Chicago by boat and bike

Get started here, with this Cubs fan.

On this trip, we saw Chicago from two great vantage points: by water and pavement.

We started our water tour at Wendella’s Boats, a Chicago fixture since 1935. We chose the Chicago River Architecture tour for around $25 plus the usual exorbitant Chicago taxes. We bought our tickets ahead online, which spared us from standing in the confusing queue at the dock. Be sure to  go to the Wendella site, and not a ticket broker, which adds at least $10 to the price, then tells you you’re getting a “discount” by buying online.We took the 4:30 PM tour, which seemed less crowded than the one that took off before us.

The boat quay is right below the Wrigley Building.

He’s got a ticket to ride!

The tour guide gave an informative discourse of the surroundings and buildings, as well as some interesting Chicago history. Even if you don’t care one whit about architecture, you get a nice tour of the second city all the way up to the locks to Lake Michigan. (Who knew Chicago had locks?) This was a great way to see a lot of Chicago in a short time (about 70 minutes, plus queue time), and get a fun boat ride.

Satisfied boat riders.

The next day we ventured out by bike shortly after 5 AM.  The streets were deserted except for a few other bikers and police, as we biked the two miles or so to Grant Park. There we joined  thousands of other cyclists to “Bike the Drive,” the once a year event when fifteen miles of Lake Shore Drive is closed to traffic and open to cyclists only. There are two 15-mile loops: north from Grant Park to Bryn Mawr and back, and south from Grant Park to 57th and back. The north loop has excellent views of Lake Michigan, Navy Pier, and the amazing LSD skyline, including the famed Drake Hotel. The south loop passes the picturesque museum campus, the formerly beautiful Soldier’s Field, now marred by the giant spaceship that landed in its center, and famous McCormick Place. The north loop has a few smallish hills, but nothing that an average biker couldn’t master; south loop is mostly flat.

Dave at the museum rest stop, mostly deserted so early in the morning.

Starting at 5:30 AM ensures a less-congested ride, and more room to stop and snap photos. Folks of all ages participate, including many who have no idea how to ride a bike safely. Watch out for hammerhead cyclists on your left, whizzing by at 20-25 mph, and little kids who’ve biked out of reach of their parents, and have no idea they shouldn’t be weaving back and forth right in front of you. You’ll get the best experience if you are fit enough for a long ride and stay alert for hapless riders around you. The north route tends to be the most crowded, but both routes get crowded after 7 AM.

Iconic Chicago skyline, heading towards Grant Park from the north loop.

This year we ventured south first and enjoyed seeing the Museum of Science and Industry grounds relatively crowd-free. We had great views of the lake and skyline on the north route, and for the first time ever stopped on the bridge to get some amazing shots of the river.

Great view of the river from the bridge.

After finishing our 30 miles in record time, we added an extra half-loop going south again. This allowed us to snap some over the road shots of the cyclists below from the bridge turn-around.

Looking north from our perch on the overpass.

We finished up at Grant Park to collect our T-shirts and enjoy music and pancakes among the thousands of others sprawled on the grass and benches in the near-90 degree heat.

Buckingham Fountain, Grant Park.

Chicago Harbor Light, framed by cyclist.

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© Huffygirl 2012

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Lake Shore Drive: Open for cycling, one day only

It’s 5:30 AM. I turn onto Lake Shore Drive, which is shrouded in heavy mist. I can’t see even an eighth of a mile ahead of me. Lake Michigan to my right is still, silent, completely hidden in the midst. The cityscape to my left – also veiled. I’m barely aware of my bearings, with the landmark skyline cloaked. 

Half-way done, at Grant Park, before the crowds arrived (© Huffygirl 2011)

I’m hemmed in by fellow travelers on both sides. Like typical voyagers, some are minding the rules, taking their turn to merge, while others skirt in and out of different lanes, cut people off, and pass too fast and close. So how is this different from any other day? My fellow travelers and I are all on bikes. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago’s main freeway-like artery, is completely closed to traffic, but just for now. At 9:30 AM or so, the orange cones will come down, police officers will wave their arms, blow their whistles, and the noisy mass of cars will take back the Drive. But for now, it belongs to us.

The crowd begins to thin as faster cyclists make their way ahead. Best husband Dave and I, always polite riders, are finally able to hit our stride and bike at a faster pace. We’re not beginners – this is the fourth time we’ve done this so we’ve figured out a routine. Biking on Lake Shore Drive among 20,000 others,  can be just as treacherous as driving. I ride to Dave’s right, and he navigates so we can stay together. “Okay, move left” and we’re passing. Then back to the middle lane, so we’re safe from the hammerheads – the élite cyclists who whiz by at 20 mph, shouting “Left, left, left,” expecting everyone on their right to let them by.

Best husband Dave, looking pretty wet (© Huffygirl 2011)

The fog has not lifted at all when we reach the first turn-around. We feel cheated that we missed our favorite landmarks: crossing the river we couldn’t even see the bridge posts, nor the water below, and we slid silently  past the Drake Hotel, unnoticed. Still, we feel like biking warriors. Our other three treks down the Drive were on balmy, sunny days, This one feels like an urban adventure. We congratulate ourselves for surviving the cold and damp thus far. We’re certainly dressed for it. Wearing what our children refer to as “our ridiculous outfits” we’re swathed in Gortex and Spandex. I’m wearing knee warmers too, short Spandex “sleeves” for my legs which work great, but add to the silly appearance of my ensemble, at least to non-cyclists that is. We decide to take off our glasses, useless now that they’re bathed in mist, and move on.

Huffygirl at the Museum of Science of Industry (© Huffygirl 2011)

By the time we reach The Museum of Science and Industry, the fog has lifted a little. We still can’t see the lake, but we can feel the cooler air moving off the water. We pose with others for pictures on the museum steps, and fight the massive crowds for a chance to eat Oreos and over-ripe bananas. By this time, our skin is soaked. I’m starting to shiver and wonder if it’s possible to get hypothermia in the middle of the Second City on a spring day.

A little way out from the museum, we stop and help another cyclist with a

The last leg of the trip - from the museum back to Grant Park (© Huffygirl 2011)

loose pedal. As Dave helps the fellow rider, I switch to my back up gloves which are now the only dry clothing I’m wearing. I’ve stopped drinking water as I don’t want to make myself any colder; with the heavy mist coating our skin, dehydration is the least of our problems.

We ride purposely the rest of the way, managing to warm up a little as we find clear lanes in which to hit our best speeds, and arrive at Grant Park happy and unscathed. Despite the gloomy weather, the Grant Park post-biking festivities are in full swing. Moms and dads towing muddy children stand in line for pancakes and sausage, while cyclists in full Spandex nab a free water bottle from the bank tent. Dave and I huddle on the edge of a muddy damp bench that we’ve managed to share with eight other people, scarfing pancakes and wishing we had something warm to drink. The music of the Blues Brothers tribute band (The Bluz Brothers), wafts from the stage, a pretty good imitation of Jake and Elwood. Usually we enjoy lingering among the crowd, sitting on the grass and watching everyone in their crazy outfits,  marveling at the variety

One muddy bike shoe (© Huffygirl 2011)

of old and new bikes that somehow made the trip. But today Grant Park is a sea of mud. By the time we hop on our bikes for the short ride back to the hotel, my shoes are so caked with mud that I can’t clip into my pedals. We speed past other riders who are just finishing or just starting their rides. We’re cold, wet, and muddy, but still glad to have been part of that one magical day when cyclists take over Lake Shore Drive.

(The Bike the Drive Event takes place the Sunday before Memorial Day every year. Huffygirl and Dave biked the full 30 miles, and plan to be back next year.)

At the Museum rest stop (© Huffygirl 2011)
Foggy day at the Museum (© Huffygirl 2011)

© Huffygirl 2011

Related link: (see some great pictures of the fog)