WC’s Epic Fails: The Alewife Incident

Dead Alewife, Lake Michigan, 1972

Dead Alewife, Lake Michigan, 1972

As WC has mentioned before, he spent three . . . difficult . . . years in Chicago, Illinois, attending law school. The law school was on pricey property, what passes for “lakefront” just north of the loop, with only the twelve lanes of Lake Shore Drive between you and Lake Michigan.

Understand that the “shores” of Lake Michigan are concrete, like a huge, especially disgusting swimming pool. In those pre-EPA days, the only difference between southern Lake Michigan and a sewage lagoon was that the sewage lagoons were generally smaller.

But in those pre-bicycle path days, the concrete embankment made a comparatively decent bike route, running from south of Grant Park north almost to Evanston. WC had brought his elderly ten speed bike, and one of WC’s escapes from the pressures of law school and the tensions being a country mouse living in a big – huge – city was to get on that bicycle and ride. The concrete “shore” was 10 – 20 feet wide in most places, and where the city had built sand beaches there were paved paths on the back of the beaches.

So one mid-autumn early morning, ahead of classes, after a long stormy stretch of weather, WC hopped on his bike and headed north. The wind was at WC’s back, the air was comparatively mild, and WC had a lot of tension to work out. As a result of those things, WC came around the blind corner at Oak Street Beach and hit a two foot high, ten foot wide dune of dead alewife.


Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) are an Atlantic anadromous fish, invasive to the Great Lakes. Their populations in Lake Michigan exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. They can live in fresh water, but a sudden temperature change in the water kills them. A big storm churns up the colder water and, at least back then, they’d die by the millions. Bigs rafts of dead alewife would wash up on the beaches of Lake Michigan, including the concrete shores of Chicago.

WC had never heard of alewife before that morning.

WC plowed in to the dune of dead, rotting alewife at about 25 miles per hour, banked over for the curve. And wiped out. The bike slid over on the left side about half way through the dune, breaking off the bike’s left pedal and dumping WC in all that rotting fish. It turns out rotten fish makes a pretty good cushion: WC had minimal road rash and very few bruises.

The downside of a cushion of dead, rotten fish, though, is there are chunks of dead fish, fish slime and fish stink rubbed in to you from your hair down to you shoes.

WC walked his bicycle back to the dorm, Abbott Hall. WC spoke to security at the entrance to the dorm and arranged for a staff person to meet him in the alley behind the dorm with a garden hose. It took a while, allowing WC to marinate, as it were. But, eventually, a guy appeared with a spray hose and washed WC and his bicycle off, and then rinsed the considerable residue to a storm drain, which drained the gunk back in to the Lake, of course.

WC kept his bicycle in his dorm room – this is Chicago we are talking about – so WC took his bicycle and, fully dressed, climbed in to the shower. The clothes did wash clean, although it took the shower and two full wash and dry cycles at the dorm laundry. The tires and the bicycle seat were a bit whiffy. There were complaints from WC’s roommate. It turned out that fish slime had worked inside the tires. But some additional cleaning and Armor All™ took care of that. Bike repairs were more challenging – there weren’t a lot of bicycle repairs shops in downtown Chicago in the 1970s. WC ended up walking his bicycle up to the good folks at Lincoln Park Cycle. They extracted the broken-off bolt and found a replacement pedal for a very reasonable price.

WC has never met another person who wiped out bicycling in a dune of dead fish. It’s probably just as well.