Ralph Frese, the 82-year-old owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base, has been paddling the waters of northeastern Illinois for more than half a century. He's adamant that being close to a major metropolis doesn't negate paddling opportunities.
"People think they have to go to Wisconsin to go canoeing," Frese says. "Thank goodness we have forest preserve districts."
The protected woods around Illinois' waterways can hold deer, fox, coyotes, minks and hundreds of species of birds-and the rivers and lakes themselves are filled with fish, amphibians and reptiles.
"There's a lot that can be done using the canoe as a teaching tool," he says.
Chicagoland Canoe Base is just one of many outfitters in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs that can suit up adventurous families for a day trip or an overnight excursion. The stores are full of guidebooks (and experienced guys like Frese) that can suggest a suitable trip from Skokie Lagoons to the north, Busse Woods Reservoir to the west, to Thorn Creek and the Calumet River to the south, just to name a few.
If a sleeker boat and double-headed paddle is more your style, Dave Olson is the owner and lead instructor of Kayak Chicago, which boasts a trio of rental locations and offers a variety of lessons and tours.
Olson says no experience is required for his three-hour downtown
Chicago tours, perfect for families, who can put kids as young as 3
in the back
of a tandem (two-person) kayak. "Kids love it," he says.
Olson says the trips are safe for even the more boisterous of kids; life jackets and basic safety training are provided, and the trips are led by trained guides.
"We were really surprised that this thing existed," says Aaron Symanski, who got his family into the sport through tours with Kayak Chicago. His wife Stacy, 7-year-old son Render and 5-year-old daughter Rowan all loved the experience.
Canoes have more cargo space, can hold an extra child passenger or two and are easier to get in and out of. Kayaks have a lower center of gravity, can keep gear assuredly dry in compartments and cut quickly through the water. Whichever you choose, as Symanski says, your family will be "making some good memories, being together and being outside."