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Lincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park

River Park Will Soon Offer Kayaking, Canoe Trips And More As North Branch River Activities Head Northwest

Money to convert the boathouse to a museum is being sought. "We're going to try and make this happen,” a park district planner said.

A man fishing at River Park on Tuesday. The tree roots and rocks along the shoreline were added to create new habitats for river wildlife.
Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
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LINCOLN SQUARE — The expansion of activities on the Chicago River heads further north later this year as kayak and canoe rentals make their way to Lincoln Square.

A new boat launch is ready at River Park, 5100 N. Francisco Ave. Anyone with a boat can enter the river there.

Currently the Chicago Park District offers boat rentals at Clark Park, 3400 N. Rockwell St. The goal is to expand the rental of canoes and kayaks to River Park once more workers are hired in the future.

Activities on the river rolling out this summer will include events like a moonlight paddle of the North Shore Channel, botanizing by boat and a tour of the North Branch. The cost to participate in one of these events would be about $8.

It’s part of the continuing expansion of offerings on the river. In addition, a new museum focused on the history of the city’s rivers could one day come to the park where the North Shore Channel and the Chicago River’s North Branch meet.

“My personal passion is paddling. It’s something I’ve always looked to do, and it’s the thing that has kept me in Chicago,” said Matthew Renfree, a senior program specialist with the Chicago Park District.

Renfree was one of 10 speakers addressing a crowd at the River Park fieldhouse, 5100 N. Francisco Ave., for the North River Commission’s state of the environment meeting last week.

“The last time we had offered our own in-house paddling was back in the 1960s,” Renfree said.

A few years ago a standup paddle board rental company opened at River Park, but the $30 per hour price tag didn’t attract enough people and the shop closed down.

“Nobody is going to pay $30 an hour to try something when they’re already skeptical about the river,” Renfree said.

But now, the park district plans to expand its nature outings to the river.

“The boat launch [at River Park] is also now open to everyone. So you can come down if you have a boat and launch it. If you don’t have a boat, look online, we’ll have a whole bunch of outings,” Renfree said.

“For the moonlight paddle we launch the boats at sunset and we paddle up to the North Shore Channel,” Renfree said. “It’s crazy because you’re down in the river and with the green space on either side it feels like a completely different place.

Credit: Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The former River Park dam which was removed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 31, 2018.

Both the North Shore Channel and the Chicago River North Branch cut through River Park’s 30 acres. The park is the largest of six established by the River Park District, one of 22 independent park commissions consolidated into the Chicago Park District in 1934, according to the Chicago Park District.

The park was home to one of the city’s last waterfalls, thanks to a 4-foot concrete dam built in 1910 to protect the bank of the Chicago River from erosion.

The dam was demolished last year.

Now, riverfront restoration has cleared invasive plant species and created areas for birds and fish, and the dam is no longer necessary.

RELATED: The End of Chicago’s Only ‘Waterfall’ Marks A New Beginning For Life On The River

Work to remove the dam began in 2000 and on July 31 of last year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished demolishing it, according to Lauren Umek, an urban ecologist and project manager with the park district.

Federal and local funds paid for the $15 million dam removal project.

Credit: Alex V. Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
The 4-foot-tall concrete dam built in 1910 was demolished last July allowing wildlife better access to the Chicago River’s North Branch around River Park.

Last week, a number of fishermen on both banks cast their lines as ducks and geese flew overhead and hung out on the river.

Water quality should be improving, thanks to the city’s Deep Tunnel project and completion of the Albany Park Tunnel, and the next step for the riverfront restoration is a lot of waiting and water testing.

“We’ll be doing a lot of monitoring over time,” Umek said. “And one of the things that we’ll be also monitoring is the wildlife.”

With the removal of the dam, Umek says fish should have better access entering and exiting the North Branch.

When the dam was removed, so, too, was the flat concrete bottom of the river near River Park. It was replaced with rocks, sand and smaller cobblestones to provide additional habitat for fish and other wildlife.

Roots from invasive trees that were not helping protect the shoreline from erosion were removed and installed sideways at the river bank to provide additional habitat for wildlife. The gradient of the shoreline was made more gentle and new native species of plants are being cultivated there, too.

“A lot of the species that we put in at Horner Park — we’ve learned a lot of lessons of what did well and what did not do well and we’ve used that to inform the restoration,” Umek said.

Renfree is also seeking grant funding to convert the park’s boathouse into a museum showcasing the history and ecology of the river.

“We’re going to do a few pop-up events this summer to try to get some proof of concept and build strength toward that project,” Renfree said. “Keep your fingers crossed and I’m working as quick as I can but we’re going to try and make this happen.”

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