The Chicago Park District’s River Lab opens programming at a former hot dog stand in River Park to deepen the Chicago River experience.

Ethan Johnson placed a telescope, placed at the south end of the River Park launch jetty, on an egret spearing fish on the west bank of the North Arm of the Chicago River.

Neighborhood kids were fishing off the pier, mostly catching blackspot gobies. Joel Luciano translated when I took a picture of a child catching a fish and asked the mother for permission. (My next goal is to improve my Spanish enough to be usable.)

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

Various experiences are built around River Lab, a converted hot dog stand in River Park. The location is important at the confluence of the North Shore Channel and the North Arm, where the dam was removed three years ago and where natural flow and ecosystem have started to return quickly.

Ethan Johnson is working on a spyglass, centered on a feeding egret, near the River Lab, a converted hot dog stand in River Park.
Dale bowman

Now, the Chicago Park District has started to expand programming built around the River and the River Lab. At the end of July, just before the start of official programming, Renfree, Senior Program Specialist, toured.

“The river is the reason I was excited to be in the Chicago area,” he said. “If you are looking for an adventure, this is it.

Inside, the upper aquarium is home to local fish, under mountains of massive lake trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout. A bottom aquarium teaches aquatic ecosystems. The tanks are connected so that the fish droppings are processed in the bottom tank, a small-scale version of the functional wetlands.

“The great thing kids are looking for is the aquarium,” Renfree said. “Children are drawn to macroinvertebrates. Science is one of them. Part of it is the fun thing.

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

Matt Renfree works with the microscope connected to a big screen, one of the prints from River Lab, a converted hot dog stand in River Park.  Credit: Dale Bowman

Matt Renfree works with the microscope connected to a big screen, one of the prints from River Lab, a converted hot dog stand in River Park.
Dale bowman

A large cart holds fly trays and fly tying supplies.

Along or on the river, common sightings are cormorants, egrets, mallards, domestic duck, night herons, green herons, gulls and great blue herons. Paddlers see muskrats, beavers and marmots (on the North Shore channel). Paddlers regularly see a coyote curled up in a hollow on the east shore downstream on the north branch.

After visiting River Lab, Renfree took us paddling. The highlight was seeing the coyote. We saw several night herons, leaning on the branches of the shore. Great blue herons flew away.

A great blue heron flies away while paddling the North Arm of the Chicago River.  Credit: Dale Bowman

A great blue heron flies away while paddling the North Arm of the Chicago River.
Dale bowman

“It’s the river, but there’s nowhere for people to go and find out, get their hands, you know, get dirty, catch a fish and taste stuff,” Renfree said.

Now they do.

In a sudden downpour, we took shelter under a bridge with a young woman who had unfolded her Oru Kayak earlier during the launch.

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

“I’ve never paddled before, but a friend took me to River Park [several years ago]”Renfree said.” It changed my life. “

There are good reasons that he looks like an evangelist.

Truly. He is now an American Canoe Association instructor. This will be used in the evolutionary programming of River Lab.

From now on, the organized program revolves around a museum open on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fly fishing education is expected to arrive later this year.

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

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

It was time.

For any programming questions, contact Renfree at [email protected] or (312) 914-0385. More information 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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