Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Risks on the River

There are inherent risks associated with river recreation, which all of the Paddle Forward expeditioners have experience managing. For this reason, we always wear PFD's and are careful around the water while paddling, recognizing and respecting its great power. The Chicago River and Des Plaines River present a new hazard that I have never had to think about during any paddling I have done in the past. The water itself is a hazard. All along the way there are signs that say:

  • Wading
  • Swimming
  • Jet Skiing
  • Water Skiing/Tubing
  • Any Human Body Contact
This means that along the stretch between Chicago, and a ways downstream, we had to take extra precautions. We were careful as we were getting in and out of our boats not to splash ourselves. If we lifted our boats out of the river and our hands got wet, we were sure to wash them. We kept careful attention to minor cuts and abrasions, which are inevitable on this type of expedition, to keep them extra clean since the river presented a high risk of infection. We could not rinse our bandanas, clothes, feet, outside of our water bottles, or even the inside of the canoes with river water, as we usually do on a canoe trip.

How are these rivers so contaminated that human contact is not advisable? Why are these rivers different from other rivers in the U.S.?

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Great Chicago filters, but does not disinfect, most of its wastewater before sending it downstream. It is the only major water reclamation district in the country that practices this. Between 60 and 85% of water in the Chicago area water system comes from human waste. This means that bacteria counts of fecal coliform, which can cause diseases such as e. coli, salmonella, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and other diseases, can be as high as 34,000 per 100 milliliters. A count of 300 fecal coliform per 100 milliliters is considered safe for recreation. 

Since the Clean Water Act of 1972, which requires facilities releasing wastewater to have a permit, water quality in the Chicago area water system has improved significantly. The construction of Deep Tunnel, an underground wastewater storage system, which holds 2.3 billion gallons of wastewater until it can be treated and released, has helped control the discharge of untreated sewage into the waterways. Chicago has a combined sewer system, so both stormwater runoff and water flushed down toilets and sinks is ultimately sent to Deep Tunnel. However, when large rain events occur, which is happening more and more frequently due to climate change, this system is overwhelmed, and it forces the city to release untreated wastewater into our waterways. This water ends up both in the river system and in Lake Michigan--the source of Chicago's drinking water. Construction is currently underway to increase Deep Tunnel's capacity to from 2.3 billion gallons 17.5 billion gallons by 2024. 

I was not aware of the water quality issues of the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers, and it is very concerning that we are letting this happen. However, it also seems that the solution is neither mysterious nor complicated. Yes, it will require a significant investment to begin disinfecting wastewater and to install various forms of green infrastructure to help control runoff throughout the city of Chicago but really, this goal is not unattainable. Rather, it would get the Chicagoland area merely up to speed with the rest of the country. 

The Illinois EPA is considering beginning to disinfect wastewater, and much of this shift is happening because of increased recreation on the Chicago area water systems, and the recognition of the need to protect these citizens from disease. This shift highlights the political influence that outdoor recreation can have. By simply going outside and enjoying the natural amenities that exist in our backyard, government agencies and representatives must recognize the role that these areas play in our daily lives, and in turn create policy and practices that reflect the value that citizens place on these resources. It is Wild River Academy's hope that by paddling the Chicago, Des Plaines, and Illinois Rivers, we highlight the recreation and learning opportunities that abound along these water trails. So join us in utilizing, appreciating, and exploring your backyard! And bring some friends along! 

Augsburg College to Guest Write for Paddle Forward

Hey Everyone!  This is the first guest blog entry for Paddle Forward’s Illinois River Expedition.  We are a group of Augsburg College students and a professor (and one recent Augsburg graduate) who just finished paddling 115 miles of the Upper Mississippi, from St. Paul to Winona.  We are now back on campus as part of a class on Environmental and River Politics at Augsburg College, and will be following the Illinois River trip and contributing to the trip blog.  Students in the class will be researching some of the topics and issues encountered by the Paddle4ward crew, and seeing how that trip compares to the one we just finished on the Mississippi.

In our class we have Lucie, Alex, Emily, and Charles, who are all environmental studies majors; Lily, a Chemistry major, and Rachel, in Biology.  We are also working with a history major, Kevin, who has been studying the tunnels, sewers, and storm water drain systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul.  They will each be researching different aspects of the Chicago and Illinois Rivers.

We have a personal connection to the expedition since our trip was led by Liz Just, who is also part of the Paddle Forward crew.  We had a great time hearing from Liz about the trip down the Mississippi River last fall, and looking forward to hearing about this new trip as well.

On our trip we studied water quality, the impact of the lock and dam system, and the multiple and often competing uses of the Upper Mississippi River.  Human civilizations grew up around rivers for a reason.  We use them for all sorts of things:  drinking water, waste disposal, transportation, habitat for fish and other wildlife, recreation, spirituality, and as cooling water for power plants.  The rich farmland along rivers makes them important locales for human community.  But we saw as well how all these uses put a huge strain on the health of the river ecosystems.  The locks and dams along the Mississippi dramatically alter the physical characteristics of the river, and the Army Corps of Engineers work to maintain the 9-foot channel for the barges means that the river is constantly being engineered to stay in one place, when it naturally wants to be shifting and changing.

We learned directly from the river, but also from the people we met along the way—river rats, duck hunters, fishermen, wildlife biologists, lock operators, local business owners, and people who just like being down by river.  Everyone had their own stories and perspectives on the river, but everyone loved it and wanted to protect it, which was great to see, because we do too.

Over the next few weeks we will be contributing stories and research to the Paddle Forward blog on topics such as transportation, the impact of farming, the threats posed by invasive species, and economic development along the river.

We are psyched to be following the Paddle Forward group as they explore the Chicago and Illinois River, and share our thoughts and reflections on these great rivers and their place in our lives.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Chicago Series Part III: Education off the River

This final post in the Chicago Series details our HIGHLY educational final day running around the city, so it’s a bit longer and more involved than previous posts.

Part III: Education off the River
Our last day in Chicago was jam-packed with educational experiences, both for us and from us. First thing in the morning, Nick, Jess, and Marissa headed to the Camelot School in Mount Prospect, IL for our first school visit. The teachers there are focusing on themes involving adventure and water this year – straight up our alley. At the beginning of the hour-long session, many of the students didn’t understand why our crew cared so much about water, but by the end, most were asking a ton of questions and starting to realize the importance of our waterways. Mission success.

Meanwhile, Liz, Natalie, Lee, and I (Mark) took the L into Chicago to meet up with the Army Corps of Engineers. The lock at Navy Pier ended up being fairly far from the station where we stopped, and the walk there was far more confusing than it should have been. This is only worth mentioning because of the important insight we derived from this experience: urban design caters mainly to the automobile, often at the expense of the pedestrian. The same can be said of urban waterways, which are constructed for the passage of barges and larger watercraft rather than paddlers. We’ve already had many experiences to reinforce this, so it may very well become its own blog post.

The lock at Navy Pier

When we got to Navy Pier, we skipped the ferris wheel and went straight to the Army Corps site at the lock and dam, which we entered through a barbed-wire fence gate. The whole site gave off the aura of a top-secret facility, but when we met our two hosts, Dave Wethington and Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Lovell, they ensured us that the Army Corps is a transparent organization that is seeking to share their work with the public. I’m guessing that most Americans know almost nothing about the Army Corps of Engineers. Let me share what I learned:

·      The Army Corps of Engineers is indeed a branch of the army, but they are first and foremost devoted to “engineering solutions for our Nation’s toughest challenges.”
·      The Army Corps actually does build army bases, but they are better known domestically for their civil works and infrastructure projects. They’re called in on all the big projects, the ones that you and I would assume to be impossible. Example: reversing the flow of the Chicago River. They built the Navy Pier lock to keep the Chicago River from flowing into Lake Michigan, and then constructed the 28-mile Shipping and Sanitary Canal to instead send the river flowing south toward the Mississippi.
·      Everything I had previously learned about the Army Corps came from Environmental Studies classes. The Corps have a bad reputation with environmentalists, because they’re the group that really messes with nature by damming rivers, redirecting waterways, etc. Dave and LTC Lovell explained how the Corps are also heavily involved in flood control and environmental restoration projects. I was impressed by the way they confronted the complexity of these problems, rather than looking for one silver bullet. 

Chicago skyline from the Navy Pier lock
 Asian carp
Photo credit to Josh Mogerman
The major project facing the Chicago Army Corps right now is keeping Asian carp, an aggressive invasive species, out of Lake Michigan. The Chicago River is the only major route for the carp to enter the Great Lakes Chain, so it is the vital link that needs to be protected – the last defense, if you will. Some of the language surrounding the issue, and the whole idea of an Asian carp mass assault on our waterways, comes across as slightly absurd to me. The Corps has built an “electric dispersal barrier” on the Shipping and Sanitary Canal, close to Lockport, IL, to keep the carp from progressing upstream. The barrier is a behavioral defense, which starts by merely annoying the swimming carp with prickling shockwaves, and ends with a powerful surge that renders the carp immobile, causing it to float back downstream. Somewhat ridiculous, but effective so far.

Lee pointed out something interesting about water management in different countries: the U.S. is pouring millions of dollars into projects to combat an invasive species while other countries are struggling to supply their people with clean drinking water. Different priorities, I guess. Ironically, the wastewater treatment plants along the Chicago River still don’t have tertiary treatment, aka wastewater sanitation. This means that we were paddling down a waterway where unsanitized wastewater makes up 60-85% of the river. Thus, no swimming or drinking allowed. When Dave told us this, I immediately regretted my decision to forgo a shower after paddling the previous day.

Matt the tour guide

With our heads filled to bursting with information about redirected waterways and Asian carp invasions, we left the Army Corps base, grabbed a quick lunch, and headed over to the Chicago River Museum. Our tour guide, Matt, led us through the five different floors of the McCormick Bridgehouse, which is fittingly located on the Chicago River at Michigan Ave. My biggest takeaway from the stories Matt told us and the old photos and quotes on the wall is that Chicago used to be an inconceivably awful place to live. Rudyard Kipling, who hailed from India, had this to say about his visit: “I have struck a city—a real city—and they call it Chicago… Having seen it, I urgently desire never to see it again. It is inhabited by savages.”

One of the main reasons for Chicago’s atrocious living conditions is that the site where the city rose up was originally a swamp. During its early industrial years, the city suffered from all sorts of problems with disease and flooding. Chicago was growing rapidly as a transportation and industrial hub, and the river was treated as a dumping ground by the meatpacking factories and lumberyards. At that time, the river, and thus all the sewage, flowed into Lake Michigan, which was the city’s drinking source. They had overlooked an important rule: you don’t drink where you poo. In 1900, the river reversal allowed them to send all their sewage south to St. Louis instead. This action did not make any friends for Chicago, but it did improve the city’s health.

Just as the residents of Chicago shaped the river, the river in turn shaped the city. Yes, it bred disease when it became polluted, but its positive effects far outweighed the negative. If it wasn’t for the river and the transportation it allowed, Chicago would never have existed. So here’s to the Chicago River, as filthy as it might be.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Chicago Series Part II: Paddle Downtown!!

The second installment in our Chicago Series:

Paddle Downtown!!

Unlike some urban rivers, the Chicago River is a proud centerpiece for the city. It was pivotal in the formation of Chicago as an urban, industrial center, and it remains relevant today, as the recreation and tourism industry use it more and more. On Sept. 7th, we made use of the river ourselves during our mass paddle through downtown! Our canoe fleet didn't end up being quite as massive as we had hoped, but we were still happy that our friends Ann Raiho and Martha Brummitt came, and that Nick and Natalie got to paddle (they're both playing a support role for Paddle Forward this year instead of paddling the whole way).

The views of skyscrapers and historic buildings were as breathtaking as expected, but the thing I didn't expect was the level of boat traffic on the river. Nearly all of it was recreational: dozens of architectural tours, water taxis, Sunday pontooners, and a couple groups of kayakers. Our little group of canoes had to stay to the side of the waterway and ride out the waves created by the larger boats. Like the urban center itself, there was an atmosphere of hustle and bustle on the river.

The architectural boat tours have become one of the preferred ways for tourists to see the city, and we could understand why. The perspective from the river offers a clear view into Chicago’s dynamic history. From a single point on the river, we could see multiple drawbridges that represented different time periods in their architecture and mechanics. As a permanent fixture in the Chicago downtown, the river has been a constant, while all around it buildings rise and fall, burn down and get rebuilt.

That’s not to say that the river hasn’t changed. An untouched river will change its course over thousands of years, but a river in the middle of a major metropolis can go through dramatic transformations in short amounts of time. In Chicago’s 181-year history as a city, the Chicago River has been severely polluted, reversed in its flow, connected to the Mississippi watershed by canal, and now cleaned up to some extent. We’ve seen signs that warn against “any human body contact” with the water, but I’m very pleased that we’re not paddling the river as it was a century ago, back when the stockyards dumped dead cattle and industrial sludges into the river until the water bubbled from methane. Gross.

Gary Johnson speaks at Lawrence's Fisheries
While we were in Chicago, we were lucky enough to have several local experts share their knowledge about the river with us. At the end of our 5-mile paddle through downtown, we docked our canoes at Lawrence’s Fisheries to be treated to a lunch of fried seafood/chicken and some great speeches from Larry Suffredin, Cook County Commissioner, Gary Johnson, President of the Chicago History Museum, and Kurt Schweig, Vice President of Lawrence’s Fisheries. They shared stories of the changes undergone by the river, both positive and negative. There are hopeful signs of progress in returning the river to a cleaner, more natural state. One example stuck out: Lawrence’s has invested in a permeable pavement parking lot that keeps dirty runoff from flowing into the river. As the owner of a business that depends on the water for its survival, this kind of stewardship is admirable.

Millenium Park with Leslie on her QuinceaƱera 
After paddling through the middle of the city, we decided to move onto land for a little publicity stunt: a portage through downtown. I took the first shift, hoisting the canoe onto my shoulders and taking off down the busy sidewalks. The effect was oddly similar to paddling through water. At every crosswalk, the sea of pedestrians parted around the canoe and then closed back around it. Our portage took us to Millenium Park and the famous reflective Bean. There were gawkers, there were people taking pictures of us, there was even a girl on a photo shoot for her QuinceaƱera that really knew how to pose in front of a canoe. We’re hoping that some of these people were curious enough to Google Paddle Forward and/or Wild River Academy, both of which were spraypainted to the sides of the canoe. No matter what, we got some great photos. You can check them all out on our Facebook or watch our video from that day on YouTube.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Chicago Series Part I: The Chicago River's North Branch

Greetings from the Des Plaines River! We left Chicago two days ago and began our river journey in earnest. Now that we have access to internet and a day off from paddling, it's time to take a deep breath after our hectic days in Chicago and reflect on everything that has occurred. Chicago was such a compact bundle of experiences that I've decided to split it up into several blog posts:

Part I: The North Branch 

On Sept. 6th, after several days filled with packing, traveling to Chicago, and finalizing trip preparations, we loaded three canoes into the North Branch of the Chicago River and took off on our paddling adventure. We started this section eighteen miles north of Chicago and paddled it into the city on our first day on the water.

The North Branch appeared to be a completely different river than the stretch of the same river we would paddle the following day. Most of the North Branch is surrounded by forest preserve. As the Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin later told us, Cook County is home to the largest forest preserve district in the country, housing over 69,000 acres of preserved land. Wildlife sightings were a constant: mostly birds like herons, egrets, and cormorants, but also several deer and a very lethargic snapping turtle! The human spottings could be almost as exciting, like the time we ruined a very romantic moment for a couple of teenagers who were smooching by the river. We were also constantly spotting bikers and hikers through the trees enjoying the preserve's trails on a Saturday afternoon. There were no other paddlers on the river though. No surprise there - the narrow, windy North Branch did not make for easy paddling. Every few minutes, we were forced to pull over to the bank and carry our canoes around a fallen log that had made the river impassable. It's very possible that this was only bad timing - an intense storm had blown through the day before, knocking limbs off trees and causing power outages. The frequent stops slowed us down considerably, but I can't complain too much. An obstacle course makes for exciting paddling.

The dense canopy of the forest preserve is a beautiful example of a natural habitat, but it is an illusion of wilderness, surrounded as it is by human habitat. Several times during our paddle, we were reminded of this when the forest would yield to the pristine lawns of a golf course and a curious golfer would call out to us, surprised to see three canoes weaving through their water hazard. Over the 18 miles we paddled that day, we crossed under nearly 50 bridges upon which cars and trucks roared overhead. It is an odd feeling to embark on an outdoor adventure while people pass by on their daily urban routine, heading home or to work. The things that seem normal in everyday life come across as very abnormal, and thus interesting, when seen from the river.

I'm not accustomed to paddling through such heavily populated areas, but on every canoe trip I've been on, I've come across some reminder of the presence of humans. When you're expecting nature, human artifacts stick out like a sore, sore thumb. I think the opposite is true as well. When you're expecting to see the built human environment, it comes as a shock when a cormorant takes off a hundred feet in front of your canoe. We saw a dramatic transformation in the North Branch once it widened after a confluence with another river. The river came to be walled with concrete and metal in places, and framed by houses or industry. Despite the geometric angles of the river and the lack of greenery, herons and egrets still found this length of the river livable. It just goes to show how nature can cling on in the most unlikely of places. And in the places where people had stopped maintaining the river's walls, weeds and trees busted through the rusted-out iron. It's true; nature always wins.

We took out our canoes at the landing at Kayak Chicago that night, and headed back to the home of our wonderful hosts, Susan and Gary Johnson, aka Anna's parents. The home-cooked meal and showers were much appreciated after our long, physical day on the river.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Meet Lee Vue

Hi! Hello! Hey!

My name is Lee Vue and I previously paddled the Mississippi River last year with Paddle Forward. I can’t wait for another amazing time on the river!

Who is Lee?
I grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota and currently work as a freelance photographer and consultant. I obtained my BA in Political Science from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities.  These past few years, I have been traveling and volunteering my time in other countries. I recently just returned from the Philippines after spending a month helping with the earthquake disaster relief efforts on the island of Bohol. My first experience into the great outdoors was at the age of thirteen and since then I have continued to spend time among lakes, tall trees, rising mountains, and rolling rivers. My love for the wilderness and rivers is ever growing with an insatiable need to find new adventures every year.

Why did she join Paddle Forward: Illinois River?
It was a great learning experience to be part of building the overall vision of Paddle Forward’s pilot year last year. It was fascinating to learn about the role rivers play into the development and sustainability of towns and cities along the route and implementing an adventure-learning curriculum. This year, we’ve finessed the curriculum and made it the primary focus so I’m looking forward to connecting with K-12 students and sharing discoveries on the trip. I’m excited for all the students to get excited about rivers and nature beyond the means of textbooks and classroom walls.  I hope they get inspired to go on their own adventure one day and continue learning about water and nature conservation.

What will she gain from this trip?

I strive to do what I love and measure life on a happiness scale. Paddling rivers, participating in Paddle Forward, and supporting Wild River Academy are among my list of “Things I Love To Do.” I’m looking forward to those unexpected moments and chance meetings with people along the river that will make the experience more than just an outdoors adventure. It’s about making connections (new friends), living in a micro-community, mobility by canoeing, and finding the simple joys at moving in a slow pace under the open skies.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Paddle Forward is back!

           Hi everybody! I am excessively excited to kick off the 2014 Paddle Forward blog (not to mention the trip itself). My name is Mark Emmons, but you can refer to me as Blog Editor-in-Chief! Just kidding. But actually, I’ll be the main blogger during the month-long expedition, though the other five paddlers will also take turns at blog posts.

The purpose of this blog is twofold:
1) like a typical travel blog, I will update you with stories of our discoveries, encounters, triumphs, frustrations, etc. and
2) it will serve as a learning tool for the K-12 students who will be following our trip online. Ooooo, the power of blogging!

If you are reading this, you are wondering what’s going on with the trip! Well, we’re 15 days away from our September 6th launch date, and most preparations are in order. For the past month and a half, the whole crew (6 paddlers and 2 support team members) has been contacting schools, media, river town leaders, and other folks who might be able to help us during our travels. Our goal is to meet with as many people as possible who have some stake in the river. Why, you ask? Because we believe that the best way to get to know the Illinois River is by talking to the people who interact with it daily. Makes sense, right? Our hope is that these interviews will yield all sorts of educational insights for our adventure learning videos, where we’ll make connections between the different nuggets of knowledge that our interviewees give us. If you were following last fall’s Paddle Forward expedition down the Mississippi River, you may know that the paddlers were kept busy filming a documentary and covering a whole lot of miles. This year, the focus will be more strongly on adventure learning (for the sake of the children!) and the key to its success is in meeting interesting people.

Of course, to make our adventure learning efforts meaningful at all, we need students to participate. Thanks to fellow expeditioner/U of MN student/champion of champions, Jess Colbaugh, we already have 43 schools signed up to follow our expedition online! There is still room to register to be a River Ambassador school - more information at On top of that, we’ll be stopping at a number of schools along the way to visit classrooms in person. Another fellow expeditioner, Marissa Madej, is the mastermind behind these visits. I imagine that it will be the most exciting day of class ever! If you are involved in a school along the river that would want us to stop by, contact Marissa at

To kick it all off, the excitement will begin in Chicago. Wild River Academy founder Natalie Warren, who will sadly not be paddling with us on the river, has set up a big shebang for our Chicago sendoff. On September 7th, there will be a mass paddle through the city with local paddling groups, and speakers to follow. If you are in the Chicago area at the time, contact us at to join the fun! If you can’t join us, you can at least experience the glory online through all of our social media platforms coordinated by fellow expeditioner/social media queen, Lee Vue. You can follow us on Google +, Facebook, and Twitter.

That’s all for now. Now we wait. 15 days! 15 days! 15 days!