My earliest encounters with nature took place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where my family would vacation every summer on the shores of Crooked Lake in Hiawatha National Forest. I took hikes in the woods, built campfires, stayed up late to gaze at stars, and explored the rugged sandstone bluffs of nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore along Lake Superior. But probably my favorite thing to do was to climb into my father's wooden canoe and paddle the calm waters of the little Crooked Lake—an intimate place where I encountered beaver, otters, frogs, turtles and innumerable birds and fish.
I still go to the U.P. every year, though now my role in these adventures has changed. As a father of two young girls, I'm now the one pointing out the snake slithering along the path or the sandhill crane poking through the margins of the bog by our little lake. I'm surprised and delighted when my five-year-old daughter finds mink tracks in the sandy muck of our shoreline, or spots an eagle perched on a high branch of a dead white pine. Today, as my family and I make our way back to Illinois from our annual vacation in the woods, I'm struck by the richness and frequency of these animal encounters at Crooked Lake, and how powerfully they imprint upon a child's memory of place and view of the world.
I also think about how these experiences, valuable as they are, often have the unintended (and unfortunate) consequence of dividing the world into two kinds of places: ones where we find and revel in nature, that which we conceive of as "the wild"; and places where nature is seemingly absent or irrelevant—namely, our city and suburban homes.
When I get in a canoe these days, though, I’m much more likely to be on the Chicago River than a remote northern lake. As a native Illinoisan who lives in Joliet and works in Chicago and Schaumburg, I've slowly come to recognize that these places are rich in potential for meaningful animal encounters and landscape explorations—and not just in officially designated parklands or natural areas. In fact, some of the most memorable outdoor experiences of my life have been the recent canoe trips I've taken with my Roosevelt University students on Bubbly Creek, an industrialized and heavily polluted tributary of the Chicago River's South Branch.
Bubbly Creek got its colorful name years ago from the methane gas that bubbled up from the bacterial decomposition of organic waste on the creek's bottom. Despite functioning for decades as the receptacle for the unspeakably foul refuse of the Chicago Stockyards and its continued degradation to this day by all-too-frequent "combined sewage overflows" of untreated human waste, the still-percolating Creek displays a tenacious potential for restoration and revitalization.
It's also a place for urban wildlife observations and close encounters. Many animals, past and present, exist in that damaged yet resilient landscape—from the several native species of heron and other birds that find food and shelter within the Creek’s waters and riparian zone; to the common carp swimming below the surface that harbor bio-accumulated toxins in their tissues; to the decades-old offal from the millions of processed cows and pigs that was once dumped untreated into the waters of Bubbly Creek, and which is still slowly decomposing within its sediments.
I never could have imagined as a boy canoeing Crooked Lake that I'd someday relish floating on this long-abused urban river. Nature was "out there," away from the city—not something we encountered at home in our day-to-day lives. But Bubbly Creek and places like it teach us a much different lesson: our metropolitan landscapes, rich with surprising elements of natural beauty yet compromised by development and pollution, are ideal places to develop an environmental ethic and start working toward a more sustainable future.
For a detailed account (and more pictures) of a journey on Bubbly Creek with my students, a trip led by the volunteer canoe guides with Friends of the Chicago River, please see my May 2012 essay "Paddling Bubbly Creek: Water, Food, and Urban Ecology" on my Roosevelt University faculty blog.
Photograph credits (top to bottom):
Laura S. Bryson, Crooked Lake: Crooked Lake, Hiawatha National Forest, located in the east-central Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
Laura S. Bryson, Canoeing at Crooked Lake: Getting ready to canoe Crooked Lake with my daughters.
Michael Bryson, Bubbly Creek: Roosevelt University students and Chicago Lights Urban Farm youth paddle south on Bubbly Creek with Friends of the Chicago River, May 2012.
Michael Bryson, Bubbly Creek headwaters: Near the headwaters of Bubbly Creek, on our right is the massive Racine Avenue Pumping Station.