So am I crazy for swimming in the Calumet River… again? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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So am I crazy for swimming in the Calumet River… again?

Dan Wendt, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District

Nope. I’m not. Let’s just get that out of the way.

Some context. Last August I went swimming in the Calumet River with a bunch of pals and partners to raise money for construction of the last 12 miles of the Cal-Sag Trail. I wrote all about it here. I’ll be the first to admit that it was a bit of a stunt. We had fun, raised more than $17,000 (which essentially means 17 benches along the trail, a good start for a presently benchless trail), and drew a crowd to Blue Island’s riverfront. That’s all good.

By having 11 (mostly) rational people go swimming in the Calumet, I think we proved that all the work over the years by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), Friends of the Chicago River, the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Openlands, the Ill. Environmental Protection Agency, municipalities, engineering firms and private citizens to improve water quality has made a transformative difference. Transformative.

All told, these collective efforts transformed a sewage transmission canal into a river.

Deep Tunnel. Disinfection. Awareness about Combined Sewer Overflows. A vision for Our Great Rivers. It’s all truly making a difference.

All told, these collective efforts—plus a bunch of people going for a swim (because that’s what you do in rivers) transformed a sewage transmission canal into a river. That’s kind of a big deal, but it’s gotten lost in the shuffle.

So this year we did it again.

 June 3 was a hot day, but the river was COLD. This was more than two months earlier than last year and you could tell. There were fewer of us, but we were all repeats… and all glad we only had to wait for three other people to jump in. I went first, followed by MWRD Executive Director David St. Pierre, Diane Banta from the National Park Service and Steve Buchtel from Trails for Illinois. Once again, Steve organized things. We raised another $6,000+, and I’m proud to say I was King of the Plunge for raising the most funding (thanks to all that supported me!).

The other big difference this year was that rather than take our plunge as a standalone event, we did it as the half-time show for the second annual Chicago Southland Dragon Boat Festival. Again, Dragon Boat Racing is something people do in rivers. Literally hundreds of people on 14 teams raced, and raced and raced, and had an amazing time. Many more were there to just hang out by the river and watch the action. The City of Blue Island rallied with a beer and food festival. Last year’s King of the Plunge, Jason Berry, served hot dogs instead of plunging into the Calumet… that mostly just shows his disdain for public health standards as whole.

It was a great day for the Calumet, for Blue Island, and for our region’s long-abused rivers. But there’s going to come a day when this is normal. No punchlines. No chuckles. No “you’re nuts.” People will just hang out by the river because that’s where the action is, and that’s where you want to be. People will swim and Dragon Boat-ilate (or whatever the verb is), and people will say “cool” instead of “hmmmm.” The hot dogs will be the unnerving thing.

Our goal with the Cal-Sag Plunge is to work ourselves out of a charity by making it so normal that nobody considers it novel to fund us.

I know this because the Riverwalk in downtown Chicago keeps running out of rosé, which is, hands down, the least stereotypically “Chicago River” of wines. I know this because the ChiCal Rivers Fund and the Chicago Community Trust’s Our Great Rivers fund are getting more applications—way more—than they can handle. I know this because the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning is increasingly getting planning assistance requests from folks looking to activate their riverfronts, plan riverfront trails and keep stormwater out the rivers (so as to not upset the aroma bouquet from all the rosé, also to reduce flooding). And I know this because all those hundreds of people rowing Dragon Boats watched the four of us jumping into the Calumet for a swim and said to themselves, “What’s the big deal? Terrible Rowing Form Teammate X in front of me keeps splashing me in the face… and I’m fine.”

And I’m fine too. We all are. Because the Calumet is so, so, so much cleaner than it used to be. The Chicago will get there too. Sooner than many people think, or are willing to accept. And then the problem becomes the brand, the stereotype, the reputation. You know as well as I do that perception is harder to change than reality. It’s going to take more Dragon Boat racers, more beer festivals on the shoreline and more swimmers swimming just to swim (and raise some money). Our goal with the Cal-Sag Plunge is to work ourselves out of a charity by making it so normal that nobody considers it novel to fund us. We’ll get there, and that’s a good thing. Because swimming on a summer weekend down in the river just shouldn’t be that… novel. Or shocking.

Then Steve will probably make us do a hot dog eating contest or something, and at that point I’m out. You’d have to be crazy to do that. Have you seen what’s in those things?


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