Chicago River North Branch Tour

I had been anxiously awaiting the opening of the WMS Boathouse and re-opening of Chicago River Canoe and Kayak’s North Branch Launch, and the season was starting to turn when the livery finally made an announcement for the September 20, 2013 weekend. I am as much into architecture as I am into natural settings, and some of my favorite places are those where the natural and built environments dramatically collide. That is to say, the downtown architectural tour paddles are fun, but this stretch of river holds a different type of beauty. My friend Steven lives nearby in Avondale, and he and I love to explore places and geolocate them. I was in town for the Chicago GIS Network meeting, so we decided opening day was our day.

It was an exploratory journey, because we were not sure exactly what features we could capture. We had speculated that perhaps plant identification and geolocation could be an option. Also, there had been a recent controversy over the Horner Park 6.5 million dollar renovation, related to the plant massing along the river bank. The Chicago Tribune published an article related to resident out-cry that resulted in the “decision not to regrade about 20 percent of the riverbank, a move that will save mature, native trees in that area.” Corroborating the theory that it is likely there are invasive massings along the river bank. The challenge of course being that mapping plant communities usually involves polygons, and it is more likely that we would be able to capture only point data. So we went out prepared – a DSLR, a point and shoot, and two iPhones (tipping was not an option) – perhaps we’d get lucky and find some point data to capture, or a way to capture invasive plant communities that could be interpolated into polygons. It was an intrepid quest for more information. What we found is that the sewer system provides a great opportunity for mapping point features, and quantification of invasive species would be a time consuming venture best saved for a warmer paddle. It was also quite interesting to note the frequency of bridges and the relationship to the Chicago Grid system.

Thus this article is a showcase of preliminary findings. An investigation into the documentation of places based on their relative location, the creation of new and unique datasets, and incorporation of data into the gazetteer that is evolving from the OSM attribute table. It could be called wayfinding. It could be called water trail scouting. It’s mostly just called fun. Images courtesy OSM (2013) and Google Maps (2013), Google Earth (2013), Chicago City Data (2013) and Authoritative US Topos digital USGS quad (1993).

This paddle trip put in at the Studio Gang Boathouse just north of Belmont, and extended to just north of Lawrence Ave.

0_GoogleSAT_belmont to lawrence











View an area through the cartographic eye and the aerial photo eye. The OSM map shows all features and provides the data perspective.  The zoning map provides the land use classification, and the simplified topo with only four categories.

Orienting to the wayfinding course through the different classifications to get a feel for the area, it is clear to see this stretch of the river winds through a predominantly residential area. The river stands most starkly in the satellite image carving through the urban jungle, and as a noticeable blue strip through the red urban of the topo. In the color coding of OSM you clearly identify the park along the river and the cemetery to the northeast, as well as in the topo where those areas are carved out as white ‘unmapped’ sections. The zoning map confirms the parks along the river and residential as the dominant land use interspersed with industry and sparse commercial districts. The North Branch merging with the North Branch Spillway, at River Park just south of Foster Ave, is also most evident in the topo because of the limited symbology.

1_GoogleSAT_belmont to lawrence 1_OSM_belmont to lawrence






1_TOPO_belmont to lawrence_cmp

1_Chi Data_Zoning






















To further the sense of place, neighborhood locations have been mapped on a semi-oblique map composition from Google Earth. This map will be used to chart the path of the canoe up the river for a sense of photo locations along the journey.









If you’re not already aware, different zoom scales in Google Maps are actually different vintages. In the image below, you will see the site of the Studio Gang Boathouse as it was in 2013 during construction on the south end of Richard Clark Playlot/Park (just north of The Garden BMX trails).

3_GoogleSAT_launch site_zoom level 10

3_GoogleSAT_launch site_zoom without bldg

However zoom past level 10 in the lower image, and the construction materials and foundation disappear, taking you back in time to the pre-construction era of the park (2012).


Follow the Chicago River North Branch Tour Photos link to take the photo tour


Margaret Spyker

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