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Riding along on a river of change

The North Shore Channel is an amazing oasis wildness heart Chicago. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

The North Shore Channel is an amazing oasis of wildness in the heart of Chicago. | Dale Bowman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:35AM

Around Belmont Avenue, our boat drifted broadside as our driver tried to figure where the former boat builders Henry C. Grebe & Company had been along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

It’s now the Belmont River Club, townhouses and condominiums across the river from the former Riverview Park.

Role reversals are nothing new on the Chicago River system.

We saw plenty in late August when several of us ran through the Chicago Lock, down the main stem of the Chicago River, up the North Branch and the entire North Shore Channel to the sluice gates, which were being repaired, in Wilmette.

The days when the Chicago waterways were the forgotten backsides, sewers, have changed. The Chicago River has evolved into a positive. That’s one reason we made the run, to see how much had changed.

We launched out of the new 31st Street harbor and ran to the Chicago Lock. It was a perfect day for that sort of adventure, early enough that the morning sun put a perfect light on the Loop.

Going through the main stem, tour boats and taxis surrounded us.

I have a sentimental attachment to the space occupied by Trump Tower. It once held the old box building of the Sun-Times. Sports had an ideal spot looking down the river to Lake Michigan. Now it is replaced by an architectural salute to ego. I gave it my own salute.

The new Sun-Times offices are near historic Wolf Point, just west of a discharge which is the best boat fishing spot downtown. But Ken Schneider and I couldn’t entice even one bite.

Farther up the North Branch, others argued about where the fish tugs used to tie up in the days when the netters still pillaged Lake Michigan.

We wondered whether Cortland Street Bridge was the oldest in Chicago. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says, ‘‘The first trunnion bascule bridge was built in Chicago at Cortland Street in 1902.’’

Moving north, the riverbanks rapidly transitioned to residential. We began to see mallards by the dozens and many Canada geese.

‘‘It is almost suburban life in the city,’’ one rider said.

The Belmont River Club could fit comfortably into the North Shore.

Just south of Foster Avenue is ‘‘The Waterfall,’’ where the North Branch flows over a dam and joins the North Shore Channel. Several were bank fishing the most famous modern fishing spot on the North Branch. We caught bluegill and gobies. Schneider hooked a beautiful crappie, fish of the trip.

It brought back memories. One winter afternoon, as the sun warmed the water, we caught panfish and largemouth bass to earn the front page in the Sun-Times.

We began to see double-crested cormorants, belted kingfishers, great blue herons and black-crowned night herons.

There’s a fancy river walk between Irving Park and Montrose. One rider muttered, ‘‘Yuppies.’’ There were old docks still along the North Shore Channel, grandfathered in.

Crossing into the north suburbs, we passed several crews rowing. The stretch through the north suburbs is a dead zone for fishing, but is a beautiful, straight shot through deep woods.

We came out near the sluice gates at Wilmette, with the international beauty of the Baha’i Temple. We caught a decent bluegill on nearly every cast and lunched on Jay’s Potato Chips, cold chicken and cantaloupe chunks.

On the way back, we saw many kayakers, another sign of the changing river. Sunbathers sprawled over a hill in a new park space downtown.

It was time.

In the lock, a bass boat pulled in the other side.

Times change.

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