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South Branch of Chicago River is filthy, improving

A submerged car floats next an embankment before being pulled out South Branch Chicago River 2011.  |  Sun-Times

A submerged car floats next to an embankment before being pulled out of the South Branch of the Chicago River in 2011. | Sun-Times files

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:24AM

I like to think I know this city.

But there is so much I’ve left unexplored.

And so, paddle in hand, wearing a Katharine Hepburn hat and swathed in a bulky lavender life jacket, I embarked on the South Branch of the Chicago River.

If you saw our “NBC5 Investigates” story last Monday, then you know some of what I found.


A former cameraman-friend of mine, Jerry Ongaro, gleefully fired off an email after watching saying, “You saw the famous ‘CHICAGO RIVER WHITEFISH’!”

Sadly, Jerry, I did.

For those who think of whitefish as a lovely entree served with lemon and oregano, read no further. Because the UrbanDictionary definition of “Chicago Whitefish” is “a used condom found washed up on the beach, in a parking lot, confessional, etc.”

In my experience, it is a creature floating very near my canoe amid other hideous detritus that includes tampons, plastic bottles, syringes and ... shall I go on?

And then, of course, there was NAKED GUY.

Nobody with a brain swims in the still-sickening swill of the Chicago River but there he was skinny-dipping. And happy to display, well, his junk for our camera.

Even our guide, Jerry Mead-Lucero of the Pilsen Environmental Reform and Rights Organization (PERRO) was astonished to witness a human in the river. “That’s a first,” he said.

But before you think this column is a write-off of the river, keep reading please. Because the South Branch is a story of so many things: poverty, pollution, neglect, and yet a genuine striving to do better.

Unlike the dazzling North Branch or downtown where a water cannon decorates the landscape for tourist boats, the South Branch has always been a stepchild. A dumping ground for heavy industry and the long-ago shuttered slaughterhouses of the Chicago stockyards.

But down here, on this end of the river, things are changing. In a good way.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to his credit, brokered a deal to shutdown the polluting Fisk and Crawford coal burning plants along the river. The smokestack and towering hulks of factories stand on the banks waiting to be turned into something more hopeful. As we paddle by the shore, I can touch the leftover coal shards on the timbers of the docks.

But other industry, like Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete Co., has according to my PERRO guide, pro-actively embraced some environment-friendly changes.

There is the lovely new Ping Tom Park and boathouse off Chinatown.

Bubbly Creek? It’s still bubbling.

“It is beyond disgusting,” says Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River. “There is organic matter from the stockyards still bubbling up.”

But right beside it is a gorgeous array of flowers.

The South Branch is not as accessible as it could be nor as clean as it should be.

But Frisbie argues it is steadily improving.

But swimmable? Not for a long time.

For now, NAKED GUY, admire the nature. But get out of the water. Find a shower.


To see the “NBC Investigates” story go to:

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