On Saturday Nathan & I headed downtown early to see the annual dying of the Chicago River for St. Patrick's Day.
I'd never come down early enough before the parade to see the Plumbers Union dump the flourescent dye into the river. I had no idea there would be so many other people there to see it too!
In fact I don't think I've ever seen so many people paying that much attention to the river. They were lined up by the thousands on every bridge and overlook on the streets near the Michigan Ave Bridge. I had no idea the river had so many fans, even if half of them were drunk by 10am and maybe not really interested in the river.
Despite the enthusiasm, the annual dying of the river is a sad commentary on how most people view it as nothing more than a canal through the city that can be manipulated however we please, instead of as a natural waterway that is home to fish and wildlife. The river has been moved and redirected and channelized, but it is still an important and necessary habitat in the midst of city concrete.
We soon discovered that we and the thousands of others were standing in the wrong place to view the action. This year the St. Patrick's committee had moved the source of the dye to a place east of Michigan Avenue. So we weaved through the crowd to a closer spot.
By the time we got to Michigan, the river was already turning green. We missed seeing the boat that dumps the dye! Thick clumps of orange powder floated on the water, releasing oily orange plumes which turn a brilliant flourescent green in the sunlight.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, it takes about 40 pounds of dye to stain the river green for the afternoon. The Journeymen Plumbers Union that sponsors the St. Patrick's Parade has been coloring the river since 1961, with a powerful dye normally used to detect tiny leaks in pipes. The original fluorescein dye was replaced in 1966, after a lawsuit by environmentalists, with a secret mixture of nontoxic vegetable-derived compounds.
After enjoying the sight of kayakers bobbing about in the brilliant green water, we were about to leave. But wait, a small boat was approaching! Police boats cleared the area and along came a small white speedboat. In the back, men in white coveralls stained a rusty orange were spooning a crusty orange powder from buckets over the side.
At last we had seen how they turn the river green! One quick pass by the Plumbers to dump the last of the dye, and the boat was gone. Soon tourboats and other craft were churning the water and mixing the dye to a solid unnatural green from bank to bank that glittered in the sunlight.