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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

Comments (1)

Wonderful storytelling and illustrations. I'm almost glad you came home so soon, so I can read your further posts during my rail adventure.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 24, 2007 10:44 AM.

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