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I genuinely enjoy kayaking and canoeing but don’t have much opportunity to paddle while at home in Chicago. My paddling adventures typically happen while I’m traveling. That being said, I don’t normally research where to paddle in and around Chicago. So, I was rather elated to learn that there is a prime kayaking spot in my own proverbial backyard.
How it all started
A little backstory: Last summer, I posted a photo on Instagram of my canoeing experience in New York’s Finger Lakes. Fellow local blogger Julie of Open Wide The World saw the photo and was excited to learn I share her affinity for paddling. She invited me to join her and her husband, and a couple of others, for a kayaking day trip in Yorkville, Illinois. I was available so I jumped at the opportunity without looking into it any further.
Fast forward to the day of the paddle. Julie and her husband, Homer; my long-time pal, Traveling Ted; James of the Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau; and I met for breakfast at Ginger & Soul in Yorkville. Soon we were joined by our guide, Jeff Brown of The Yak Shack. After introductions, Jeff began detailing our schedule for the day. Then he said something like, “First I need to make sure you guys can flip the kayak…”
It was like those parts in movies where the music comes to a screeching halt at the exact moment someone says something really bizarre. My hearing became all fuzzy. I felt a little dizzy.
“I’m sorry, did you say ‘flip’?”
Jeff assured me that, yes, he said flip. He further explained there was a solid chance we would unintentionally flip our kayaks during the paddle. So, for safety reasons, he needed to know that we would be able to safely and successfully exit our kayaks while in the water upside down.
It was at that moment I realized this paddling excursion was way more than I bargained for. It wasn’t going to be a leisurely paddle down a lazy river. Oh, no. This was a full-on whitewater kayaking course.
I began to wonder if it was too late for me to back out.
My turn to flip
From Ginger & Soul, we all walked down to Bicentennial Riverfront Park on the Fox River. That’s where Jeff outfitted us with all the necessary gear, taking great care to explain the reason for and function of each item. This was another instance when it hit me that this wasn’t going to be like any other kayaking trip I’d ever done. For starters, I needed a “skirt” (or a spray skirt or spray deck). It’s a waterproof cover, worn by the paddler, that slips over the kayak’s opening and prevents water from getting in. That was a first. Jeff also had us “try on” different kayaks to see which one was most comfortable for each of us. These kayaks were smaller and shorter than kayaks I’d used before. Now my nerves were really starting to get the best of me.
After trying on PFDs (personal flotation devices, or life jackets) and choosing paddles and helmets, we hauled our kayaks down to the put-in. Jeff explained that each of us was going to paddle out a bit from the bank and, with Jeff’s supervision and assistance, intentionally flip our kayaks to practice proper exit technique. Oh, it gets better: we had to do it twice!
Of course, I was the last one to volunteer to intentionally flip myself upside down in a river while fastened to a kayak. My fellow paddlers all quickly and successfully completed the safety drill. I did not. Well, not quickly.
I mentioned that we had to flip twice; the first time was for Jeff to conduct a guided exit, the second we had to exit the kayak ourselves. Even knowing that Jeff was right there to help, I could not psych myself up to flip the kayak. I was shaking and breathing heavily. I tried taking deep breaths to calm down. All the while, Jeff was standing beside me, patiently and calmly encouraging me to take my time. He was so supportive and, after what seemed like an hour, I finally lunged sideways and was suspended upside down underwater. Within seconds, Jeff had wrapped his body around my kayak and flipped me back over. I was relieved to have my head back above water but it was short-lived, for I had to force myself underwater again to perform a “wet exit”.
A “wet” what now?
A wet exit can be defined as peeling oneself out of a kayak after it’s capsized to get above water. So, for this second drill, survival was in my hands and my hands only. No pressure.
Again, I needed to psych myself up to flip but it didn’t take nearly as long as the first time. The most amazing part about it is that once under the water, I did not panic one bit. I popped the skirt off the kayak just as Jeff had explained, pushed myself out of the boat, and made it to the surface without even thinking about it. My successful wet exit had everything to do with Jeff’s outstanding instruction and encouragement.
After a delicious and hard-earned lunch at Southbank Original Barbecue, it was time to “shoot the course”.
Marge Cline Whitewater Course
Oh yes, THE COURSE.
Marge Cline Whitewater Course on the Fox River is the only class-II rapids in Illinois. See, that’s the part I failed to acknowledge when I agreed to this kayaking trip. WHITEWATER. That means rapids. All of my previous kayaking and canoeing experience had been on FLATWATER. That means no rapids.
Even with Jeff’s masterful instruction of maneuvers and wet exits, I was not feeling incredibly confident to shoot the course on my own. So I “rafted up” with Julie, meaning we held on to each other’s kayaks as we rumbled down the rapids. Things were going well until we hit the end of the course. I’m still not entirely sure how or what happened but I didn’t peel out like I should have and ended up capsizing. Once again I had to call upon Jeff’s instruction and I successfully performed the impromptu wet exit. Jeff was nearby so he helped me tow my kayak back over to the bank. That’s when I confidently declared, “Whitewater not for me!”
By this time, Traveling Ted had called it, too, so he and I headed back up to Southbank. We drowned our sorrows in a few beers while Julie and Homer went up and down the course like pros.
Later on, our group reunited at Crusade Burger Bar for more well-deserved sustenance. This time, our reward came in the form of incredible burgers, inventive “adult” milkshakes, and quite an impressive beer list.
All in all, it was an extremely fun day. I’m glad to have discovered such gems close to home and look forward to spending more time in the Aurora area. But the biggest takeaway of the day was and forever will be, whitewater not for me.
Big thank you to Aurora Area CVB for hosting our group for the day. The whitewater experience, including Jeff’s guidance, as well as meals and drinks were complimentary. All thoughts and opinions here are, as always 100% my own.