washing completely over our decks, but popped right out on the other side. Unlike an open boat, we had no worries of taking on water and pushed directly through the waves instead of over them. Up and down we bounced down the raging current.

Now and then the river would widen and calm briefly, and we'd line ourselves for another run around another island, or make quick moves to avoid a stump or big rock barely breaking the surface ahead. The most frightening parts were staying well clear of the water stacked up around piers of several bridges we raced up on quickly. There wasn't much chance of fighting against the current, so we just tried to stay in the center and let it carry us along through the clear channel.

In the middle of one fast section there was a BOOM! and the boat jerked for a second. We might have hit a submerged rock or underwater monster, but in the murky water it was impossible to know. Fortunately it was a glancing blow and didn't stop us or change our course in the stream.

To anyone on a whitewater rafting trip in a rubber boat, no doubt Fishnet Rapids would seem like a fast but tame roller coaster, but to us in our homemade raft it was a wild ride into the unknown. There never was any opportunity to scout out what was ahead, and since the river runs through long sections of industrial private property, there was no one around to even watch us. The bridges we passed under were empty of traffic without a even lone fisherman to see us if we'd swamped in the waves. Only at the very end, when the river ran down one last drop under a railroad bridge into the flatwater of the shipping channel again, only here a switching engine stopped on the tracks above and the engineer watched as we lined up in the middle of the chute between the tall bridge piers down into the big channel.


Now we were back in the industrial world of the shipping channel. Across the wide water ahead we could see the bridges and towers of downtown Joliet. On the right side of the river the fast waters of the Des Plaines still pushed us along, but now there was also a south wind across the flat water pushing us back.

After a lunch of leftover pizza hanging out below a scrapyard dock, we decided it would be appropriate to throw our busted paddle wheel onto the pile. I can't imagine its legal to store scrapmetal in piles right next to the water, and the breakwall was cluttered with little metal pieces that had spilled down from above. We even spotted some bike wheels up there, and if we were crafty enough we might have figured out how to fix the broken wheel with a replacement rim scavenged right here. But for now we were tired and couldn't think of how that would have been workable.


Continuing along against the wind we passed more old barges used as riverside landscaping. These barges were somehow buried in the bank and had a well established forest of trees on top. How long had these been here? They were like natural occurences of Robert Smithson's Floating Island.


Coming in to Joliet there were finally houses along the river bank. A quaint neighborhood of working class houses lined a quiet street along the river wall, with homemade rock gardens and boat launches along the bank. Across the river we passed the mouth of the old I&M canal and later an ancient sternwheeler steamboat in drydock behind fences in an industrial area. Now we knew we were on a big old river with many stories.


Despite the wind pushing us backwards, the current was really moving along here. I knew there was a park along the water in downtown Joliet where we could get out, but looking ahead we didn't see any boat landings. It was just one long concrete wall all the way through downtown on both sides. Across the river we could see cars driving on roads below the water level behind the river walls, which looked very strange.

It seemed that our only chance at getting out to explore Joliet would be one of the little ladders that appeared occasionally along the wall. But they came up fast, and we missed one or two from not catching them in time. Finally we passed through a little passage under a bridge and there was a ladder leading right up to the park. I grabbed it and quickly tied our lead rope to a rung.

But then suddenly two yachts appeared under the bridge cruising down the river. Slowly, but the boats were large enough that they threw a powerful wake, which bounced off the walls and the pilings of the bridge crazily, throwing us from side to side. Tied by the rope and pinned against the wall by the fast current we scraped on the wall and stuck while the waves pushed us upward, nearly flipping the boat over. Luckily we were able to push off from the wall with our broken paddles to keep the boat steady as the cacophany of waves bounced back and forth across the river. But it was too much for the left paddle wheel: the grinding on the wall snapped the axle and Mike caught it before it fell off completely.

So now we had lost both paddle wheels. We had thought that any of the obstacles of the last two days might be the dead end of the journey, but we hadn't expected mechanical problems to be the reason. Without the steady paddle wheels it would be difficult to continue against this wind, and playing on the water among towboats and powerboat wakes without power seemed a dangerous prospect. Adding to that, we had discovered that I'd stupidly lost the river maps at our morning campsite, so we didn't really know where to go.

We did know we couldn't pull the boat out of the water here, and for the moment I couldn't even untie the ropes to cast us off and try for a better landing downstream. Every time I walked forward to pull in the rope, the bow tipped downward, and as the fast current caught the deck, it pushed the front of the boat down underwater like the planes of a submarine. If I didn't step back quickly we'd dive straight down into the current.

Eventually we switched positions on the boat and Mike was able to pull us in a little closer while I pushed us forward along the wall with a broomstick. But as he grabbed for the rope on the ladder there was a big water snake resting on the rung right beside the knot! He knocked it into the water with a paddle and climbed up the ladder. It seemed that another passing boat wake might easily flip our raft, but we decided to climb out and explore Joliet and find a library with the internet to print out some more river charts.


It was a beautiful sunny afternoon on land as we hopped over a fence into Bicentennial Park, we were worn out from all the morning's excitement. A passerby coming down off the bridge yelled at us "What's that?" and we proudly said "Its a boat!" But the woman drew closer and it was obvious she was completely drunk. "What's that?" she asked again. "Its a boat." What was this woman's problem? She kept demanding some explanation but didn't understand a single thing we said. Mike began to walk away and she shouted. "Hey! Why you bein' snippy with me?!? Whats you're problem?? I'm just askin' you a question!" But there was no turning her back. She screamed at us for two blocks that we were assholes at the top of her lungs.


Across the bridge, we looked back at our fragile boat as if it might be the last time. Two more citizens of Joliet asked us about our project, where we'd come from. They were also stumblingly drunk in the middle of the afternoon. "You goin' to the casino?" they assumed, but at least they were in a happier mood than the first woman we met and they directed us to the library.

At the library there were so many bureaucratic steps to get a password to get on the computer. We were directed from one librarian to another to receive permission, it really made no sense. It seemed that people were staring at us when we came in the door, and looking down I suddenly realized how dirty my clothes were, from the rain and mud, and mostly crawling under that fence this morning. But really we were no dirtier than many of the other hard-luck cases hanging out at the Joliet library so maybe it was something else that made us stand out.

With the many security measures on the library computers, we were not able to open the pdf files of the river maps. It didn't matter because we weren't able to print from this computer anyway, only from the other computers that required a Joliet library card or special permission from some other administrator. But we managed to spot a suitable landing point downstream from Google satellite maps and decided it would be our ending point for the trip.

Returning to the bridge, our boat was still there as we left it. The river was clear of all traffic and we cast off without much trouble. The plan was to follow the river wall on down for a mile or two past the I-80 bridge, beyond an industrial area to what looked like a beach not far above the Brandon Road dam. Just to keep moving, we put the reattached the one paddle wheel to the side with the intact axle and were back at half power instead of none.

Drifting to the end the park, a kid followed along on his bike and waved goodbye. On down a ways we came across four stumblebums sitting on the river wall watching the tide roll away. "Hey, where you guys headed?" one asked. They all had questions and we tried to answer in the little time before the current pushed us on. But one drunk was the most boisterous: "This town's the shittiest shithole ever," he lamented. "You gotta build a boat like us and float out of here," we said, but we must have said the wrong thing. "I'm gonna call the coast guard on yer asses!" he suddenly snapped. We thought he was joking, but then he was only angrier. "I'm serious! I got a cell phone right here! I'm gonna call the coast guard on yer asses, assholes!!" His friends looked embarassed but they did nothing to discourage him. As we drifted quickly away we could hear him screaming at us as loud as he could: "Assholes!! Assholes!!" Far downstream all was quiet and then a faint "Assholes!!!"

What was up with that? Mike and I recollected that half the people we'd talked to in Joliet were missing front teeth. What a rough town. Glad to be out of there and back on the happy river.

It was slow going against the wind pedalling and paddling, creeping around parked barges and under gusty lift bridges. There were people on several parked boats who chatted a bit, and workmen in boatyards who came out to see us pass. "We'll trade you boats!" Mike yelled at them and they took pictures of us.

Finally we made it to the beach landing and there was a little restaurant with a riverside patio right there. Perfect! And there were some guys on shore running out to ask us questions about our boat. We landed and went into the bar where a man named Keith told us he'd come down from the boatyard above to talk to us, and bought us drinks, and we chatted for almost an hour. He was a towboat captain, working on a harbor boat that assembled tows here in Joliet, but he'd also done work as a diver and underwater welder, flew helicopters, and other exotic trades. He loved sailing, and gave us lots of advice on adding a real sail to our boat, something that would let us tack across the water into a wind like today's. He told us some local riverboat tales and listened to our own little one, and it turned out to be a real pleasant afternoon.

50 Miles Downriver

But we'd already decided without really discussing it that this would be the end of our journey. Keith seemed sure they'd never let us through the lock in such a small craft, without lights, a marine radio, a rescue kit or fire extinguisher. We did have some makeshift navigation lights but had yet to rig them up. I don't know what we would use a fire extinguisher for.

Later we walked down the road to see the lock and dam and try to find out for sure if it was possible to pass through. The night watchman there told us we'd have to ask the lockmaster for special permission, that even canoes were often denied permission to lock through, and the master wouldn't return until 8 the next morning. It was disappointing. In the locks on the Mississippi in Minnesota they often welcome canoes and small craft, but here they seemed to be interested only in towboats and industrial cargo. Like most of the rest of our travels along the Sanitary Canal, there is little room for little boats.

Standing on shore we watched the big boats wrestle barges back and forth in the staging area above the dam. It was surprising how much activity there was out there on the water in the dusk.


We weren't really planning on continuing so late in the day without knowing where the next landing downstream might be, but it would have been fun to go through the locks. So instead we called a friend for a ride and started breaking up the boat so that it would fit into a pickup truck. Kind of sad to spend so much time building a project and then tear it apart.


Andrew arrived with the pickup just as we got the boat separated into halves. The frame we will keep if we want to continue again next year, the decking and boards will be easily replaceable. Stacking the pieces in the back of the truck yet another wild thunderstorm was moving in, and we just managed to grab all the gear in the dark just as the rain began to fall. Even in wind-whipped rain and lightning all around it only took an hour or so to cover the distance we'd come in five days.


The route of the Water Bug

August 30, 2007

Our Route

The short voyage of the Water Bug:

View Larger Map

About August 2007

This page contains all entries posted to Down Chicago’s Drain in August 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

September 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Powered by
Movable Type 3.35