The Chicago Park District’s River Lab is opening programming at a former hot-dog stand at River Park to deepen the experience of the Chicago River.




Ethan Johnson put a spotting scope, set on the south end of the launching pier at River Park, on an egret spearing fish on the west shore of the North Branch of the Chicago River.

Neighborhood kids fished off the pier, mainly catching round gobies. Joel Luciano translated when I took a photo of a kid catching a fish and asked permission from the mother. (My next goal is to improve my Spanish enough to be serviceable.)

“Albany Park is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country,” Matt Renfree said.

Diverse experiences are being built around River Lab, a converted hot dog stand at River Park. The placement is significant at the confluence of the North Shore Channel and the North Branch, where the dam was removed three years ago and the natural flow and ecosystem began returning rapidly.

Ethan Johnson works a spotting scope, focused on a feeding egret, near the River Lab, a converted hot-dog stand at River Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

Ethan Johnson works a spotting scope, focused on a feeding egret, near the River Lab, a converted hot-dog stand at River Park.
Dale Bowman

Now the Chicago Park District started expanding programming built around the river and River Lab. In late July, just before formal programming started, Renfree, senior program specialist, gave a tour.

“The river is why I got excited about being in the Chicago region,” he said. “If you’re looking for an adventure, it is right here.”

Inside, the top aquarium has local fishes, below mounts of massive lake trout, brown trout and steelhead. A bottom aquarium teaches about water ecosystems. The tanks are connected so the fish feces are processed in the bottom tank, a small-scale version of working wetlands.

“Big thing the kids go for is the fish tank,” Renfree said. “Kids are drawn to the macroinvertebrates. Part of it is the science. Part of it is the fun stuff.”

Collecting water samples is made more fun by having a microscope connected to a big screen, so groups can observe what is on the microscope slide.

Matt Renfree works the microscope connected to a big screen, one of the draws of River Lab, a converted hot-dog stand at River Park. Credit: Dale Bowman

Matt Renfree works the microscope connected to a big screen, one of the draws of River Lab, a converted hot-dog stand at River Park.
Dale Bowman

A big cart holds trays of flies and fly tying supplies.

Along or on the river, common sightings are cormorants, egrets, mallards, a domestic duck, night herons, green herons, gulls and great blue herons. Paddlers see muskrats, beavers and groundhogs (on the North Shore Channel). Paddlers regularly see a coyote curled in a hollow on the east bank downstream on the North Branch.

After touring River Lab, Renfree took us paddling. The highlight was seeing the coyote. We saw multiple night herons, hunched on shoreline branches. Great blue herons flapped off.

A great blue heron flaps off during a paddle on the North Branch of the Chicago River. Credit: Dale Bowman

A great blue heron flaps off during a paddle on the North Branch of the Chicago River.
Dale Bowman

“It’s the river, but it doesn’t have a place for people to go to learn about it, to get their hands, you know, dirty, and catch a fish, and sample stuff,” Renfree said.

Now they do.

During a sudden rain shower, we sheltered underneath a bridge with a young woman who had unfolded her Oru Kayak earlier at the launch.

The Brown Line el (I can’t help thinking “The Ravenswood”) rumbled over a bridge. Otherwise, sounds of the city were muffled.

“Never paddled before, but a friend took me out at River Park [several years ago],” Renfree said. “That changed my life.”

There’s good reason he sounds like an evangelist.

Truly. He is now an American Canoe Association instructor. That will be put to use in the evolving programming at River Lab.

As of now, organized programming is built around an open museum Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 2-4 p.m., and on Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Paddling classes will be Mondays, Thursday and Fridays, 5:30-8:30 p.m. Fly fishing instruction should come later this year.

Back at River Lab, Johnson pulled up a photo of mink they had just seen on shore.

“Removing the dam helped the environment, the programming helps the people,” Renfree said.

It was time.

On programming questions, contact Renfree at RiverLab@chicagoparkdistrict.com or (312) 914-0385. More at chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/river-boathouse.

A view downstream on the North Branch of the Chicago River from a paddle that took off from River Park, where River Lab is now open for programming. Credit: Dale Bowman

A view downstream on the North Branch of the Chicago River from a paddle that took off from River Park, where River Lab is now open for programming.
Dale Bowman







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