Sure, it's a nice place for outdoor dining. But is the still-evolving pedestrian walkway along the Chicago River also a legitimate outdoors nature experience?
In a way. It's not a hiking trail, unless your hiking trails feature a spa offering chair and foot massages. This is thoroughly urban space. But consider the case for the riverwalk as a nature spot:
Outdoor recreation? Check out the kayaks and fishing. Native plants and wildflowers? There are thousands of them outside Trump Tower. A waterfall? Yes, in an artificial manner of speaking.
Wildlife? Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, has seen muskrat, beavers and great blue herons. There are migrant birds in the trees in spring and fall, and butterflies and bees in the wildflowers.
And if you want adventure, just try crossing the river on the lakefront path beneath the Lake Shore Drive bridge. A guy walking next to me was hit by a bike. Talk about a white-knuckle outing!
So put on your hiking boots, or just your flip-flops, and check out the nature along both the official riverwalk on the south bank, and the plazas and walkways on the north bank.
Trump Tower: To test the plaza's wildflower cred, I visited with Marianne Kozlowski, volunteer co-steward of Oxbow Prairie, a nature area formed by an old loop in the Chicago River on the Northwest Side. She was wowed.
"Look at that — sedges," she said, fingering a stalk among the waves of plants for the telltale sign that differentiates it from a grass: Sedges have edges. And the mace sedge is "one of the more spectacular sedges because of the seed pods," she said, pointing at the star-shaped compartments.
She oohed over the swaths of horsetail — skinny, upright whips segmented like bamboo — and aahed at the Joe Pye weed, a classic prairie plant. "This is truly wonderful," she said.
It is mostly, if not completely, a native landscape. "The whole project-planting idea was to replicate or abstract what one would find next to an Illinois river — in the middle of the city," said Peter Schaudt, partner of Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects.
Centennial Fountain: Fountain, waterfall — they both soothe the soul with the sight and sound of rushing water. Strictly speaking, of course, this is not nature. Loosely speaking, it's a fine approximation.
The easternmost part of the riverwalk, just west of the entryway off the lakefront (on the south side of the Chicago River, passing under the Lake Shore Drive bridge): There isn't anything in particular happening here. It's just the quietest, most peaceful part of the riverfront, if you block out the traffic noise from Wacker Drive. You can sit on the concrete ledge and dangle your feet. Do it, gaze at the "waterfall" and be happy.
Fishing: No need for equipment or experience. Just wander over to Mayor Daley's Chicago River Fishing Festival, which is operating 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Fridays through Aug. 20.
"It's free fishing for everybody. We supply the rods, reels and bait," said Carl Vizzone, fishing coordinator. It looks a little like a fishing assembly line, with kids queued up for their turn at the fish, which seem to be lining up underwater: "We've got a 99.9 percent catch rate. Everybody catches a fish," Vizzone said.
Staffers are standing by to help take fish off the hook and toss them back — "This is the Chicago River," Vizzone pointed out. And the spot offers another freebie: boat rides, free 20-minute trips along the river in a small craft.
Fish hotel: You have to walk through a pretty gritty urban scene to see this up close — it is moored off a lonely segment of walkway favored by the homeless — but it is a genuine nature spot.
"We've created a floating wetland," said Frisbie, of Friends of the Chicago River, which installed the fish hotel in 2005, now moored just east of the Dearborn Street bridge. "There are wetland plants above ground, but their roots go down underwater and become habitat for microinvertebrates like insects."
This provides everything fish need, she said. And fish aren't the only ones checking in.
"A couple of summers ago we had a muskrat that came every day for two months," she said. "We've seen great blue herons standing on the islands, fishing. One of the plants is milkweed; from that, we've hatched monarch butterflies. It's like a little functioning ecosystem."
There may be garbage floating on top — humans can be such messy animals — but consider overlooking that in hopes of overlooking a muskrat.