The First Chicago River Day: 'There Was A Lot of Everything Out There'

Thousands are expected to participate in this year's Chicago River Day event on May 12, the annual cleanup effort organized by Friends of the Chicago River. But in 1992, at the first Chicago River Day (then called Chicago River Rescue Day) there were only 25 volunteers.

One of them was Wayne Schimpff.

A Northwest Side resident, Wayne was a Chicago Public Schools biology teacher then.  Thouogh now retired from Von Steuben High School, he has continued to work with high schoolers through Caretakers of the Environment, which holds conferences for secondary school students and their teachers. Chicago River Day tshirts are often seen at the international conferences, he said, "so there are many people from countries around the world who know about Friends of the Chicago River and have started their own involvement" with their local rivers through that exposure.

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Chicago Tribune reporter Ted Gregory, covering the first Chicago River Day, described the participants  as "business managers, students [and] parents with their children."

"Splattered with muck and enduring that notoriously ripe, acrid stench, they canoed Sunday into the North Branch of the Chicago River to ferry out a few thousand pounds of junk," Gregory wrote. The haul included "a car seat, a bicycle carcass, golf balls, construction barriers, snow fencing, a railroad tie, 55-gallon drums, Styrofoam, tires and the ubiquitous beer cans, bottles, and shopping carts."

Today, 26 years later,  Friends has dropped the "Rescue" from the event’s name because the River has become safer, cleaner, and healthier, thanks, in part, to volunteers like Wayne.

At a recent captains’ meeting for this year’s Chicago River Day, Wayne took some time to talk with Friends Executive Director Margaret Frisbie about the first event and how things have changed for the better for the Chicago River system.

Q: So what was it like that first year?

Wayne: Well, it was a bunch of people that wanted to share in an outdoor activity and it was just a gathering.  A lot of us had been involved in the Cook County Clean Stream Committee. We were concerned about the river  and it was an opportunity to get out and help make a difference.

Q. Was there a lot of garbage out there?

Wayne: There was a lot of everything out there.  It had been years of accumulation of various types of debris and so on. A lot of garbage, carts. Anything anybody could throw in the river to see a big splash, it was there.

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Q. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen out there?

Wayne: Probably good bicycles that somebody had probably taken for a joy ride and got rid of them because they didn’t want to take them home.

Q. How about wildlife?

Wayne: Wildlife, back in those days, there wasn’t a whole lot other than in the upper reaches. Certainly when you canoed with Ralph Frese, they’d see the ducks and the deer. But not too many birds. But now that they’ve cleaned it up and everything, there’s been a big increase.

And also in the fish. The fact is, in those days, all that was there was carp and even they got killed off with different dumping of chemicals in the waterway.

Q. Why should people get involved in Chicago River Day?

Wayne: First of all, it’s a lot of fun to get out and turn the electrical devices off and be able to smell, hear and see natural systems in operation.  And it also tires you out so when you get home you feel like you can have a good snack or a cold beverage at the end of the work experience. Water Quality, Swimming, Hiking, Paddling, Fishing