Local paddlers are finding a relaxing and exciting way to relieve stress and get some fresh air, all while touring the area’s many waterways.
Cindy Karnitz is no stranger to water activities. She’s surfed the waves of Hawaii, tamed tides on a boogie board and played water polo. But these days, it’s kayaking and all its tranquility that gives her the greatest rush – and the greatest peace.
For one thing, it’s something she and husband Todd can do with their son and daughter, 13-year-old Jakob and 6-year-old Ella. “This is completely different from other water activities,” she says. “You can feel your blood pressure lower, akin to petting a dog. It’s quiet, it’s methodical and you glide along. You have a different perspective. This is Zen.”
Karnitz and family were introduced to kayaking by a friend, during a family function in Green Bay, Wis. just over a year ago. They instantly became hooked, especially Jakob, who spent five hours that day lazily gliding on the water.
Since then, the family has gone paddling about 10 times, mostly on Pierce Lake, at Rock Cut State Park in Loves Park, Ill. “Paddling is a completely silent activity. There’s no motor,” Karnitz says. “You’re low in the water. You can go fast or you can go slow. You can drift. It’s a great way to be outside and in touch with nature.”
And in touch with other things, for that matter. During a recent visit to Texas, they rented kayaks at Corpus Christi Bay and paddled out to touch the retired USS Lexington, the oldest remaining WWII aircraft carrier, now a National Historic Landmark.
Karnitz isn’t alone in her newfound passion.
The Outdoor Industry Association reports that 17.8 million Americans participated in kayaking, canoeing and rafting in 2008. About 7.8 million of them kayaked. They made 174 million outings, averaging 10 days per participant. Kayaking is one of the top 10 adventure activities for baby boomers, trailing behind fishing, biking, hiking and motorcycling.
“Overall, I think we’re seeing more and more people looking for healthy alternatives to stay active,” says Walter Loos, the new owner of Paddle and Trail, a full-service paddling retailer and outfitter located at 7212 N. Alpine Road in Loves Park.
Loos, who previously owned a kayak rental and excursion operation in Wisconsin, bought the business in August and opened a new location in Beloit, Wis., at 110 W. Grand Ave. He already had a location in Edgerton, Wis., and operates Paddle and Trail Rock River Rentals at 1040 N. Second St., Rockford. Loos says that paddling is popular, in part, because the boats are relatively inexpensive, easy to transport and simple to use.
“The industry is growing at a significant clip,” Loos says. “Many people are retiring and realizing that they have the time now. And paddling doesn’t cause as much stress to the body as other activities. A lot of folks might have gone hiking or running before, but those sports are hard on joints. When people get in the kayak for the first time, they find that it’s something they can thoroughly enjoy, while enjoying nature at the same time. It’s a win-win.”
There are a number of great spots for kayaking enthusiasts in this area, starting with the Rock River, which stretches 285 miles through northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
In northern Rock County, the Rock joins the Yahara River, flows southward through Janesville and Beloit and into northern Illinois, where it joins the Pecatonica River.
The Kishwaukee River begins as a rocky-bottomed stream near Woodstock, Ill., and flows through a beautiful, wooded valley with very little urban development, except in the stretch near Belvidere, New Milford and Cherry Valley.
The Pecatonica River flows from the Pecatonica Wetlands Forest Preserve to the Macktown Forest Preserve, where it joins the Rock River.
The Sugar River feeds into the Pec after traveling through southern Wisconsin and part of northern Illinois, through wooded banks and secluded areas.
These four waterways are gems that draw paddlers from many other regions.
“Some places have mountains, some have redwood forests. What we have is four great rivers. It’s a paradise for paddle boating,” says Jamie Johannsen, director of marketing and community relations for the Winnebago County Forest Preserve. “We get calls all the time from people and clubs from the Chicago area, because they love to paddle on our rivers. It’s well worth the drive.”
Most new kayakers get hooked after an invititation from a relative or friend. That was the case for Joanne Klein of Pecatonica. For more than 50 years, Klein’s favorite outdoor activity was riding horses – until a friend introduced her to kayaking last summer. Klein says she’ll never forget the first time she dipped her paddle into the water.
“My friend pushed my boat out into the water and said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t lean.’ I was afraid to paddle, afraid that I was going to do something wrong. I was so nervous,” she says. “I hit the bank and then I paddled back to the middle of the stream. That’s when I got comfortable. I’m getting braver. It’s so exciting.”
Local clubs and adventure guides are seeing a significant rise in participation. Kayaking is an ideal sport for small or large groups, paddling single or tandem style, and it’s family-friendly. Recreational or leisure kayaking is the most popular form, followed by sea and whitewater kayaking.
Paddle and Trail offers instruction, outings, and adventure tours with guides, who work with novice and expert paddlers alike. In addition, the store offers equipment seminars; pool sessions to help beginners become comfortable in their kayaks; and even paddle-making classes.
“You need to feel comfortable in the boat before you can enjoy the trip,” Loos says. “That’s the first thing we tell people when they’re first introduced to the sport. Surprisingly, many people pick up on it quickly, but it depends on your starting point and how far you want to go.”
Paddle and Trail offers adventure tours that range from paddling local rivers to exploring the shores of Lake Superior, Mexico, Alaska, or the Mediterranean. The club recently organized offseason kayaking trips to Lake Powell, Utah and the Central American nation of Belize, and a fishing excursion to south Florida. A typical kayaking season runs from April through the end of October.
Loos, the lead guide on many outings, paddles 100 to 150 times per year. Paddle and Trail has given him reason to be even more active outdoors, to do more local programming and to share his passion with others.
“I love the water,” says Loos, a former hockey player. “I have a curiosity for exploring new areas. I’ve paddled the Rock River 60 times, and each time I’ve found something new. The outdoors has a lot to give back. When I’m out there doing my own paddle, it’s an escape from everything else. It’s a chance to decompress and take a deep breath and check out some cool areas that you can only access through small watercraft.”
There are many factors to consider when selecting a kayak, including your experience level, how often you’ll go out, and portability. Paddle and Trail has a trade-in program, and also rents to those who aren’t ready to take the plunge and buy their own equipment.
“We are conscious of the fact that people have budgets to work with,” Loos says. “We want to make it affordable and as accessible as possible.”
An entry-level plastic kayak usually starts around $250, while other plastic models can run as much as $1,500. Fiberglass boats are more expensive but significantly lighter. Paddle and Trail sells packages that include a kayak, paddle and life jacket for $600 to $700. If you’re going to transport your kayak, you’ll need a rack or trailer system, too.
Tim Oliver, Machesney Park, experienced his first kayak ride five years ago. He lives near Rock Cut State Park and spends many weekend mornings there launching the kayak that wife Debbie gave him as a birthday present.
“A lot of times, I like to just stop paddling and sit in the middle of the lake to watch the trees, the birds. It’s that peaceful,” says Oliver, who works as a service manager for an auto dealership. “Plus, it’s good exercise.”
Often, Oliver rigs up his kayak for another favorite hobby – fly fishing. He installed rod holders and an anchor, and has enough room for a small box of supplies and his fly rod. He says kayaking helps him to navigate remote areas, where he hopes the fish are biting. Oliver plans to spend even more time cruising up and down local waterways.
“There’s a lot of pressure and stress in my job,” he says. “Getting on the water in my kayak is a complete contrast. It’s the best way to relax and unwind.”
Joanne Klein agrees. Tacked to her refrigerator is the piece of paper on which she tracked the number of times she kayaked last fall. She was in her boat 26 times in two months, and she plans to blow that number out of the water this year.
For Klein, the joy of kayaking is found all around her – in bald eagles in flight, in hornet nests hanging from trees, in busy otters swimming under the radiant summer sun.
“I never thought there would be anything as peaceful and quiet as riding my horse,” she says. “Kayaking is the next best thing. I absolutely fell in love with it.” ❚