On the Saturday after Thanksgiving I walked, without having given it very much forethought, nor having fortified myself with breakfast, nor even with sufficient tea, a distance of about 7 miles from my home to discover the confluence of the North Shore Channel and the Chicago River. The digging of the former waterway was completed in 1909 in order to bear the sewage from Chicago’s prosperous North Shore communities away from Lake Michigan and into the Chicago River. By that time the Chicago River was itself a marvel of engineering, its flow having been reversed so that all soluble, floatable and mobile waste ran west into the Mississippi watershed rather than into the lake.
Breakfastlessly I walked alongside this water, keeping the channel to my left for the first few miles then crossing over into the parks to the east of the channel. In many places buckthorn, a dominant invasive species in the Midwest, and by some accounts the most common woody plant in Chicago, is so dense that I only rarely saw water. At its densest the soil under these plants is litter-less and rivulets have rent passageways through the channel bank.
Although it was past 10 AM when I walked under the bridge on Lincoln avenue, a homeless man swiveled in his sleeping bag, his head almost fully submerged, trying, on that cold morning, to stay aslumber. His radio played a Christmas carol on low; a paperback best seller peeped out from one of his bags. A little further along a woman behind me asked if I had enough food to keep me going. I turned but she was talking to another homeless fellow so on I walked.
I had not checked on a map where the confluence occurred, nor did I have a phone that I could consult. I knew that it could not be too far since I had kayaked the Chicago River north of Addison, though that spot was still a few miles to my south. As I walked through a park near Foster Avenue, the Canada geese glanced up from their listless grazing, and I finally spotted the fork where the two waters co-mingle. I could not, however, get close as I was separated from the water by a chain link fence and by phalanxes of those invasive shrubs. I leaned there for a moment against a spindly hackberry. A Great Blue Heron flapped down to the water’s edge. A little further along I crossed the bridge on Argyle and walked down to the water. I stood there for a while, and listened to some raucous mallards and looked across what I have been told is the only waterfall within Chicago city limits. The waterfall is concreted heavily and thus the Chicago River, which played no small part in making Chicago the city it is today, spills noiselessly and not especially beautifully into a combined channel with the discharge from the former open sewer. A family sets up deck chairs on the pavement on the opposite bank. Supposedly the fishing here is good. Other Chicagoans meandered by as if nothing was happening at all.
Though my achievements were perhaps of a more modest sort, the great German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt could not have been happier as he mapped the Orinoco basin, than I was at my seeing those waters run together. Mine was not a vast expedition, and my sacrifices were few. But whether I had been the first, or the millionth to see that sight, I had, nonetheless, discovered the meeting of the waters by dint of my own physical effort, and in the process had learned some small things about the workings of the world: spatial relationships between my home and those parks I know less well, their bridges and the streets that surround them. I learned of the tough wintering habits of some homeless people and those who will give them the time of day. I observed the ubiquity of riparian plants and what they can do to soil. I noticed the ways of ice on water, and the twinning of water and birds. And on the walk that returned me to my hearth, I learned about the limits of my own body, as I walked cold, cold streets for mile after urban mile.