CHICAGO — Most people don't associate the city's waterways with unsullied natural beauty — but those people probably haven't taken a kayak out onto the North Branch of the Chicago River lately, Laura Barghusen said.
"When you go out and paddle, you suddenly feel like you're in a totally different place than the Chicago you know," said Barghusen, the associate greenways director for the conservation group Openlands. "The last time I was out, I saw turtles basking on a log, and a family of baby raccoons. It's a totally different view than you're used to seeing."
On Monday, Openlands published Paddle Illinois Water Trails, a website offering detailed descriptions and interactive maps for anyone looking to replicate Barghusen's experience and see the region's rivers and canals up close. A page dedicated to the Chicago River pinpoints seven docks around the city — from Little Village to Norwood Park — where small boats can embark onto the river or the North Shore Channel.
It differentiates between boathouses and unmanned launch points, with blurbs describing the length and "skill level" of each stretch between access points. A space on the site also invites river travelers to improve the guide by posting tips and warnings.
Whether paddlers are exploring bird habitats near Clark Park in North Center or passing under the massive bridges near Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown, the guide's authors give a rundown of what sights are in store.
While conservationists aren't ready to encourage neighbors to dive in, restored ecosystems mean a more inviting avenue for small-time boaters, Barghusen said.
"The more you improve water quality standards, the more you get people out using the water," Barghusen said. "And the more people are out enjoying them, the more it motivates clean up efforts — so it becomes this kind of positive cycle."
Local agencies and nature groups have teamed up to establish boathouses and other paddling infrastructure since the mid-1990s, when city and suburban officials started to see the rivers as potential recreation sources, instead of industrial backwaters, Barghusen said.
Twenty years later, residents still are getting used to the new identity, she said. But access to handy information could be key to accelerating the shift.
"We just want people to know that they have this way of connecting to nature right where they live, wherever the river is traversing neighborhoods," Barghusen said. "We want to give people a reason to say, 'This is my waterway, and I care about it.'"