The Kayaking, Canoeing, and Boating Boom in Illinois

When Anthea Halpryn was furloughed and then cut in 2020 from her 10-year job as a senior event planner for Marriott, she did what any middle-aged married woman with four children would have done. She went kayaking.

Two years later, she is still paddling.

Like the event planner she was – and is again – in her spare time, she organizes river trips for a group of 700 people known as “Oh! Paddlin’ Piranhas” on Facebook. Halpryn has made over 100 trips in the past two years with the “piranhas” and others.

“It was really a lifesaver for me,” said the 44-year-old. IThis is his “river therapy”.

Now, like millions of others, she is working remotely, but she is also running rivers as much as ever, seeking new places to go and new challenges to face. A recent trip in June took her with 12 “paddle piranhas” to the poPular White River in Wisconsin, just across the border from his home in Fox River Grove in northern Illinois.

Kayaking has exploded during the pandemic as a socially distanced outdoor activity. What a startd as a pleasant diversion for many has now become an important part of their lives and for some a window into an unknown world.

Kayakers say wildlife viewing is one of the joys of paddling. Courtesy of Wayne Slezak / Slezak Photography LLC

Stories like Halpryn’s are music to the ears of regional conservation groups who work together to develop, map, promote, clean up and organize excursions on some of Illinois’ 87,000 miles of waterways. Catching the wave of curious enthusiasts during the pandemic, the groups want to bring the eye-opening joys of aquatic exploration to more people, including black residents who live near some of the region’s most notable waterways but who may have never sailed on it.

The non-profit environmental group Openlands has partnered with other groups to use aquatic trips to teach the area’s history. Recently, the non-profit organization organized an outing on the Little Calumet River for area residents, followed by a dinner where speakers spoke about the “African American Heritage Water Trail” and the people and sites in the Calumet area that facilitated passage through the Underground Railroad during slavery.

Kayaking in the ground
Paddlers take a day trip with the non-profit group Openlands to explore the Little Calumet River in Kickapoo Woods, part of the Cook County Forest Preserves. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

Halpryn’s foray began in a beginner’s inflatable kayak with her son and a few others on the DuPage River in the western suburbs of Chicago. This gave him the confidence to go on further trips.

“When I started, I was scared. I didn’t know anyone. I thought, ‘Can I go on, are they going to leave me behind?’ It’s intimidating.

She now has three kayaks and a roof rack. The molded plastic one-person kayak, powered by a double-bladed paddle that makes it easy to go straight and fast, opened up a sport that had previously been reserved for canoeists with bigger boats and more skill, and helped to fuel the boom. Kayaks are relatively easy to transport and paddle – and stay afloat.

loaded kayaks
The price of kayaks has skyrocketed during the pandemic, but several outfitters are offering rentals. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

A kayak race

In March 2020, the pandemic sparked a race on these boats. Used boats were selling for new prices, starting at $300 and going up to over $1,000.

“Everyone was freaking out at the time,” said John Dwyer, 65, who lives in Evergreen Park. “I said I have to get one now or I can’t get one.”

Dwyer finally found a kayak in Lake Bluff. “They said it was the last one available, so I bought it without seeing it. The store temporarily closed a few days later. I think I bought the last kayak in Chicago.

April Cole, 50, of Crystal Lake, had recently been promoted to assistant manager of a farm and fleet in nearby Blaine when the mad rush began. “Sales… exploded. We couldn’t keep kayaks in stock at all,” she said. “When we received a shipment, they left within days.”

“I’ve never had as much fun selling as kayaks. You can tell people didn’t want to be locked up anymore.

Cole doesn’t just sell kayaks, she’s an active participant. She takes her Aqua Hydros kayak down Nippersink Creek, her favorite waterway, with a couple of friends who call themselves the Yak Pak.

Gliding undetected on the water just feet below ground level – through cities and suburbs, under bridges, through commercial strips and residential neighborhoods – paddlers like Cole can feel transported into a world different, calmer and less manic. They see four-foot-tall great blue herons nesting in huge piles of tall sticks in leafless trees, red-tailed hawks circling and screeching overhead, and turtles sunning themselves with their necks outstretched on felled trees.

“The experiences I’ve had on this creek are just unreal,” Cole said. “It’s the most beautiful and treasured thing to me in McHenry County. It’s an amazing cove. The wildlife is just stunning.

Despite a few hops in the drink, Nippersink Creek is about the only thing keeping him from returning to California.

“I can’t live without it,” Cole said. “It’s such a fun thing.”

Open Land Kayakers
Several conservation groups offer guided tours of the area’s waterways, part of a growing effort to develop a water trail system. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

take me to the river

Preserved Forest Districts and conservation groups have worked for years to get people on the water.

Openlands has been the driving force behind mapping and improving “water trails” in Northern Illinois and recently unveiled its update online guide. While lakes and fishing have always been popular and accessible on reservations in Cook and surrounding counties, districts, allies and vendors have spent more time and money creating and sponsoring access. to the river, including in areas where few go out on the water.

On a recent weekend in June, Openlands teamed up with Friends of the Chicago Riverthe forest reserveand Chicago Adventure Therapy take a ride and clean the Little Calumet River on the south side. The Little Cal winds its way through several southern suburbs such as Dixmoor, before emptying into the much larger, man-made Cal-Sag Canal which is traveled by barges and speedboats. Friends manager Annette Anderson gave a safety talk and paddling instruction to a group of about 20 mostly black residents, which included neighborhood first-timers.

The volunteer canoe guides then helped the life-jacketed guests into the heavy aluminum canoes and pushed the boats into the muddy, brown river. A small group of people fishing on the shore occasionally glanced at the travellers.

At the front of one of the boats was Charrena Taylor, 26, from the Golden Gate neighborhood that borders the Cal-Sag Canal and Altgeld Gardens. Her sister Lucretia Tolbert, 29, sat in the middle on the bottom of the boat. Responsible for governing from the stern, a young woman came with her minister and members of the Baptist Church of New Macedonia.

Taylor, who calls herself an independent “outdoors person” and who watched Animal Planet instead of cartoons as a child, had been invited that morning by her neighbor.

The women paddled and steered their boat skillfully enough to stay at the head of the group with another Friends guide boat. On the way back, the women clung to a log. When they tried to push and tip, the canoe rolled over towards the center of the river, the women spilled out, and water spilled out, completely filling the boat.

River View Kayak
Illinois offers an 87,000 mile network of waterways for boating, canoeing and adventure. Courtesy of Wayne Slezak / Slezak Photography LLC

One by one, three heads emerged from the darkness, with laughter, screams and blinking eyes, they found their support on the muddy river bed and stood waist-deep in the gentle current. “Where is my phone, my phone? Taylor shouted. The guides gave instructions to grab their paddles and head for the bank. Someone found his phone. “It was fun,” Taylor said, wet from head to toe but with a phone safely.

While still in their own boat, the guides used their training to quickly empty the flooded canoe of 100 pounds of water, and the women got back in without a discouraging word. They paddled safely to the dock, chatting the whole time.

Taylor is excited to be back, just as the trip sponsors had hoped.

“It was awesome,” she later said from her home in Golden Gate. “You clean up, you help the environment, you help nature. It really touched me. Canoeing is one of the things that gives me hope. It’s very productive, it’s fun, it makes you want to do it again and again.

Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Park.

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