Feeling just ducky along Naperville's Riverwalk

This summer the Naperville Riverwalk is celebrating its 35th year. The birds are singing. The carillon bells are ringing. The Naperville Trolley is dinging.

To recognize the city's "Nifty 150" birthday back in 1981, the Riverwalk surfaced as the preferred revitalization plan for "the dump" area along the banks of the DuPage River in the heart of Naperville. Whenever folks reminisce about that time in Naperville's history, I wish we'd lived here then.

Fact is, the intrinsic spirit of volunteerism along with the successful private/public partnership (city and park district) was one of the reasons we moved to Naperville in 1993. I've got to say that when then-Riverwalk Commission Chairman Cliff Preston took me under his wing a couple years later to help promote campaigns that would extend the brick path to Hillside Road and develop the Cock Robin property into Fredenhagen Park, I began to see the depth of dedication that many citizens share in this community.

On occasional morning walks with Cliff along his pride and joy, I also observed that duck excrement and goose droppings create costly cleanup messes for maintenance crews and unsanitary conditions along the walk for visitors.

Even more, wildlife centers teach that feeding stale bread to waterfowl is detrimental to the health of the animals and to the environment.

That's when the challenging educational campaign began. How in the world could we convince well-meaning folks that the fun of feeding the ducks harms them?

Flash forward to the Riverwalk Foundation board meeting last January when Karen Solomon began reminiscing about the sesquicentennial. It dawned on us that it's been 10 years since NCTV17 helped us put together a video that captures the Riverwalk story.

To highlight 35 years, the private nonprofit organization that focuses on education and enhancements (also a conduit for financial gifts to help fund projects designed by the Riverwalk Commission) came up with a bunch of ideas to celebrate the can-do spirit that motivated many residents to give their time to build the natural treasure.

We agreed to solicit the community for reflections about the sesquicentennial or any Riverwalk memory. As liaison for the Foundation on the Riverwalk Commission, I pitched the idea to the commissioners, suggesting "50 words or less."

Riverwalk Commission Chairman Geoff Roehll quipped, "How about 35 words?"

And ever since, we've been receiving original poems and memories about an exceptional time when the community came together to create a cherished gem that continues to bring folks together.

Soon after, I found myself in the dentist's chair for my six-month cleaning. As Dr. Joe Haselhorst and I were catching up, I mentioned our 35-word Riverwalk reflection idea and our never-ending awareness campaign regarding fowl play with deleterious effects on wildlife.

Doc called it a "quacker jack" idea, wondering whatever happened to the duck race that used to run on the river.

Bingo! I practically flew out of the chair, now remembering that REACH had stopped hosting its duck race several years ago.

In an instant, I was game to present the duck race as an educational event for the Riverwalk Foundation to host. Doc said he'd help.

At a subsequent meeting, fellow foundation member John Cuff shared his duck race experience. Thanks to Riverwalk Administrator Jan Erickson, other foundation members Arleen Bankemper, Mike Van Poucke, Jo Lundeen and Jeff Havel, and folks at the Naperville Park District and the city clerk's office, we got our ducks in order.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 16, we're set to "race" 2,000 plastic ducks in the DuPage River from the foot bridge near Centennial Park to the Eagle Street Bridge, rain or shine.

You can try your luck with a five buck duck to win as much as $1,981. Duck sales are available at

To promote the event, we found a big yellow rubber ducky pool float. My husband, Jim, inflated it. A sign around its neck reads "Don't feed the ducks. Race them, 10 a.m. August 16."

Filled with fond memories of volunteering back in 1981, the other day Gary Leavenworth embodied the rubber ducky and took a quack at educating folks along the path.

"Please don't feed me," he begged, and folks responded with stories about watching people toss stale bread to the ducks while standing right next to an informational sign that states good health reasons not to feed wildlife.

Folks willingly posed for photos with the rubber ducky. Leavenworth said he'd enjoy returning to the Dandelion Fountain to sing "Rubber Ducky, you're the one."

Perhaps we've finally found a daffy attention-getter to spread the word. Maybe a little name dropping will help, too. Stay tuned.

• Stephanie Penick writes monthly about life in Naperville.

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