"We're gonna interview the bugs."
That's how Mark Hauser, education coordinator for Friends of the Chicago River, introduced a lesson on assessing water quality in the Chicago River on Saturday.
On a sunny, breezy afternoon, 20 urban voyageurs gathered to canoe a four-mile stretch of the North Branch of the Chicago River and receive some basic lessons in water ecosystems. The launch point was Irene Hernandez Picnic Grove, on the edge of the northern forest preserves.
"Ecology of the River," is just one in a series of canoe trips offered by Friends of the Chicago River, an organization devoted to promoting the vitality of both wildlife and human communities on the river.
"This program is one way of getting people out on the river and educating them about the ecology, as well as some of the problems that we face in making the Chicago River a great natural and recreational resource," says Alex Duchak, director of the urban canoing outings.
Trip leader Chris Parson says everyday household pollutants have replaced industrial sludge as the main threat to the river.
"That Weed B-gone you use on your yard washes into the sewer, and the treatment plants don't eliminate non-organic waste," explained Parson.
Improvements in water quality over the past two decades have presented new challenges as wildlife and aquatic plants rebound. The next step, according to these river advocates, is disinfecting the effluent that water treatment plants discharge into the river.
Swimming, wading and even fishing carry risks such as "swimmer's itch" and gastrointestinal illness. Trip organizers advised canoeists to keep water out of eyes and off the skin as much as possible.
Heading downriver, the group saw signs of wildlife, both striking and subtle. A huge green frog with a bright gold throat peered out placidly from a rocky bank at passersby. Parson pointed out a cotton wood tree whose trunk had been girdled by beavers.
Although the previous night's rainfall had added a much-needed six inches to the river, the waters on this leg of the North Branch were shallow and fast-moving. Fortunately, the veteran guides, Dave Rigg and Heraldo Morrison, cheerfully cleared branches from the waterway and dislodged stuck boaters.
The riverbank restoration project at Von Steuben High provided an example of good caretaking. With funding from the Army Corps of Engineers, students had stabilized the banks with aquatic plants and native grasses and built a canoe launch for public access.
Golden rod, purple cone flower (echinacea), and cup flowers line the banks, adding a decorative touch to a hardy, drought-resistant layer of vegetation. Thick-ridged cotton trees, willow, and silver maple hang over the river. Their falling leaves provide organic matter that supports the river's increasingly diverse aquatic life.
Less aesthetic human contributions to the ecosystem also abound on this route. A graffiti-covered Foster Avenue bridge spans the river. Bobbing beer cans and shredded plastic dangling from tree limbs are common sights.
The official leg of the journey ended with lunch at the confluence of the North Branch and the North Channel, just south of Foster Avenue. But a small group opted to extend the journey a couple miles north. After the mini-waterfall by the River Park damn, the river widens and deepens into a tranquil corridor, which made for easy gliding.
Those who steered toward the arches of the Lawrence Avenue pumping station were rewarded with a sighting of a black crowned night heron, a species on the endangered list in Illinois and Indiana.
From Lawrence to Berteau avenues, residential properties in the Ravenswood neighborhood back into the river. The area is dotted with examples of what Parsons calls "great stewardship."
Amid the docks and motorboats, individual owners have planted terraced gardens, invested in stone sea walls to shore up the banks and installed structures under the bank that provide a safe resting place for fish.
Riverbank Neighbors, a neighborhood volunteer organization, has created a scenic path from Montrose to Berteau avenues. The path culminates in a swath of prairie and wetland flowers and grasses that prevent erosion and provide habitat.
Friends of the Chicago River will sponsor a Skokie Lagoons Evening Paddle from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on September 13. They are also offering a North Branch Trip from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on September 20. The cost is $35 for members; $40 for non-members.