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The Chicago River is one our greatest natural assets. Running through the heart of the city, the river has served as a means of transportation, commerce and recreation for generations of Chicagoans. Today, it is a busy waterway carrying tourists on architectural cruises, pleasure boats headed out to Lake Michigan, water taxis bringing commuters to work and barges moving industrial goods as part of our diverse local economy.
In recent years, paddle craft – such as canoes, rowing skimmers, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) – have become more popular means of recreation on the Chicago River. Paddle craft trips could include the rustic river bank supporting a variety of plant and animal habitats along the North Branch, or the urban canon of the Main Branch surrounded by world famous skyscrapers, or the marinas and industrial operations with numerous barges lining the banks of the South Branch.
All watercraft users of the river must be aware that the Chicago River is an active waterway with high traffic volumes.
Always be aware of your surroundings, including the nearest entry and exit points. Pay attention to other waterway traffic, and do not assume they can see you. If you are choosing to paddle the Chicago River, you are doing so at your own risk, so know your physical limits.
The Chicago Department of Transportation has assembled helpful suggestions for recreational groups, expert rowers and paddlers, and emergency responders to create this Chicago River Water Trail Safe Paddling Guide to inform you about conditions unique to the Chicago River. These are suggested guidelines for planning for a safe and enjoyable trip throughout the Chicago Waterway Trail.
(The City of Chicago is not responsible for your safety while you are engaged in activities on or near any body of water. The City of Chicago makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any statements made on this website.)
Recommendations for Safe Paddling
There are a couple of emergency situations that you can be prepared for, including: if your vessel takes on water; if you fall out of your vessel; or if you have a collision.
If you see an emergency you should:
Physical Conditions of the River
High seawalls exist throughout the entire river trail system, and can provide a challenge for exiting the waterway. Be aware of where you are on the trail and your distance to a designated access point. High seawalls also are conducive to higher wave action from vessels leaving wakes.
Curves and bends in the river, bridge abutments and working barges can create visibility challenges. Use extreme caution when encountering these conditions on the trail. Be aware of unexpected vessels coming from the other end. Remember human paddle craft are low to the water and difficult for larger vessels to see.
The Chicago River Waterway Trail Map indicates traffic zones, access points and MWRD outfall locations. Be aware of your zone and surroundings.
The RED zone has the highest volume of traffic. The ORANGE zone is medium-high volume of traffic. The YELLOW zone is medium volume of traffic.The GREEN zone is low volume of traffic.
If you are an inexperience paddler, keep to the green sections of the trail until you become more familiar and comfortable with operating a paddle craft. RED sections of the trail are not recommended for inexperienced paddlers. RED trail has the highest volume of traffic, high seawalls and limited exit points.
River Traffic Conditions Commercial vessels, including tour boats and water taxis are active from March to December. Industrial traffic, like tugs and barges operate all year and at all hours. Barges are very slow moving, however can not stop quickly. When barges are high out of the water, they are unfilled and more challenging for the pilot to direct. In fact, in high winds, they can blow across the river. Five bursts of horn lets you know the operator is in trouble. It is best to keep to your right until the barge passes and water settles.
Be aware of these vessels when paddling Chicago River Water Trail and know that they cannot maneuver as easily as smaller vessels. Paddlers should stay clear of such vessels.
When encountering larger vessels on the river, be aware of the following:
Top 10 Paddling Safety Tips