Paddlers on a day trip with the conservation group Openlands exploring the Little Calumet River at Kickapoo Woods, part of the Forest Preserves of Cook County forest preserves.

Paddlers on a day trip with the conservation group Openlands exploring the Little Calumet River at Kickapoo Woods, part of the Cook County forest preserves.

Liina Raud/Openlands

Around Chicago, grabbing paddles and boats for ‘river therapy’ amid the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped spur more people to pick up a paddle and get out on the water. Conservation groups like Openlands hope to build on that.

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

She’s still paddling.

Like the event planner she was and once again is, she also organizes river-running trips for a 700-person group known as “Oh! Paddlin’ Piranhas” on Facebook. Halpryn, 44, has been on more than 100 trips in the past two years with members of that group and others.

“It was really a lifeline for me,” she says, calling it her “river therapy.”

Now, like many others, she’s working remotely. And she’s also running rivers as much as ever, searching out new places and challenges to tackle. In June, she and 12 other paddlers hit the popular White River in Wisconsin, just over the border from her Fox River Grove home.

Interest in kayaking soared during the coronavirus pandemic as a socially distanced outdoor activity. For many, a pleasant diversion has become an important part of their lives, offering a window into a previously unfamiliar world.

Conservation groups welcome the interest and hope it will help them develop, map, promote, clean up and run excursions on the 87,000-mile web of waterways in Illinois and bring kayaking to more people, including Black residents who live near some of the region’s most notable waterways but might never have boated on them.

The environmental group Openlands has teamed with other groups to use water trips to teach the region’s history. Recently, it organized an outing on the Little Calumet River, followed by a lunch at which 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.

Halpryn’s pursuit of kayaking started in a beginner’s, inflatable kayak with her son and others on the DuPage River. That gave her the confidence to do other trips.

“When I first started, I was scared,” she says. “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. A single-person, molded-plastic kayak, propelled by a double-bladed paddle that makes it easy to go straight and swift, opened up the sport for her.

Kayaks are relatively easy to transport and paddle — and to stay afloat in.

In March 2020, the pandemic unleashed a run on those boats. Used boats were selling for what new ones had been going for — from $300 to more than $1,000.

The price of kayaks has soared during the pandemic, though some outfitters offer rentals.

The price of kayaks has soared during the pandemic, though some outfitters offer rentals. | Liina Raud / Openlands

Liina Raud / Openlands

“Everyone was panicking around then,” says 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,” he says. “The store shut down temporarily a few days later. I think I bought the last kayak in Chicago.”

April Cole, 50, of Crystal Lake, recently had been promoted to assistant manager at a Blaine’s Farm and Fleet store when the rush began.

“The sales … were through the roof,” Cole says. “We could not keep kayaks in stock at all. 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 takes her own Hydros kayak out on the Nippersink Creek, her favorite waterway, with friends who dubbed themselves the Yak Pak.

Gliding on the water a few feet below ground level, through cities and suburbs, under bridges, through commercial strips and residential neighborhoods, paddlers like Cole say they feel transported to another world, quieter, less manic. They see four-feet-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 says. “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, she says Nippersink Creek is about the only thing keeping her from moving back to California.

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

Several conservation groups offer guided tours of area waterways, part of efforts to build and expand a system of water trails in the Chicago area.

Several conservation groups offer guided tours of area waterways, part of efforts to build and expand a system of water trails in the Chicago area.

Liina Raud / Openlands

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

Openlands has been the driving force behind the mapping and improvement of water trails in northern Illinois and recently unveiled an updated online guide. Lakes and fishing always have been popular and accessible in the forest preserves in Cook and surrounding counties. But the forest preserve districts and others have been spending more time and money on creating and sponsoring river access, including areas where few people get out on the water.

On a recent weekend, Openlands teamed 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 also weaves through Dixmoor and other south suburbs before it spills into the much larger, man-made Cal-Sag Channel that’s plied by barges and speedboats. Annette Anderson, a Friends of the Chicago River manager, gave a safety talk and paddling instruction to a group of about 20 mostly Black paddlers that included some first-timers from nearby neighborhoods.

Volunteer canoe guides helped the life-jacketed guests into aluminum canoes and shoved off into the muddy, brown river. People fishing from the bank glanced over occasionally at the voyagers.

Charrena Taylor, 26, from the Golden Gate neighborhood that borders the Cal-Sag Channel and Altgeld Gardens, sat in the bow of one of the boats. Her sister Lucretia Tolbert, 29, sat in the middle. Steering from the stern was a woman who came with her minister and members of New Macedonia Baptist Church.

Taylor, who describes herself an independent “outdoors person” and says she would watch Animal Planet instead of cartoons as a kid, had been invited along that morning by a neighbor.

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

But soon three heads popped out of the murk, with laughs 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 instructed them to grab their paddles and move to the bank. Someone found the missing phone.

“That was fun,” Taylor said, all wet but phone safely in hand.

From their own boat, the guides quickly emptied the swamped canoe of the water that had filled it, and the women climbed back inand paddled back to the dock.

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

“It was awesome,” she said later. “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.”

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