PILSEN — The Sumner Elementary School students taking part in this year's Chicago River Day agreed that one of the biggest discoveries during a morning of cleaning up around the waterway was the skeleton of a dead bird.
"We found a lot of cool things that we didn't think would be in the river," said 12-year-old Sarah Butler after helping clean up the area around Canal Origins Park in Pilsen. The park overlooks the South Fork of the South Branch of the river, commonly known as Bubbly Creek, made famous by Upton Sinclair for its percolating waters affected by the bloody remains of animals slaughtered in the stockyards.
The students, members of the West Garfield Park school's Conservation Club, were among hundreds who fanned out to various locations around the Chicago area Saturday taking part in an effort aimed at not only cleaning one of the city's major arteries, but get people to appreciate nature in an urban environment as well.
In all, the Friends of the Chicago River had 71 locations throughout the city and surrounding area where people cleaned up and paid homage to nature.
"It's about the experience. For these students who go to school on the West Side, they don't get much of a chance to experience nature," said Laurie Stalheim, a science teacher at Sumner who brought students to participate in the event for the fifth consecutive year.
The Sumner contingent said the river this year was much cleaner than it was at last year's event, where the students found a mattress on the river but were unable to remove it.
Volunteers, adults and children alike, found a number of things that don't belong in the river including plastic bags, a pipe, a baseball and other items that would be more at home in a bathroom that the river. But, on the whole, the students were impressed by the area around the Chicago River, which gave them a chance to view animals like crayfish, frogs and turtles within the city's wild for the first time.
"It's good that we are getting the river clean," said Alex Butler, Sarah's 13-year-old brother and a repeat participant in the event.
Stalheim said the event serves the students with multiple lessons.
"It's not just about teaching them basic ecology, but making them more aware of their surroundings and environment," Stalheim said, adding that it may lead the students to be more conscious about how to keep their own neighborhood clean.