Kayakers on the water
Kayakers wind down the Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

In Illinois, hearing the call of the kayak and ‘river therapy’

In search of a lifeline during a grueling pandemic, more area residents picked up paddling. Eager conservation groups have taken notice.

Kayakers wind down the Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands
Kayakers on the water
Kayakers wind down the Little Calumet River. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

In Illinois, hearing the call of the kayak and ‘river therapy’

In search of a lifeline during a grueling pandemic, more area residents picked up paddling. Eager conservation groups have taken notice.

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

Two years later, she’s still paddling.

Like the event planner she was — and now is again — in her spare time she is organizing river-running trips for a 700-person group known as “Oh! Paddlin’ Piranhas” on Facebook. Halpryn has been on over 100 trips in the past two years with the “piranhas” and others.

“It was really a lifeline for me,” the 44-year-old said. It’s her “river therapy.”

Now like millions of others, she’s working remotely, but she is also running rivers as much as ever, searching out new places to go and new challenges to take on. A recent June trip took her and 12 “paddling piranhas” to the popular White River in Wisconsin, just over the border from her Fox River Grove home in northern Illinois.

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

Open water crop
Kayakers say wildlife spotting is one of the joys of paddling. Courtesy of Wayne Slezak / Slezak Photography LLC

Testimonials like Halpryn’s are music to the ears of regional conservation groups who are collaborating to develop, map, promote, clean up and run excursions on some of the 87,000-mile web of waterways in Illinois. Seizing on the surge of curious hobbyists during the pandemic, the groups want to bring the revelatory joys of water-borne exploration to more people, including Black residents who live near some of the region’s most notable waterways but may have never boated on them.

The nonprofit environmental group Openlands has teamed up with other groups to use water trips to teach the region’s history. Recently the nonprofit organized an outing on the Little Calumet River for area residents, followed by a lunch where speakers talked about the “African-American Heritage Water Trail” and the people and sites in the Calumet region that facilitated passage through the Underground Railroad during slavery.

Openlands kayaking
Paddlers take a day trip with the nonprofit group Openlands to explore the Little Calumet River at Kickapoo Woods, part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

Halpryn’s foray started in a beginner’s inflatable kayak with her son and a few others on the DuPage River in the western suburbs of Chicago. That gave her the confidence to join other trips.

“When I first started, I was scared. I didn’t know anybody. I was thinking, ‘Can I keep up, will they leave me behind?’ It’s intimidating.”

She now owns three kayaks and a roof rack. The single-person plastic-molded kayak, propelled by a double-bladed paddle that makes it easy to go straight and swift, has opened up a sport that had previously been limited to canoeists with bigger boats and more skills, and helped to fuel the boom. Kayaks are relatively easy to transport and paddle — and to stay afloat in.

Kayaks loaded up
The price of kayaks soared during the pandemic, but several outfitters offer rentals. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

A run on kayaks

In March 2020, the pandemic unleashed a run on those boats. Used boats were selling for the price of new, from $300 and up to over $1000.

“Everyone was panicking around then,” said John Dwyer, 65, who lives in Evergreen Park. “I said I’ve got to get one now or I’m not going to able to get one.”

Dwyer finally found a kayak in Lake Bluff. “They said it was the last one they had available so I bought it sight unseen. The store shut down temporarily 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 at a nearby Blaine’s Farm and Fleet when the mad rush began. “The sales … were through the roof. We could not keep kayaks in stock at all,” she said. “When we got a shipment in they’d be gone in a few days.”

“I never had a better time selling anything as I did kayaks. You can tell the people didn’t want to be cooped up anymore.”

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

Gliding undetected on the water a few feet below ground level – through cities and suburbs, under bridges, through commercial strips and residential neighborhoods – paddlers like Cole can feel transported to a different world, quieter and less manic. They see four-foot-tall great blue herons nesting in huge piles of sticks high in leafless trees, red-tailed hawks circling and shrieking above and turtles sunning with outstretched necks on downed trees.

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

Despite a few flips into the drink, Nippersink Creek is just about the only thing keeping her from moving back to California.

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

Openlands Kayakers
Several conservation groups offer guided tours of area waterways, part of a growing effort to grow a system of water trails. Courtesy of Liina Raud / Openlands

Take me to the river

Forest preserve districts and conservation groups have worked for years to get people on the water.

Openlands has been the driving force behind the mapping and improvement of “water trails” in northern Illinois and recently unveiled its updated online guide. While lakes and fishing have always been popular and accessible in the preserves in Cook and surrounding counties, the districts, allies and vendors have been spending more time and money on creating and sponsoring river access, including in areas where few get out on the water.

On a recent June weekend, Openlands teamed up with Friends of the Chicago River, the forest preserve, and Chicago Adventure Therapy to do a tour and cleanup of the Little Calumet River on the South Side. The Little Cal weaves through several south suburbs like Dixmoor, before it dumps into the much larger, man-made Cal-Sag channel that is plied by barges and speedboats. Friends’ manager Annette Anderson gave a safety talk and paddling instruction to a group of about 20 mostly Black residents that included some first-timers from the neighborhoods.

The volunteer canoe guides then helped the life-jacketed guests into the heavy aluminum canoes and shoved the boats into the muddy, brown river. A small group of people fishing from the bank glanced over occasionally at the voyagers.

In the bow of one of the boats was Charrena Taylor, 26, from the Golden Gate neighborhood that borders the Cal-Sag channel and Altgeld Gardens. Her sister Lucretia Tolbert, 29, sat in the middle on the bottom of the boat. Tasked with steering from the stern was a young lady who came with her minister and members from New Macedonia Baptist Church.

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

The women paddled and steered their boat ably enough to stay at the head of the group with another Friends guide boat. On the return trip, the women got hung up on a log. When they tried to push and rock their way off, the canoe flipped toward the center of the river, the women spilled out, and the water poured in, filling the boat completely.

Kayak view on the river
Illinois offers an 87,000-mile web of waterways for boating, canoeing and adventure. Courtesy of Wayne Slezak / Slezak Photography LLC

One by one, three heads popped out of the murk, with laughing and shouts and blinking eyes, they found their footing on the muddy riverbed and stood shakily in the gentle, waist-deep current. “Where’s my phone, my phone?” Taylor shouted. The guides gave instructions to grab their paddles and move to the bank. Someone found her phone. “That was fun,” Taylor said, wet from head to toe but phone safely in hand.

While still in their own boat, the guides used their training to quickly empty the swamped canoe of 100 pounds of water, and the women climbed back in with nary a discouraging word. They paddled safely back to the dock, chattering the entire way about their experience.

Taylor is excited to go again, just as the trip sponsors had hoped.

“It was awesome,” she said later from her home in Golden Gate. “You’re cleaning, you’re helping the environment, you’re helping 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 over and over again.”

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