Kayaking Chicago’s Shores: Look at Me, What I do is Fun

By Mary Fairchild 


(Hether Hoffmann posing for photography students at Montrose Beach)

Instead of top paddlers saying, look at me, I am the future, I am cool, pay me.  They’ll be saying, Look at me, what I do is fun, and I will share my experiences with you and help you learn to do what I do too.  Eric Jackson

The Chicago shoreline is open to photographers, kayakers, and other responsible individuals who want to enjoy the lake.  The Illinois shore of Lake Michigan stretches sixty-eight miles, from the Indiana border, at Calumet Park, on the south side of Chicago, to the Wisconsin border, north of Winthrop Harbour, in Lake County. In northern Cook County and in southern Lake County, the beaches narrow and give way to high wooded bluffs and a few suburban parks.  North of the industrial area of Waukegan, on the north side of Waukegan Harbor, you will find more sand beaches as well as the Illinois Beach State Park.

(Denise, Gary, Hether)

Denise, Gary, Hether, and I headed north from Montrose Beach to Leone Beach on May 8th.  The route is approximately 4 miles long.  The water temperature was around 40 degrees and the air was in the low 60s.  It’s a hard call on the clothing when the water is so cold, but if the temperature is above 50 degrees I usually do not wear my dry suit because it is too hot.  The wet suit and dry top are more comfortable unless I plan to get wet a lot.

We did get wet just from the surf splashing at us as we took off.  When we stopped at Leone Beach we all put gloves and hats on and I changed out my shirt and put a heavier dry top on.  After a bite to eat and getting back in the boats we were all hot once again as we began our paddle back.


(Gary Steinbauer)

I first met Hether Hoffmann in the UIC pool (another link here) the week prior to her leading our trip from Montrose Beach.  Tom Bamonte had reminded Gary and I that they still had open pool through the month of May.  I had been going to the Geneva Kayak pool sessions closer to my home but they had already ended so I decided it was worth the drive to catch a few more practice nights in the warm pool water.  Although I had rented a boat, I ended up having a lot of fun and spending more time on one of the SUP boards instead that night.

I began to paddle near Tom Bamonte who looked like he had reached his “high Yang”—twisting around in his kayak—re-entering, rolling…at that moment without a paddle, non-the-less.  Ironically, he looked up and questioned ME with, “Mary, do YOU like a lot of attention!”  Like who was intimidating whom?  … just kidding!  I’ve been reading and admiring Tom’s kayaking adventures for quite awhile now with CASKA and it has been fun to finally join him on the water this year.

(Gary Steinbauer, Tom Bamonte—North Avenue Beach, May 1st.)

On May 1st, I met Tom Bamonte and Gary Steinbauer at Montrose Harbor.  I was able to park for free right on the street by the put-in.  After Memorial Day weekend I’m sure this will not be so easy to do.  North of the city, many suburbs control parking by charging high daily parking fees for non-residents.

Tom asked Gary and I if we had anything in particular we wanted to do and we both agreed we just wanted to “get comfortable” in the area.  Gary was trying out his new dry suit for comfort and I looked around and noted the two entrance buoys and expressed my concern for future boat traffic and possible hazards in the area to watch for.  Generally speaking, green markers are kept to the right when “leaving the harbor” and red markers are kept on the right when “returning to the harbor” (Red, Right, Returning).


(Montrose Harbor buoys)

Coincidentally, as we headed south near the next harbor a motorboat came peeling out without warning.  It gave way to us looking back toward the harbors at the red and green lights as a clue that boats may be exiting there in the future.

Acaska6 Parking for both the beach and harbor put-ins are in the same area.  Gary and I liked the harbor because it was easy enough to unload your boat and get right in the water from the dock for us whereas the beach had a longer hike and a lot of sand to contend with on your boat and equipment.

Beaches are off limits to kayakers from Memorial Day to Labor Day with a few exceptions where kayakers can use small portions of some beaches designated as part of the Lake Michigan Water Trail.  During this time, the beach locations have additional buoys in the water to designate the approved “access path” out to the Lake Michigan Water Trail.


At the end of our trip we practiced some rescues in the harbor.  It is recommended that all kayakers should practice self- and assisted rescue techniques until they are routine.  I’ll have to admit, too often I just forget what I learned because I never do it again.  Just getting used to tying down my kayak on my car was a big ordeal for me until I did it at least 4 or 5 times repeatedly within a few months.  The Illinois Paddling Council recommends that you do some practice tests to check your choice of clothing for immersion, self-rescue and assisted skills at the end of your paddle, then, capsizing purposefully in the middle of your paddle and eventually in turbulent water as your skill improves.

In 2009, the Chicago Park District designated surfing to be allowed in-season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, at Montrose Beach, 4400 N. Lake Shore Drive, and 57thStreet Beach, 5700 South and the lake, only. During the off-season, from Labor Day until Memorial Day, surfing is allowed at 7600 South and the lake, Montrose, and 57thstreets.

I joined CASKA a couple of years ago. Saturday morning paddles in the company of experienced CASKA sea kayakers opened the door to the treasure that is Lake Michigan.  Haris Sabacius

Portage, IN:  On the positive side, Lake Michigan is a masterpiece of engineering for all levels of rough water aspirants. We have soft sand beaches on 90% of our shores. Landing on these is much more forgiving than the rocks of Lake Superior, for example. Second, the depths approach most of our shorelines with smooth and gradual slopes. That is to say that big waves break far from shore and the on-shore breaks are usually very manageable no matter what goes on the open water. Lakefront Park in Portage is a beautiful site for paddlers. It’s part of the Lake Michigan Water Trail and I would call it a jewel in the collection of the existing launch sites. Several features of this spot made it particularly suitable for the day. First, the gradient of bottom descent at this location is especially shallow. More experienced paddlers may not like this very much but the surf zone is very long. The good thing for newer rough water enthusiasts is several breaks as the waves unleash the power of wind on the way to the shore.  Haris Sabacius

It is hard for me to settle on just one thing.  I really like variety and so my progression may not be as quick as others in that respect.  A year ago I was more into rock climbing trips and snowboarding with the family and I did not kayak much at all.  This year, I could very easily run off and buy an SUP board and whitewater kayak if timing and the budget allows it…..  For me, it just always has to be fun.

…..Look at me, what I do is fun, and I will share my experiences with you and help you learn to do what I do too.  Eric Jackson



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.