BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
With beaches closed and lakefront paths blocked, some 40,000 Chicagoans found a way to get on Lake Michigan this year thanks to Urban Kayaks, which offered pandemic-safe adventures from two locations, the Chicago Riverwalk and Monroe Harbor. As we salute solutions to COVID-19 challenges, we congratulate them on doubling their participants this past summer, offering adventures to stir-crazy individuals, families, and even their dogs who took to our waterways in lime-colored kayaks, free in the fresh air.
We couldn’t help but think of the intrepid Pere Marquette and fellow voyageur Louis Joliet, who canoed into what was to become Chicago, passing right by the future location of Urban Kayaks. They would be raising their paddles in salute to this team who, like themselves, just kept going.
Urban Kayaks co-owner James Morro’s own kayak adventures have taken him from the rapids of New Zealand to Colorado’s white waters. On a recent tour of their facility he explained, “Despite seasonality, I always wanted to make the outdoors my office. When the City gave us the green light to open June 14, we were expecting not-so-great a season, but it has been the best year ever.”
“Kayaking is an excellent low impact fitness option for people of all ages. This summer one of our members who is 63 lost 40 pounds kayaking,” Morro added.
Morro and partners, brothers Aaron and Asher Gershenzon, got their city venders license in 2011. All Chicago natives, they will be working on an all-new look for their Riverwalk location through the winter: “As we close for the season on October 18, we are planning for a taco restaurant, with margaritas and beer, to open in 2021. We have a great chef and want to offer something where you do not have to spend $20 to get something.”
Watching as single and two-person kayaks entered the water on a smooth launching device, we were impressed by the numbers and the enthusiasm of the staff that was there to help. Signage described sundown and architectural tours of the city from its river canyon. Kayak classes, including those for kids 10-16, and rentals are also a big part of their business.
The Monroe Harbor location, where conditions are considered calmer than on the river, encourages beginners. Renters receive a skills assessment and beginner kayakers are encouraged to paddle a tandem kayak with a more experienced partner. This location is also tailor-made for its other popular offering: paddle boarding (which also provide for a fun, floating yoga opportunity!).
“We were able to offer an opportunity to socialize safely—we’ve got enough space and it is great exercise,” Morro said. “The Chicago River is a very busy waterway and since there were fewer tour boats, it was a particularly pleasing season. On the lake, we had kayakers and paddle boards in use almost daily and customers often made their way across to the Shedd Aquarium. We were open seven days a week and we rarely had to close.”
As they launch, kayakers frequently look up to see the soon-to-be-completed Vista Tower looming behind the lime green kiosks of Urban Kayaks. The Tower, a 101-story skyscraper of luxury condominiums created by Chicago’s Jeanne Gang will feature a passageway to the Riverwalk. Surely many of its residents will discover kayaking.
For our 2020 voyagers, we salute your finding a way to enjoy our waterways!