Have you kayaked the Chicago River yet? What a thrill! This had been on my wish list for several summers, ever since I worked out on Goose Island and saw the colorful kayaks floating by. I believe those kayak classes and tours by Kayak Chicago were the first and perhaps the only ones available at that time, and it seemed like a novel urban adventure to me. I had this daydream of kayaking in the afternoon then going to one of my favorite restaurants, Uncle Julio’s, just east on North Avenue, for happy hour and toasting to the adventure with a round of Swirls. But years passed, I no longer worked on Goose Island and it didn’t happen.
As time went by, I started to notice more and more groups of kayakers on the Chicago River downtown. Finally, the opportunity arose for me to make this wish come true: When I recommended kayaking to family from out of town and a couple of friends, they were up for it.
I went on the internet and found a handful of kayak establishments in addition to Kayak Chicago including Urban Kayaks, Wateriders and Chicago River Canoe and Kayak. They all sounded great: I’d still like to try Kayak Chicago starting at Goose Island to kayak a less busy part of the river, Wateriders has several fun tours and Chicago River Canoe and Kayak is a bit north offering less urban kayaking experiences which I would definitely like to do, especially now that I’ve gotten my feet wet kayaking for the first time. The three kayak businesses closer in all had similar tours (architecture, sunset, fireworks, etc.) at comparable pricing.
Being a downtown gal who strives to keep potentially complex plans simple, I opted for the Urban Kayaks one-hour Riverwalk Intro Paddle. I liked that my first kayak experience could be a lesson during which we’d be closely watched over by a professional kayaker and that it was along the Riverwalk, one of the most magnificent areas of downtown Chicago.
The folks at Urban Kayaks were great! It’s easy to book online after which they email a liability waiver to sign and then all you have to do is show up and give your name. They treat customers kindly; they sit you down first in a brief class on how to kayak; they don’t balk at helping you get your life jacket on properly and getting in and out of the kayak; and the tour guide stays very close by in the water, keeps the group together, gives helpful instructions through a megaphone and is even in radio contact with the boats to keep the flock safe.
Because I had never kayaked before, I read all the kayak sites for general information, like how to dress (expect to get wet) and what to bring (water, if you wish) and leave behind (cell phone, cameras – unless you want to buy one of their waterproof bags). Urban Kayaks has lockers, both locked and open-air shelving to stash your stuff.
I had planned to use the airtight compartment on the kayak but didn’t need to. What they don’t tell you online is that the life vests have two large pockets that can hold quite a lot and they zip up good and tight. So I was able to stuff an extra pair of glasses in one side and my “necessity pack” in the other. I never ended up needing any of the things I brought; I might as well have left them in the locker, lol. Perhaps on a longer kayak tour, one would want personal items along. Once the life vest was tightened up, I found I could stash my water bottle down the front and it stayed perfectly secure.
By the way, I did a kayak-for-two with someone who had kayaked previously because this was new to me. Even though I learned, I believe I would still prefer the dual-kayak for subsequent experiences, because it’s easier to talk to each other and you’re both having the exact same experience, which makes it more fun.
Urban Kayaks also has porta-potties and a “changing room” which is actually a porta-potty without the toilet, and it’s in the toilet area. They were rather stinky, as porta-potties tend to be, so I was glad I was wearing a swimsuit and didn’t have to use the dressing area. And I recommend you do the same. I really didn’t get as wet kayaking as I’d expected. I didn’t have to use the dressing area: Afterwards, I simply left the swimsuit on and switched my top clothes (to dinner-appropriate attire) right in the open. It was so easy.
Now that I’ve kayaked the busiest part of the Chicago River, which is the strip along the Riverwalk, I feel well-schooled in how to kayak safely. It gets pretty hairy: The boat and barge traffic along there is serious. There are sightseeing boats, constructions barges, pleasure crafts of all shapes and sizes and water taxis. Kayakers quickly learn to stay as far to the right as possible and stay aware.
After all the kayakers I’ve watched go by on this strip of the river, it was such a rush to find myself actually doing it. People gawk at you, wave and take your picture, though you’re pretty focused on controlling your kayak in busy waters. I was glad I did it and now I feel ready for further kayak excursions like the sunset tour and checking out more serene venues.
We ended up dining on the balcony of Dick’s Last Resort and watched ensuing kayak groups navigate the Chicago River. That capped off our experience perfectly. I highly recommend kayaking along the Riverwalk then eating at one of the numerous great restaurants on the river.