Walking Through Covid-19

       By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter


In this era of Covid-19, we are all looking for ways to unwind, get some exercise, and try something new.  Setting aside that sometimes daunting 10,000-step hurdle, experts tell us that just walking around the block is beneficial. Living in the city, we yearn to escape traffic and noise, ironically reduced thanks to the pandemic. As a result we have a different set of opportunities to walk, explore, and revel in the familiar we have taken for granted while we adjust to new virus-related restrictions.

Cowardly Lion, Oz Park

South Pond

Before the pandemic turned our lives upside down, I often walked the mile plus from my home toward Lake Michigan, meeting my friend Judith Stockdale at the Cowardly Lion statue in Oz Park, named in honor of the author of the famed Wizard of Oz books. We’d continue east to the South Pond at the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Part of our routine was always to stop en route for a coffee…our chance to rest and recharge. We were not training for a marathon.


We continue our walks, now more frequent since business and vacation travel are off our calendars. Where to find that respite has been a new challenge, with coffee bars shut down, apps and pre-orders required, and seating areas closed. Walking while masked is our first adjustment (more on that later).  Initially, our usual destination, the South Pond next to the Farm in the Zoo, was closed to the public.  Instead, we’d walk down Lincoln Park neighborhood streets we’d seldom frequented and marvel at the mix of 19th, 20th and 21st century residential and commercial architecture.

Geese Family Outing

Mother Duck and Ducklings at Breakfast

Fortunately, the South Pond is open again. It is the perfect place to see the wild side of city life. Turtles, ducks, geese, and fish make the pond their home. We follow the boardwalk around the pond, which is fed by an inlet from the adjacent lagoon.

Night Heron



Nesting Swallows

Against a backdrop of high rise apartments, we see night herons taking a break from their evening search for fish and frogs, tiny swallows building protected mud nests on the underside of a bridge, and aggressive redwing blackbirds guarding their nests hidden in tall grasses along the bank.

Protective Tree Fencing

Beaver Lodge

We had often seen collars of metal fencing wrapped around tree trunks along the South Pond. We guessed that these might provide protection from the family of beavers who had built a lodge on the shoreline.

One Night’s Work!

This year, we confirmed our assumptions! The beavers had been at work the night before one of our walks, making short work of a tree left unprotected.

Sweep of Wildflowers


Surrounding the pond is a restored prairie, displaying a marvelous ever-changing palette of seasonal colors, now in full summer glory of yellows and purples. We try to identify the plethora of native plants and flowers, from monarch butterfly-friendly milkweed and purple coneflower to spiderwort, black-eyed Susan, wild bergamot and towering compass plant.  After our immersion in midwestern flora and fauna, we think “time for coffee.”

We now face the challenge of where to go. Our criteria: open by 7:30 a.m., good coffee, ordering in person, safe delivery and comfortable seating. Many of our old options are off the list – CityGrounds has closed permanently, Elaine’s has only very recently reopened, and Vanille opens too late. Many Starbucks locations again offer socially distanced seating, but on a sunny day, we take our Starbucks drinks to a charming little park at Lincoln and Dickens to sip our Joe.

One of our favorites is a perfect spot for an early morning latte. It’s a bit south of the South Pond, the better to get in some extra steps. The only wildlife are delivery people and dog walkers, but there’s something about ordering from a smiling baker who warmly greets one with “Bonjour!” that starts one’s day on an upbeat note, whatever viruses lurk in other corners of Chicago.

It’s La Fournette (“small oven” in English), a narrow French bakery on Wells Street just south of North Avenue that opens conveniently at 7:00 a.m. Its website tells us that over 110 years ago, the Zimmerman family in a small village in the Alsace region of France began their baking business. A fourth generation family member, 2010 World Baking Champion Pierre Zimmerman and his wife Michelle brought their European expertise to Chicago. Their breads are delicious, baked not only for shop customers but also for such esteemed Chicago restaurants as Les Nomades, the Purple Pig, Chez Moi, and dozens more. But I digress. We come here for coffee. The coffee is just right. One enters the carefully cordoned-off service area to place an order. If a croissant or two slip in with the coffee, no harm done. Out front on the wide sidewalk we appreciate tables and chairs surrounded by colorful flower boxes that partially block the Wells Street traffic.

C.H. Robinson

On a recent morning, inspired by my husband’s bicycle route, we decide to try a new route heading west, following Webster to the north branch of the Chicago River.  There’s certainly nature to be found in many corners of Chicago! We discover a beautifully landscaped path along the river on the property of logistics company C.H. Robinson, complete with benches.

Great Blue Heron

This stretch has become a favorite destination; on sunny mornings we’ve been lucky to see a Great Blue Heron and on some days a second juvenile heron looking for its river breakfast.  Birds are plentiful: sea gulls are the most common, but we’ve also spotted the orange-beaked, black-capped Caspian Tern searching for fish, and more commonly robins, cardinals, ducks and the ever present Canada geese.


As we head south and leave the C.H. Robinson property, we spot a different kind of action across the river at the Ozinga concrete and cement facility. Founded by Martin Ozinga, Sr., whose family came to Chicago from the Netherlands in the late 19th Century, the company is known for its distinctive red and white rotating cement trucks, a familiar site on Chicago construction sites. Looking like grazing prehistoric beasts, huge red excavators unload gravel from barges, a reminder of Chicago’s original purely industrial use of the river. Significantly cleaner today thanks to advocacy from Friends of the River and city initiatives, the river now hosts kayaks, canoes and pleasure boats.

                                                                Former Site of Finkl Steel                             CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Our path along the river is interrupted by the former site of Finkl Steel, founded by a German blacksmith in 1880. It has been cleared for Sterling Bay’s proposed massive Lincoln Yards development, stalled by the pandemic. For now, we take a detour around the open land dotted with Queen Anne’s lace and a host of field sparrows, passing behind the buildings that front on Clybourn. We continue south to Cortland. Choosing to stay off of high traffic Clybourn, we follow Marcey Court and then Kingsbury across North Avenue. We are finally able to turn back to the river down a set of stairs behind the Old Navy store. Not landscaped or particularly well maintained, we find a path that passes the Mennone boathouse, home to DePaul University rowers.

Walkway behind Whole Foods

Whole Foods on Clybourn

Continuing along the river, we come to another well designed walkway with benches on the river side of Whole Foods.  A charm of goldfinches flits through a stand of thistles, as we walk by. We see floating prairie gardens built on rafts to create artificial shoreline wetlands designed to support wildlife habitat.

Floating Garden Segment

Whole Foods Outdoor Dining

Attached to the concrete wall, the raft gardens are the first 1500 feet of the projected “Wild Mile” of new eco-parkland initiated by Urban Rivers in partnership with local businesses. Fish eggs found on the rafts indicate that the floating gardens are doing their job.  We realize that Whole Foods offers not only coffee inside but also seating outside overlooking the rafts. With an expansive view of the river, we have the perfect place for a needed coffee break on our western route.

REI River Path

Final Stop

We continue south for the final leg of our river walk, through another parking lot to the rear of outdoors outfitter REI. Facing Kingsbury at Eastman Street, the store has built the back of its building to provide walkways and future boat access to the river.  A set of stairs leads us up from the river to a cul de sac with a set of tables and benches, an inviting end to our southern detour. We turn left on Kingsbury to follow a more commercial route home.

Exploring the Chicago River isn’t always a clear and smooth walk, but we hope with the promised improved river access we’ll eventually be able to walk along the waterfront for miles.

I mentioned our wearing masks earlier. Our biggest concern on our walks is how few people we see wearing masks even as Illinois cases of Covid-19 continue to rise. On a recent morning, I counted 30 dog-walkers, workmen, runners, parents pushing strollers, and bicyclists before I saw a single person wearing a mask. Admittedly crowded bars are more dangerous than city streets, but the mandate is clear: wear a mask when outdoors. Let’s mask up, neighbors!