★ ★ ★

Chicago River: North Branch

Skokie River Dam to Bunker Hill Bridge:
The location of the legendary Chicago River along the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan was key to establishing native American, fur trader and later European settlements in its namesake city that would become one of the world’s most important. The river is named after the smelly wild garlic growing along its banks that Algonquin tribes called “shikaakwa”, which the French rendered as “chicagoua.” This trip begins in the upper reaches of the three tributaries of the now channelized river that is familiar to downtown visitors of the skyscraper-lined riverwalk. The historic waterway takes paddlers from the world famous Chicago Botanical Gardens and the WPA-built Skokie Lagoons 17 miles down a small, natural stream bordered by floodplain forest, until it reaches the dredged main stem that was engineered to reverse the flow of the river from Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico.

Chicago River North Branch

By Zack Nauth
A Miles Paddled contributor & Illinois Stringer

Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆
Trip Report Date: March 29 + August 17, 2023

Skill Level: Intermediate (due to a possible portage at a dam, and around logjams.) Beginner starting at Bunker Hill as it avoids dams and has fewer logjams.
Class Difficulty: Riffles

Gauge Recorded on this Trip:
North Branch Chicago River @ Niles: ht/ft: 3.0-3.5 | cfs: 300-330

Current Levels:
North Branch Chicago River @ Niles: ht/ft: 1.26 | cfs: 59.6

Recommended Levels:
During the first leg of my trip in March, the level was 330 cfs following a period of regular early spring rainfall. This level helped me get through three log jams without a portage (a fourth could not be “limboed” under). Paddlers need a minimum of 75 cfs for decent paddling; the median is 100 cfs. The second leg of the trip in August, after some rain, was not quite as high, nearing 300 cfs.

Skokie River Dam near Willow Road, Skokie River, Winnetka, Illinois
GPS: 42.10197, -87.75884
Bunker Hill Bridge, Chicago, Illinois
GPS: 42.00029, -87.78456

Time: Not recorded (separated by several months)
Total Time: Approx. 3-4h
Miles Paddled: 10.75

Turtles, herons, hawks, a rare sighting of a mink, and great horned owl in a nest set in a broken off tree.

Shuttle Information:
About 11 miles or 20 minutes. If you’re in a car, hopping on and off I-94 will get you there in about 20 minutes. By bicycle, which was my choice (but broken into two separate days), it’s the same distance but about an hour on the off-road path.

With these two trips, I have now completed the entire 17-mile stretch of the North Branch before it becomes the channelized main stem of the Chicago River, after its confluence with the Northshore Channel (a man-made waterway into Lake Michigan). This is one of my favorite urban paddles, especially with the accompanying bike trail. My first trip I used my 12-foot canoe, and the second trip a 9-foot crossover kayak.

Buildings, roads, parking lots and other hard surfaces in metropolitan areas have made managing stormwater a challenge for municipal officials in the United States. Heavy rainfall “events”, which scientists say are becoming more common due to global warming, cause millions of gallons of water to rapidly run off these surfaces, and head for the nearest waterway. These flows eventually make their way to the largest sub(urban) rivers to be carried downstream to their eventual destinations in lakes, reservoirs, and even bigger rivers like the Illinois and the Mississippi.

For paddlers who live in cities, and have some flexibility with their work schedules, these rainfalls and flows present opportunities — and dangers. Small creeks and rivers in and around Chicago will “flash” during heavy rainfall, rising quickly. The opportunity is that an otherwise small and shallow waterway is viable—and even exciting for those with experience—to paddle. The danger is that a current at or near flood stage is very fast, and can push amateurs into strainers and sweepers.

This means that having a good grasp on USGS water and flow levels, one’s own skills, boat control and reliable companions, is very important. Storm runoff conditions can mean a fun, fast, exciting paddle for a metropolitan dweller. It can also mean terror and drowning for the hapless and unprepared.

When it rains in Chicagoland, I always start thinking about where I can take advantage of this phenomenon and paddle places that I can’t normally go, or where I can get an uncommon thrill.

One of those places is the north branch of the Chicago River, which begins as the Skokie River in Winnetka, and passes through the man-made lagoons and the dam that created it and the waterways surrounding the Chicago Botanical Garden. This trip begins just on the other side of that dam, at the end of an 700′ gravel walkway.

If you prefer still water, or just want to do more paddling, you can explore the extensive Skokie Lagoons above the dam. You can start at the dam, or at a developed boat launch at Tower Road. Rentals are available in season from Chicago River Canoe and Kayak. While in the area, you can visit the nearby Chicago Botanical Gardens. Alternatively, at normal water levels, one could make this a round trip by paddling down for a few miles and back upstream.

Several of the dams along this route have been removed, not only improving the paddling, but also the ecosystem for fish and invertebrates. There are still two small check dams remaining between Blue Star woods and Bunker Hill that have to be portaged at lower water levels: at the Chick Evans Golf Course (under the bridge at Beckwith Road), and at the Tam O’Shanter golf course in Niles. The dams do not present a serious recirculation danger. At high water near 300 cfs the Evans dam is washed out. At medium to high water, the Tam Dam can be floated over, and it produces some nice waves that can be surfed. Design work is being completed for removing those two dams in the near future. Because of the dams, paddlers may want to plan trips from Skokie Dam to Linne to skip the latter dam, or start at Linne to avoid the first dam. Starting at Bunker Hill avoids both dams, and is about 7 miles. Put in at the small pedestrian bridge called “Bunker Hill Bridge” just south of the parking lot at Bunker Hill Grove #1.

The low golf course bridges in the upper part of the trip provide passable headroom up to about 350 cfs.

The put-in is located near a small gravel parking area on the west side of North Forest Way, just north of Willow Road. (A sign says “no parking” but paddlers report that is it not enforced, and the county forest preserve is considering establishing permanent parking). A gravel pathway leads west to the dam, where you can drop your boat in below the dam on the concrete steps. For access to the river, the downstream side of the Skokie Lagoons dam is surrounded by concrete steps that are often populated by fishermen feeding the panfish. On a sunny early spring day, many fisherman were out, and a large volume of water was pouring out of the square cut in the dam. Although the concrete steps down to the water are bigger than normal steps, boat entry is relatively easy.

I avoided the fishing lines as I pulled out of the dam area, and headed downstream. It wasn’t long, on a day full of unusual wildlife, before a turtle appeared, soaking up sun on a concrete drain. It is a common and encouraging juxtaposition of the urban environment and nature on metropolitan rivers like the north branch, and Salt Creek, which I’ve reported on here. I’m used to turtles jumping into the water well before my approach, but this one let me get some closeups before sliding into the Skokie River. This spring a very large snapping turtle in the channelized section of the Chicago River became a celebrity and social media star. The kayakers who first photographed it christened it “Chonkosauras.”

I came to the first of several small blockages in the next three miles. I snuck through the first one, pulling through a horizontal treetop. At the second one, near mile two, I maneuvered my 9-foot crossover boat over a partly submerged tree that had started to collect debris and garbage; it seemed to work better going backwards and sideways, so that’s what I did.

The upper part of the river, oddly, is a little wider for the first few miles, and actually narrows some downstream. There are signs that this first mile has been straightened or widened. In the second mile, you’ll pass under Interstate 94, known as the Kennedy around here. After the highway, the river resumes a more natural and winding appearance. You pass under a low railroad bridge and approach the Watersmeet Woods Foot Bridge, a sign that you are approaching the Skokie River’s confluence with the North Branch of the Chicago River. I pivoted right up the tributary and paddled for a few minutes. A woman with a long-lens camera was on the opposite bank, staring across the river. I moved upstream quietly. The current was healthy, and it was less than 1000 feet before I was blocked off from further progress. I have contemplated paddling the North Branch after a rain, but this was a reminder of the portages sure to come in such a trip.

I turned and the current spit me back out into the combined flows of what is considered the North Branch of the Chicago River. I left the Skokie River behind. With more water, and a narrower channel, my pace quickened. I was surrounded by mature trees, mostly oaks, hickories, and maple on both sides. Smoke rose from the right bank up in the distance. It turned out to be signs of recent controlled burns and restoration to remove unwanted growth. Piles of invasive buckthorn and other brush smoldered. Much of the work is done by volunteers in cooperation with the forest preserve. Some of the wood piles might have come from former giant log jams I had heard about from fellow paddlers in this section. The metropolitan water district, at the urging of various outdoors groups listed at the end of this report, had clearly been active.

On the right bank, I noticed something moving, and let the current take me. A mink! A rare sight during the day for this mostly nocturnal carnivore. I’d only seen one other, on an island in the Des Plaines River. The reddish mink trotted along the bank until it noticed me, and stopped at the entrance to a hollow log. We stared at each other, me taking pictures and filming while trying to keep my kayak pointed in the right direction. After a few minutes of letting me observe, it slunk into the log. Another encouraging sign of urban river health.

This river route skirts or goes through four golf courses. The first one, the Wilmette Golf Club, is on river right but not visible. At the base of East Lake Street on river left, at the 3-mile mark, is a not terribly convenient access to Blue Star Memorial Woods. This is a possible launch, with parking and facilities, but it’s a longish walk up and over a hill. In the summer, poison ivy makes it much less desirable.

The woods began to thicken with older, more mature trees. I always remind myself to keep my eyes up also, and scan the trees for wildlife. Large holes and broken off trunks get my attention as possible nesting spots for owls or other raptors. Owls are already raising young in March, having built nests and laid eggs in late winter (February in this region). The first owl I ever saw was in a kayak, on a river—a thrill I will never forget. That day I had mentioned to my fellow paddler that I really wanted to see an owl, and was keeping my eyes open. A few minutes later, I heard a plop in the water, looked up, and saw a great horned owl. It took off and flew directly in front of me and across to the other bank.

Today, I focused off to the left on a large tree, white as a ghost, broken off about 25 feet up. It was open at the top. I floated closer, and could not believe it when I spotted the telltale ear tufts of a great horned owl sitting on a nest inside what remained of the tree. A little cutout in front, just like the one in the dam, slowly revealed the owl to me as the current pushed me past. As the tree began to obscure the owl to my downriver view, it shifted its head ever-so-slightly to the right to keep its eyeball on me (owls move their necks because their eyes don’t move in their sockets). I paddled to the opposite bank, and parked my stern in the mud to watch silently for a spell. Was it an adult? It might have been a young owlet, close to leaving the nest to go on its own. Either way, it was spellbinding. I took a few photos and videos, wishing I that woman’s long lens.

My reverie broke, and it was back to the reality in front of me. Up ahead, I could see a tree across the entire river’s 50-foot width. I had finally come to a tree that I couldn’t go over, around or under. I thought about a limbo attempt but the current was pretty strong and I wasn’t looking to get conked on the head or knocked out of the boat. The north branch is notoriously muddy, but I had my waterproof knee-length NRS boots on. Exit and entry were the only difficulties. A herd of small deer munched nearby as I squished through the mud, and pulled the kayak around the tree.

The river remained narrow through the thick forests making up Glenview and Harm’s Woods. An epic log jam had recently been removed, and the soggy logs were piled on the bank. There were more log jams in the making, as I could see numerous trees shining bright yellow at their bases, ringed with the gnawing of a beaver. On my first leg, I exited here at the end of a four mile trip, and made the short walk through the muddy floodplain up a steep bank to the parking lot for the short bike shuttle back to my car. The paved bicycle map follows the river closely and is very convenient.

On most days, I would continue paddling on, where several takeout points await. It’s two more miles to Linne Woods, which is a total of 6 miles from the put in. In this case, I returned to the North Branch in August after some rain to paddle the second leg and complete this report. I started at about 5 p.m. knowing I would have to take out, ride the bike shuttle, and return to my truck not too long after sunset, when the forest preserve police attempt to run people out of the parking lot.

I launched from near the parking lot at Harm’s Woods North. There is parking, a bathroom and bench here. The river winds through an attractive, quiet wooded area until crossing underneath well-named Golf Road. You approach two foot bridges before entering the Chick Evans golf course, a public course run by the county forest preserve. About two-thirds of the way through the course, the West Fork of the North Branch enters from the right. Now all three of the tributaries have combined to form the main stem of the North Branch. You pass under a cart path bridge, and the larger automobile bridge and dam at Beckwith Road comes into view. At this water level, the dam is almost completely washed out, and can be paddled over. You can also get under the bridge. At lower levels, the dam may need to be portaged. At higher levels, some of the headroom under the golf course bridges may be gone, making a short portage necessary.

A half hour of steady paddling from Harm’s Woods, and you will find the hiking bridge at Linne Woods, another potential but undeveloped takeout. Putting in here avoids the Chick Evans dam upstream. After Linne is a major artery, Dempster St., and then follows a nice stretch of quieter woods on both sides of the river, which narrows to as little as 35 feet in places. Miami Woods and St. Paul Woods are very high quality, with large oaks, and mostly cleared of invasive underbrush, giving a restored appearance. The forest preserves leave plenty of land vacant in the flood plain for waters to overflow when needed.

After passing under the intersection of Oakton and Caldwell, the Tam’s golf course, run by the Niles Park District, borders the river. A group of young men spied me, and I heard a golf ball go into the grass behind me. My usual tactic in approaching a group of teens is to give a friendly wave and hello, and to paddle right toward them while engaging them. Makes it less likely to get plunked by a rock (or golf ball), is my theory.

The river is a little wider here, held up by a small check dam just past the next bridge at Howard Street, and around a bend. At this level, one could go straight over and enjoy a little wave action. I went right through a less bouncy passage, then turned around to practice a little wave surfing, and ferrying back and forth, against strong current. There is forest on both sides the rest of the trip, with occasional glimpses of a few houses, and some larger office buildings in the distance.

Paddlers will see some large drainage outfalls along the way. The water quality of the Chicago River has been greatly improved over the years by the Clean Water Act and other regulations. However, when there are heavy rains, there can be a short period of “Combined Sewage Overflow” or CSO, where the treatment plants have to release untreated sewage into the river. There are relatively rare, and announcements can be found at the MWRD website. The signs on the outfalls warn of this.

After the bridge at the busy highway at Touhy Road, paddlers will pass through Bunker Hill and Caldwell Woods, which is part of the 160 acres granted to Billy Caldwell, also known as Sauganash. Caldwell, son of a Scots-Irish officer and Mohawk woman, was one of the three signers on behalf of the Potawatomi tribe to the 1835 Treaty of Chicago which removed all local indigenous tribes to west of the Mississippi River.

On my August paddle, there was a large logjam about a third of a mile upriver from the Bunker Hill bridge takeout. It was an easy portage on flat, relatively solid and poison ivy-free ground. Steer to river left, and take out before the bridge. There is a short incline to the paved path, then another 180 feet up a hill to the parking lot.

One of my favorite spots for a post-paddle cold one is Meier’s Tavern, established in 1933 right after prohibition ended. It’s north of the takeout in Glenview on East Lake Street. Note the gorgeous Blatz sign over the door, although the legendary Milwaukee beer is only infrequently available inside.

What we liked:
Bike shuttling on a paved north branch trail that follows the river closely; forest preserves on both sides for most of the trip; plenty of places to take out in emergency; some waves to surf at the Tam’s Dam.

What we didn’t like:
Muddy bottom, log jams, poison ivy — sometimes dealing with all three at the same time!

If we did this trip again:
Bring binoculars to better see the owl!

Related Information:
General: Openlands
Good People: Friends of the Chicago River
Outfitter: Chicago Canoe and Kayak
Paddling Club: Prairie State Canoeists
Paddling Club: Northern Illinois Canoe and Kayak Club
Wikipedia: Chicago River

Photo Gallery:

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