In the best of all migratory traditions, the DUKWs have returned to River North for the summer. They’re nesting at the “quack shack” alongside the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s.
The DUKW was a World War II amphibious vehicle designed to move supplies from ships to troops. Between 1941 and 1945, some 20,000 DUKWs were made and about half were subsequently destroyed. The survivors evolved into “ducks” and many have been turned into tourist rides in places like the Wisconsin Dells, Branson, Missouri, and Hot Springs, Arkansas.
I stepped onto my first duck about seven years ago in the Dells. It was heaven. The guides were goofy, the gasoline fragrant, the splashes cooling. Now you can get a 90-minute duck trip that mixes humor, history, and architecture in downtown Chicago. “We thought it would play well in an urban setting,” says Rob Pierson, CEO of the Chicago Trolley Company and Chicago Duck Tours. His hunch seems to be paying off. Tours started May 22 and Pierson says they already are sold out on weekends. The company has five ducks and 17 employees who give 18 tours a day. By August, Pierson expects two more ducks and seven more employees.
On a recent sparkling day I took a ride. We started at the quack shack, which offers the ducks a comforting view of the Rainforest Cafe’s flapping butterflies, mushrooms, and frogs. Outside traffic court a befuddled man looked up and gasped. In fact, all along the way people stared in astonishment. Most often they burst out laughing. For as it happens, a 7.4-ton yellow boat-shaped truck carrying 28 people at the rapid waddle of 15 miles an hour is amusing.
“Everything in them is exactly how they were built–including the engine. We don’t go very fast, but we get there,” remarked guide Ross Avery, adding that the ducks get only six miles to the gallon and require premium gas. “The top on this vehicle is 43 miles per hour with a stiff wind on our backs going downhill.” The speed in the water is a mere six knots, but ducks can handle six-foot swells like a dream. There aren’t many six-foot swells in Burnham Harbor.
Going by the Picasso statue, Avery said the artist wasn’t paid and about all he wanted was a jersey that said “#1 Picasso.” He described the statue as an “Afghan modeled after [Picasso’s] first wife.” Avery’s factoids–amusing if not always accurate–were gleaned, he said, from a library of 30 volumes on Chicago that the guides use to educate themselves. On the Outer Drive he pointedto a pumping station and said it was Alcatraz. “Oh I’m sorry,” he explained. “We’re on LSD and I get these bad flashbacks.” He also claimed that Burnham Harbor was where the opening to Gilligan’s Island was filmed.
We splashed into the harbor. As we floated by McCormick Place, Avery labeled it “the Titanic of buildings” because of the builders’ promise that the original wouldn’t burn. Which it did. He pointed out the CNA building, “built with alloy so that it’s rust free and they painted it rust color so that we’ll never know. Sneaky devils.”
On the way back to the quack shack, Avery dared us to find the mistake on the front of the Art Institute. It says “Michael Angelo” instead of “Michelangelo.” Avery suggested this was in anticipation of Michael Jordan.
Rob Pierson says Chicago Duck Tours looks for guides who are entertainers first and drivers second. A lot of people apply with communications or acting backgrounds. The ducks are harder to come by. “You find ’em in the strangest places,” Pierson says. “The yellow one we found in a quarry in Alexandria, Pennsylvania, and it had a hole in the bottom and they were using it for drilling jobs.” Chicago Duck Tours is now interested in checking out a California duck belonging to Beach Boy Al Jardine, who’s used it to amuse his friends.
“There’s kind of this underground duck network” that’s “very secretive,” says Pierson. “You can find out where ducks are and everybody scrambles after the ducks.” Partly that relates to supply. There are about 4,000 DUKWs worldwide but only about 2,000 are usable. The going rate, according to Pierson, is between $125,000 and $175,000 each.
Pierson’s dream is to make the ducks an international phenomenon. He says he’s looking into sending his fleet to winter in the Dominican Republic and serve the tourist trade there.
For a ride on the fighting boat Pierson calls “kind of a strange, goofy vehicle,” call 312-461-1133. Or drop by the quack shack at Clark and Ontario, though reservations are strongly recommended. Hours are 9:30 to 6 seven days a week; tickets cost $20, $10 for kids under 12, and are free if you’re a World War II vet. Group rates available.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nathan Mandell.