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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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