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Most people know Chicago as the big city with tall skyscrapers and socialites sipping cocktails, but what often goes unnoticed is the abundance of outdoor spaces and activities. Perhaps this is because Chicago is covered in snow and ice for a majority of the year, but if you have the good fortune of visiting Chicago in the summer or the tenacity to enjoy the outdoors in the winter, you’ll find that Chicago has much more to offer than just skyscrapers and fancy cocktails. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to go kayaking in Chicago with REI, and I have to admit I was blown away by the views. Even though I’ve lived in the city and seen the views of the skyline and riverfront for the last eight years, I saw a completely new perspective of Chicago on my kayaking tour. Here’s what you need to know about kayaking in Chicago with REI, as well as other ideas for getting outside in Chicago.
A Quick Introduction of the Chicago River
The Chicago River flows 156 miles from Park City in the north to Lockport in the south, but the main section of the Chicago River that runs through downtown Chicago is made up of the north branch and the south branch, which run about one mile west of Lake Michigan. They converge on the north end of the Loop and the south end of the River North neighborhood in a one mile stretch that connects the Chicago River to Lake Michigan. The section of the river that passes through downtown Chicago is the section you’ll be visiting when kayaking in Chicago with REI.
Arriving at the REI Boathouse
REI has a boathouse in Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, which is the perfect launch point for a kayaking trip originating in the south branch. As I quickly discovered, there are many benefits to starting your Chicago kayaking trip in the south branch of the river. The river is much wider and quieter, so you can launch your kayak into the water without worrying about having to share a narrow section of the river with lots of other boats, or larger boats cruising by and creating waves that might destabilize your kayak.
When inserting directions to the boathouse from your starting location, insert the following coordinates into Google Maps: 41.858133,-87.634367. If you type in “REI Boathouse,” a different location will appear on Google Maps.
REI Boathouse at Ping Tom Memorial Park
Kayaking in Chicago With REI
After arriving at the REI Boathouse at 8:00am and meeting our instructor and guide, Mark, we had the opportunity to practice getting in and out of our kayaks on land before we tried it in the water. Mark also showed us the best way to hold and use our paddle while kayaking, which I found to be extremely helpful despite having kayaked many times before. Officially learning proper kayaking techniques for the first time made me want to sign up for a kayaking class with REI so that I could learn more about kayaking with proper techniques and become a better kayaker.
As soon as everyone got into their kayaks, Mark led us up the south branch of the Chicago River toward the riverwalk, which lines the busiest section of Chicago as residents and tourists alike flock to the many restaurants, bars, and outdoor seating areas there. On the way there, Mark pointed out several key landmarks to us, including an early creation by architect Bertrand Goldberg that was designed to be a condominium that acted as a live in community. Unfortunately, Goldberg’s vision was never realized, as residents quickly decided that they did not want to be cooped up on one street block for the rest of their lives.
Once we reached the riverwalk, we had an opportunity to get out of our kayaks and take a bathroom break, if needed. Three hours is a long time to go without a toilet, so having a pit stop midway through our kayaking trip was essential. The only thing I wished I could’ve done was fueled up with a beer before continuing the tour!
Amidst the hustle and bustle of the riverwalk, one of the kayakers on my tour lost his balance and flipped over shortly after leaving our bathroom pit stop. Mark, our guide, came quickly to his rescue and got him out of the river almost instantly. We pulled off to the side of the river, lined up our kayaks side by side, just as Mark had instructed, and let the kayaker lay across our kayaks as Mark emptied all the water out of the kayak so that the kayaker could continue his journey safely. I was amazed by the ease with which Mark managed to fix the situation, and how he quickly adjusted our route to account for lost time and a calmer atmosphere. The kayaker who flipped over was perfectly fine and didn’t seem frazzled by the incident at all, probably in large part due to Mark’s professional handling of the situation.
Rather than continue down the busiest part of the Chicago River toward the lake, we immediately turned around and headed back toward quieter waters. Mark took us up the north branch of the river, which was less congested than the section along the riverwalk. We parked our kayaks in a nook off the side of the river while Mark told us numerous stories of the history of the north branch, such as the 1992 Chicago flood.
Having hit all three branches of the Chicago River that run through downtown Chicago, we were ready to turn around and head back to the REI boathouse. We were coming up on three hours on the water, and the entire group was feeling very satisfied with the trip and with ourselves for having kayaked all three branches of the river, but also a bit tired. Unloading ourselves from our kayaks to the dock was a breeze, and we all left feeling very ready to conquer the rest of our weekends!
Other REI Classes & Events
REI organizes all sorts of classes and events in Chicago to help people get outside. Whether you’re a skilled outdoorsman or a city slicker who just needs a dose of nature once in a while, you’ll be able to find a class or event you love at REI.
Here are the top five upcoming REI classes and events I’m most excited about:
- Hike and Hops – Starved Rock and Matthiesen State Park
- Backcountry Navigation With A Map & Compass
- Lightweight Tents and Sleep Systems Workshop
- Paddle and Pint With REI and Fat Tire
- Winter Camping Workshop
You can find the most up to date and complete list of REI classes and events in Chicago here. Make sure you book your favorite REI event on your upcoming trip to Chicago so you can explore the Chicago outdoors while learning about its history and culture. I am so grateful for the opportunity to experience kayaking in Chicago with REI, and I can’t wait to check out some of their other outdoor events and classes!
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Learning proper kayaking techniques sounds like fun. I never thought of doing that- often just jump in and paddle to move somewhere 😀 The Chicago river looks like a great place to do it too – it seems to pass by many great scenes along the river on your route.
I’ve seen different classes offered by REI and this sounds like a great one! I wish we had a local REI so I could try some of them. It’s great to know about this for when I visit Chicago, as kayaking along the river seems like a great way to see landmarks from a unique vantage point. I’m glad Mark was able to handle the flipped kayak with ease and professionalism, that could have easily ruined the guest’s tour but sounds like he knew just what to do. That makes me feel better about taking this class as a novice kayaker!
Oh WOW! I had no idea that you could kayak the Chicago river! Thinking back, most of my visits have not been in the summer months, so I suspect this requires plenty of planning for the optimal temperatures. But a warm summer day would be perfect for kayaking the river.
I’d probably be too scared to do this because I can’t swim, but it sounds like you had a lot of fun!
Ooh, I’ve never thought about kayaking in Chicago! But now I want to! I think that touring Chicago from the water is a super unique experience. Plus having a local guide that can give you a lot of the history from the water would be a definite bonus! Awesome that REI offers a bunch of classes and events. So many options.
I have been to Chicago many times, but never kayaked there before. I try to kayak everywhere I go and have kayaked in other cities so I can’t believe I have never thought of kayaking in Chicago! I love that there is a bathroom break! That’s usually my biggest struggle with kayak tours, lol. I’m definitely adding this to my list of things to do in Chicago. Now, I also want to check out what other classes and events REI has in other places.
I just returned from Chicago but missed Kayaking in beautiful river of this wonderful city. Kayaking in Chicago looks fun due to beautiful skyline on both sides. As I don’t now kayaking, it is great that REI offers classes and some training too. I would surely check kayaking by REI in Chicago.
Oh wow, I never knew you can do this in Chicago! Looks so cool! This is definitely a different approach to see the city life and be at the water at the same time. I have always looks at the river going through the city but never seen anyone there with the kayak. Next time I’m in town, I want to try this.
I absolutely love Kayaking, its one of my favorite activities when I’m abroad. I am a little bit jealous, It sure looked like you where having a great time! Kayaking could be a little tricky at first so it’s good that you went through some basic techniques.
I’m yet to head to the USA, and my list of things to do in USA keeps growing, You’re right, people outside of USA, like me, don’t know the abundance of nature in Chicago. As you said, I thought was only metro city. Super glad to know that you could even go kayaking in Chicago.
Thanks for the tip about starting the trip in the south branch of the river. Pretty interesting to know that there is a bathroom break in the tour. Its indeed amazing how quickly your guide responded when one of the kayakers lost balance.