September 19, 2017
In the upcoming special The Chicago River Tour with Geoffrey Baer, which will premiere Monday, November 27, Geoffrey boards six diverse vessels to travel the branches of the river. Beginning his journey downtown on a tour boat, he ventures both south and north, plying the Sanitary and Ship Canal in a tugboat, paddling through the Skokie Lagoons in a canoe, and exploring more waterways before returning to the main branch. Discover his varied forms of transportation and how each represents a different aspect of the river.
Chicago’s First Lady
Geoffrey begins and ends the special on this stately tour boat. It’s a fitting start, given that his on-air career grew out of giving tours on a boat like this one, as a volunteer docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, which partners with the Chicago’s First Lady fleet. This particular boat, the flagship of the fleet, is patterned after the USS Sequoia, which served as the yacht for presidents from Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter. Both luxurious and popular, Chicago’s First Lady is like the main branch of the river: lined with opulent real estate, but crowded by tourists and natives alike, especially on the new riverwalk.
For the next stretch of the tour, along the Sanitary and Ship Canal from Lemont to Chinatown, Geoffrey boards American Commercial Barge Lines’ Chicago Trader, a tugboat. Derek Jackson captained the boat for Geoffrey’s trip, with two deckhands manning it. Chicago Trader operates from Peoria up to Chicago, pushing barges that carry steel, ore, slag, ethanol, and other cargo. To move between the two cities, the boat uses the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the Chicago and Des Plaines Rivers and was built to permanently reverse the flow of the Chicago River, thus directing the city’s sewage away from its drinking water source, Lake Michigan. The Des Plaines eventually joins with the Kankakee River to form the Illinois River, which passes by Peoria and feeds into the Mississippi (the earlier Illinois and Michigan Canal had joined the Chicago and Illinois Rivers directly).
At Chinatown, Geoffrey catches a ride back to downtown Chicago on Sunliner, a bright yellow Chicago Water Taxi operated by Wendella Sightseeing Boats. Sunliner was built in 1962 in Dubuque, Iowa, making it the oldest vessel in the active Wendella fleet. Beginning in the early 1960s, Wendella offered commuter services during rush hour, then, in 1999, instituted a full-time commuter ferry service called the Riverbus. In 2007, the Riverbus became Chicago Water Taxi, which now operates four vessels between Chinatown, North Avenue, and Michigan Avenue, with seven stops spread throughout. Sunliner served both tourists and commuters until 2008, when it was converted into a full-time water taxi. Two years ago, its World War II surplus engines were replaced with cleaner, more fuel-efficient ones, giving the oldest Wendella passenger vessel the newest engine technology.
Geoffrey then jumps to the northern suburbs to explore the various forks of the north branch there – including one near his childhood home in Deerfield. He rents a canoe from Chicago River Canoe and Kayak to explore the Skokie Lagoons with his friend and longtime WTTW colleague Jay Shefsky of Chicago Tonight, who is an avid canoeist. Up there, the river is shallow, so only small, human-powered recreational crafts like canoes and kayaks can navigate it. This presented challenges for filming: cameraman Tom Siegel and producer Eddie Griffin had to follow Geoffrey and Jay in a low-slung dinghy supplied by lighting man Danny Rozkuska, with paddling duty given to Eddie while he simultaneously monitored the shots.
Lady Grebe is another boat owned and operated by Chicago’s First Lady, although it’s much smaller than the flagship. Geoffrey rides this elegant 48-foot yacht down the north branch of the river, starting from near Lawrence Avenue – he even takes the wheel at one point, under the close supervision of the captain, Bob Agra. The boat is named after the Henry C. Grebe & Co. shipyard, where it was built in 1961. The shipyard, now defunct, was located on the west bank of the river, just north of Belmont Avenue – the journey with Geoffrey was the first time Lady Grebe had passed the yard since it was built.
The downtown section of the river is full of craft, and not just tour boats, barges, and water taxis. Kayaks are just as common a sight, so Geoffrey climbs into one near Wolf Point. Joining a group of fellow paddlers, he reverses roles as he becomes the audience on a tour led by his good friend Charlie Portis, the owner of the kayak tour and rental company Wateriders. As the river has gotten cleaner, kayak rentals have become an adventurous way to see the river from a different vantage point – just beware of the larger vessels! His journey nearly complete, Geoffrey then hops back onto Chicago’s First Lady to make his way back down the main branch and out into Lake Michigan.