Saturday, July 13, 2013

Taking advantage of paddling Chicago's manmade shoreline

Our local environment. Photo credit: Joyce Ann
When we think about taking advantage of a local paddling environment, we tend to think about exciting and even exotic things: rock gardens, tidal races and tiny islands.

Here in Chicago, we don't have any of those natural features. Our 28-mile shoreline is manmade, an urban coast comprised of beaches and break walls, punctuated by piers and harbors. Our shoreline is highly developed, and in places, the offshore waters are bustling with tour boats and recreational traffic on summer weekends. How do you take advantage of that?

Some of Chicago's offshore manmade structures: the Chicago Harbor Light and breakwall.
In fact, this environment is ideal for a course on risk assessment, leadership, group management and good decision-making. These were the foci of our recent Open Water Journeying course, which we created to enable students to plan and execute safe and enjoyable day trips.

Participants in our Open Water Journeying course making sure their boats and kit are ready for the day's paddle.
Over the course of the day, we assessed the actual risks we faced that day and found ways to mitigate them. We discussed general principles of leadership and group management, agreed upon ways to communicate among ourselves, and practiced communicating with lock tenders and commercial vessels.

Following appropriate protocol to hail the lock tender on a VHF radio.
We developed strategies for safely paddling through areas with complex boat traffic patterns. We kept together as a tight group during longer crossings and correctly estimated the time it would take us to complete them.

Keeping a group together during a longer crossing.
We launched and landed on docks and other structures.

Chicago offers a variety of launching and landing challenges.
We've long appreciated other features of our shoreline: the break walls that generate exciting clapotis when waves approaching and leaving them collide; the north-facing beaches where we can surf when conditions are right. But it's easy to overlook this area's other environmental assets--a hazard of paddling any place that's very familiar--or to regard them as negatives.

Following proper procedures in the Chicago Harbor Lock. Photo credit: Joyce Ann
Sure, there are days when we wish there were less traffic, and we definitely take advantage of every opportunity to paddle or coach in places with more beautiful and interesting natural features. But wherever we are, we try to appreciate what we have. And when we're on the water in Chicago, that's Lake Michigan's urban coastline in all its manmade glory.

Making good choices before a complicated crossing through boat traffic. Photo credit: Joyce Ann

1 comment:

Terri Bauman said...

Alec and Sharon,

It's been awhile since I've been in downtown Chicago and seeing it from the perspective of being in my kayak was awesome! The landscape and architecture of the buildings was a beautiful site in its own right. We had a perfect day and I thoroughly enjoyed the instruction you offered. I definitely learned a lot. Can't wait to do it again!