A gentle breeze blows across the water, sending little waves rippling back and forth across the shimmering surface. Suddenly a great blue heron dives from the treetops, startling the water’s surface and the kayakers drifting on top of it. A quick snatch of a fish and the bird is nestled back in the trees once again.

There are not that many places left in the country where human and animal can be mere feet away from each other in harmony. Most of those places seem unreal to city-dwellers – places they hear and read about on television and in books and magazines.

But Evanston is one of those places.

Most Evanstonians are aware of the North Shore Channel, a canal that winds its way from the Chicago River to the Wilmette Harbor. The canal, begun in 1907, was intended as a diversion for floodwaters. The channel’s construction was finished in 1910, exactly 100 years ago.

For a while the channel’s only use was as a waste-pipe to drain away the filth of the Chicago River. When, however, enough of the Deep Tunnel Project, a citywide operation to build a huge drainage tunnel system beneath Chicago and its environs, was completed, the grime of the city was channeled out of the canal and into the underground labyrinth of tunnels.

For the past few decades, therefore, the canal has only been used as an overflow tank in rare situations, when the Chicago River and the Deep Tunnel system can not take any more water. When that happens, the pollution level gets out of hand. The added waste water depletes dissolved oxygen levels, killing the fish that require that oxygen to breathe. Until then, the pollution level is low enough for wildlife to thrive.

While the canal is erroneously still thought of by many as polluted, there is an ecosystem, a world of diverse flora and fauna – and so many other features as to rival the Chicago Botanic Garden.

At River Park, 5100 N. Francisco Ave., for instance, one can find the Chicago area’s only waterfall, a 4-foot cascade separated into two parts. Secured near the overview of the falls are several fishing-pole holders that allow one to leave a rod at the river and go idling around the park’s many paths. But be warned – this is a popular fishing post, so there may not always be a spot open to angle. A local fisherman remarked on a dreary day, “I’m the only one here right now, but normally there are lots of others. … When you’re here you can normally get mainly carp and trout, but I know one guy who caught a salmon once.”

For those whose hook, line and sinker get tangled into a gallimaufry of string and spikes, there are other things to do on the channel. Kayaking and canoeing are both welcome, and there are several places where one can rent a boat for a day. Crew teams also jet through the water, thin bullets slicing through the water like a machete.

The canal also boasts birds in addition to boats, and innumerable fish and mammals as well. Swallows dart around like gnats and seagulls caw from up high. Great blue herons swoop out from under bridges, egrets nestle in the foliate and belted kingfishers cackle in the air, right in the middle of suburbia. As for animals, there are more than just raccoons and possums. While it was exciting to see a deer the first few times, the river otters in the canal are even more striking. The Lincoln Park Zoo has got nothing on the canal.

The canal is really an adventure in itself. There are plenty of places to get down and dirty, but there are also places to relax with friends. It is not just pool of pollution, but a diverse ecosystem, perfectly balanced with the fast-paced world around it. It just has a bad reputation.

Maybe it is time to give it another chance.

OTTERS

Despite common misconceptions, otters are not exotic zoo animals that can only be seen far away from cities or in a glass tank. Rather, the common river otter can thrive in any river system, as well as in lakes, marshes, estuaries and swamps. They can be found in gelid climates and blisteringly hot ones, in low river valleys and high above sea level. They eat any type of fish they can catch. A persevering Evanstonian would be sure to spot a playful otter swimming across the surface before too long.