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K. Clancy Calkins/MEDILL

Chris Parson, paddling guide at Friends of the Chicago River, said that the organization brings nearly 20,000 people onto the river each year.

Chicago River outreach program celebrates 20 years of river health

by K. Clancy Calkins
Jun 6, 2013

A Chicago River guide said that taking the time to see the river and see how much wildlife still exists within the urban center enlightens people on how much the water source is needed for life and vitality.

“We get to experience Chicago by train, plane, cars and by foot,” said Chris Parson who has guided the Friends of the Chicago River canoe tours since the program’s inception in 1993. “But seldom do people get to experience Chicago from the perspective of the river, which is much different.”

For the last 20 years, Friends of the Chicago River has connected people with nature through guided boat tours on the Chicago River. The organization is now teaming up with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Park District to celebrate the river as a vital part of Chicago life.

City residents have an opportunity to enjoy the river as well as several new developments to Chicago parks during a festival at the renovated Ping Tom Park in Chinatown on Sunday. According to Betsy Hands, director of outreach and community relations at Friends of the Chicago River, the organization’s oldest outreach program is credited for the good health of the river.

“This is one of the most important educational outreach programs that we have. It’s the best way for people to understand the importance of the river because people learn about it by being on it first hand,” Hands said.

Parson said the outreach program seeks to show Chicagoans that the river is a necessary resource and needs to be preserved.

“The program seeks to get at the core of the problem which is the idea that we no longer need to connect with nature,” Parson said.

He also said that awareness for the organization’s larger conservation programs are constantly increasing because of this program.

“We get about 20,000 people on the river a year,” Parson said, adding that other river organizations such as the river taxis guide nearly 100,000 more people on the river each year.

He said those people then help advocate various programs that improve river health.

Hands said that the effects of this support can be celebrated during the “Shall We Gather at the River?” festival Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown.

The festival, which is hosted by the Friends of the Chicago River, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Park District will include an orchestra concert in the park, canoeing, kite flying and fishing activities.

Rahm Emanuel will also do the ribbon cutting for a new boathouse where customers can rent kayaks and small boats to take out on the river. The festivities are free and open to the public.