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June 2010 Archives

June 2, 2010

Swimming in the Chicago River

The Chicago Tribune reports today on a surprise letter sent to the state of Illinois, the EPA and Obama administration recommended that the Chicago River be made clean enough for swimming. Environmental groups have long argued that water from sewage treatment plants must be disinfected before it is discharged into the river. Wastewater from these plants is the primary source of harmful bacteria in the river, as well as drainage pipes carrying combined sewage and storm runoff which overflow into the river when filled with rainwater, pictured in the chart above.

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District has argued that the extra electricity required to disinfect wastewater will increase carbon emissions leading to global warming.

Mayor Daley responded to the EPA letter with annoyance that the feds might interfere in local politics. But if the extra attention from Washington helps clean up the Chicago river, what's wrong with that?

June 3, 2010

St. Louie or Bust - 1

Mike and I are reprising our trashboat journey with a bike trip following the Illinois River to St. Louis. I'll be taking the train home from St. Louis, while Mike continues on biking solo to California.

Packing the trailer

After a lazy start, we leave my backyard garden behind, with a tail-wind pushing us south all the way!

On old Route 66

Leaving Chicago, we follow old Route 66 out of the city. Rolling on past my favorite, Snuffy's Grill, we opt for a lunch stop on an abandoned section of highway in the shade of overgrown trees. This section of Route 66 was closed in 1998 after quarries on each side of the road started to undermine the road.

Looking down into the quarry

Looking over the edge it's a long way down! Its surprising to see such topography after just leaving flat Chicago. In the distance beyond the quarry we can see the line of the Des Plaines River where we floated our trashboat downstream in an epic flood. The presence of limestone not far under the soil here no doubt accounts for the rapids we encountered a few miles down river.

Pleasant Canal

Making our way south on city streets, rural highways and bike paths, we finally make it to our first small town outside the city, Lockport. The town was once the headquarters of the I&M Canal, which opened to barge shipping all the way upstream from St. Louis to Chicago in 1848. A quiet remnant of the canal is still here, at the start of a bike path that we will follow west for 80 miles.

Hurrying through Joliet as the afternoon wears on, we cross the wide Des Plaines River on an old iron bascule bridge, and pass the riverfront tavern where we ended our trashboat journey three years ago. Too bad we are in too much of a hurry to stop in for a drink and to see if Keith, the riverman we met back then, was still around.

McKinley Woods

Due to our late start, we end up racing the sunset to camp even with the longest daylight of the year. After a water stop in Channahon, we make it to McKinley Woods, for some secret off-trail camping. A picturesque stone overlook built by the Civilian Conservation Corps gives us an escape from the mosquitos while we eat dinner, and there's time for a refreshing swim in the river. Across the dark water, behind an island, the Kankakee comes in from the south, merging with the Des Plaines to birth the united Illinois River at this point.

June 4, 2010

60 Miles on the I&M Canal - 2

After our first day's ride getting out of the city, camping in the woods seems far away from urban Chicago. Little critters creeped in the leaves, and I jumped up several times, sure that raccoons were raiding our supplies. But mostly the noises of the night were great rumbles of tow boats pushing barges up and down around the big bend of the Illinois River here. The sound of their diesel engines echoed on the steep bluffs of the woods, so close to our camp. In the darkness their shining eyes played across our camp, probably attracted by the little glints of our bike reflectors parked in the forest.

McKinley Woods

Heating oatmeal for breakfast confirmed that the gas for the stove was just about gone before we've barely started on this trip. Washing my face at an iron pump, I felt ready for the day's ride, vowing to eat better today and keep my energy level up.

The J

Mike says "the J" was the nickname of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway, connecting these outer railroad suburbs in a big ring which allowed freight traffic to skirt around Chicago. Which means we've crossed another outer orbit of the city's gravitational pull, gathering speed for our escape into the countryside.

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Except that we aren't really gathering speed. Mike's trailer slows us a bit from our expected pace and requires frequent stops to readjust the boards keeping it level. A rain storm blew in just before we reach the shelter of an underpass in Ottawa. This town is about the biggest we'll be visiting in several days so we stopped by the local hardware store in search of new fuel for the stove, but they don't carry the right size canisters.

Leaving Ottawa the gravel I&M Canal Trail deteriorated into a muddy slog which meandered through the woods, wasting our time with aimless zigzags and frequent stops to play in the mud. This is not a trail for bikers hoping to make miles before camp, so when we came neared Buffalo Rock we ditched the trail for pavement.

Fighting headwinds into Utica, we passed the lock and dam across from Starved Rock, but no time for a stop on this trip. Rolling into downtown Utica, our maps showed that we must take the trail again or face an uphill and roundabout detour. I'd never been on the last section of the I&M trail to LaSalle, but it turned out to be the prettiest of the whole day. The old canal is not shadowed by modern roads but heads through open country of marshes and fields.

In the low sunlight and still air dragonflies appeared by the hundreds and thousands, gliding around us, racing beside us and darting across in daring acrobatics hunting unseen gnats. After the frustrations of the muddy trail earlier in the afternoon this dreamlike riding was a spectacular treat.

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Halfway to LaSalle, we pass through Split Rock, which is where the engineers of the canal blasted a passage through a rock wall. There's an old railroad tunnel on the north side of the canal, but the bike path follows the tow path on the south side so we continued on. Soon after that, however, there is a quaint little aqueduct over the Little Vermilion River with a close view of an industrial jumble of structures.

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The trail and the beautiful golden hour were over too soon at the locks in LaSalle. A little canal boat is parked here, but it was locked tight and nobody was around.

American Discovery Trail

I was intrigued a tiny marker near the boat for a cross-country trail connecting us to other interesting places. But we didn't follow the bike path to discover its dead end just west of here. Instead we immediately set about finding where we could pitch a tent in this manicured little city park. That is, where we could hide a tent from the inevitable 10pm patrol car cruising through the park.

Off the bikes there was no hiding from the mosquitoes. We found a secluded spot in the woods not far from the river bank and hurried to grab the tents as the drone of bugs intensified. While assembling my tent, Mike pointed out that there was poison ivy all around me. Really there was no place to put a tent or walk that was not covered by poison ivy. With the muggy air, the maddening mosquitoes, the poison ivy and the idea of having peanut butter sandwiches for yet another uncooked meal it was a disappointing end to the day.

Fortunately, it wasn't too hard to convince Mike that it'd be more fun to ride into town. While we might be cheap enough to guerrilla camp in a poison ivy patch, I was looking forward to some restaurant food and a cold beer like a civilized cyclist. We didn't find anything open in LaSalle, but down the hill in Peru there was a charming little tavern by the riverside just past the neon lights of a power plant. After 14 years living as a teetotaler in a Christian commune, Mike had an Old Style as well, and pronounced it worth the wait.

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It was a long tiring day, and our civilized dinner didn't last long before we headed back to the pathetic little camp. I wanted to swim in the Illinois again, a quick swim in the river near our camp. I didn't dare go far in the dark, just out into open water but heading back to shore, a big fish leaped and crashed in the water ahead of me in the gloom. No doubt it was the infamous silver carp, flinging itself into the air just to show who owns the river. I hurried back to land and into bed.


June 5, 2010

Poison Ivy For My Bed - 3

Oatmeal & Mosquitos

We woke up to a muggy morning in the midst of the poison ivy patch, after thunderstorms and stormy dreams in the middle of the night. The mosquitoes were just as ferocious as the night before.

Poison Ivy

We coaxed the nearly-empty stove into heating a little water for lukewarm oatmeal and gathered our plans for the day. Extricating the bikes and tents from the bushes without touching the ivy was tricky.

End of the Canal

Leaving the I&M Canal behind, we rode up into LaSalle town. The little I&M Canal museum was open so we made a short stop to check it out. The museum is small but features some great photos of the old canal. For many miles I had the Holy Modal Rounders "Flop Eared Mule" stuck in my head.

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Retracing the route to Peru, we stopped to explore an abandoned railroad dining car. With the overnight thunderstorms, it would have been better to camp out in the train car rather than our crummy camp, although we probably wold have had to contend with broken glass rather than poison ivy.

Spring Valley, Downhill

We climbed steep streets of Peru back to the farmlands on top of the river bluffs and rode on to Spring Valley. In the center of town we turned south and enjoyed a miles-long downhill then up and over a thin bridge high over the wide Illinois River.

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The soggy morning improved into a nice day of country riding past little Mark, IL and on into Hennepin, where we stopped by the library, then had lunch at a pretty park overlooking the river, with busy purple martins flitting about. Where were those purple martins last night when the mosquitoes were actually out?

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The rest of the day's riding was muggy hot as we rode on down the highway. On and on. The river to the right slackened and widened into the upper reaches of big Lake Peoria. The blue water looked enticing, but we kept riding and only later regretted that we'd passed the best swimming spot. The highway had few businesses or places to stop, so by the time we reached a crossroads gas station we were parched and cross and running on empty.

Though Peoria proper was on the west side of the river, the traffic sprawled even on the east. Four lanes of trucks and metal shed businesses and scrappy crap on the roadside. It was a relief to pull off early into the East Peoria Marina RV campground and set up the tents with a pretty view across the flat river to the town of Peoria.

I had just changed into my swimsuit for a dip in the river when the wind picked up. Suddenly across the river the sky darkened. Cats paws streaked across the water. A golf cart raced around the campground in a panic and whirlwind of garbage. Something was headed our way. I had a minute or two to jump in the water and then back into the tent before the first squall hit.

Before the Storm Hit

Across the river in the city we heard tornado sirens. Uh oh. Surely all the RVs would be too easy a temptation for any tornado intent on maximum destruction! From my tent I could peer out across the river and spot any twisters headed toward us from the southwest, but eventually I got bored of the tent and went out into the rain where Mike and our camp neighbor stood under a tree swapping travel tales of hitchhiking and freighthopping and a night in the Peoria jail. We were all soaked, but the air and rain were so warm it was comfortable out in the storm.

Despite the sirens, we never saw any tornado. Wave after wave of squalls did cross the river, hammering the tent back and forth for half the night. At some point the storm front passed through and I fell into restful sleep.

June 6, 2010

Prairie State - 4

Peoria from Afar

Burgers and beans for breakfast

The dreaded Asian Carp

Bee on a Bike

Trailer Repairs

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Country Roads

Here comes Sierra

June 7, 2010

No Beards in Beardstown - 5

Our host Nan

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The Crossroads

Fresh Strawberries for Sale

Little League Game

June 8, 2010

Into the American Jungle - 6

1993 Flood Monument

Downtown Detroit, Illinois

The Road You're On


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Turtles as big as your head

Goldenrod Showboat

Goldenrod Showboat

Goldenrod Showboat

Kampsville Ferry

Nearing the end of the Illinois River

June 9, 2010

River Gumbo's Too Thick to Navigate - 7

Pere Marquette State Park



End of the Illinois River

River Gumbo

Power Wash

Buffalo Carp Sandwich

Piasa Bird

Big and Small

St. Louis at Last

Celebratory Dinner

June 23, 2010

A bit closer to the lake

On Tuesday a lone Bighead Carp was discovered during population sampling in Lake Calumet. The fish is well beyond the electric barricade set up to stop invasive species from accessing Lake Michigan. Whether the dreaded Asian Carp has made it into the lake and will be able to establish a breeding population remains to be seen.

June 24, 2010

Scrappers, the Movie

The Scrappers movie is finally screening! It will make its world premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival on Sunday June 27, as well as on Thursday July 1.

June 27, 2010

Re-reversal of the Chicago River

Last week's discovery of a carp in Lake Calumet has added extra urgency to plans for separating the Great Lakes and Illinois River ecosystems. At the Shedd Aquarium on Friday Senator Dick Durbin announced a bill to be introduced this week that will force the Army Corps of Engineers to study the possibilities of physically separating the Chicago and Calumet rivers from the Illinois River (which would require re-reversing their flow back to Lake Michigan). The costs for such a project will be enormous, as well as the costs of transferring shipping across the barricade. But the danger to the Great Lakes ecosystem is equally great.

About June 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Down Chicago’s Drain in June 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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