*Editor's note: This is the first in a series of interviews of paddlers by Tom Bamonte
Gary Mechanic joined the Chicago Area Sea Kayakers Association (CASKA) in the mid 1980's and became the club's second president. In the mid 1990's Gary led an effort to create a watertrail on Chicago's lakefront and river. The idea became the Chicago Lakefront Watertrail and the Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Trails Plan. He continues to work on developing watertrails through The Access Project of the Illinois Paddling Council (IPC). Gary is currently the President of the IPC. Eight years ago Gary invented the Chicago River Flatwater Classic and works as Race Director for the event sponsor, Friends of the Chicago River. He lives on the north shore of Bangs Lake in Wauconda with his wife, two stepchildren, four cats and ten or eleven boats.
Q: How did you find your way to kayaking?
A: I took a beat up 1st generation whitewater boat in trade for rent for a house I owned in South Haven and then had to learn how to paddle it.
Q: What advice do you have for novice paddlers?
A: Learn to paddle! Anyone can push water with a stick. Learn to do it right so you don't develop bad biomechanical habits and hurt your shoulders, wrists, back, and have to stop paddling after a decade or so as I've seen several of my original CASKA friends do.
Q: How has kayaking changed since you started?
A: When I first started kayaking in the 80's I was paddling whitewater, mostly on the Wolf River in Wisconsin and East Race in South Bend. Whitewater kayaking has evolved since then in boat design and how athletic the high end paddlers have gotten, but the recent and steady increase in whitewater parks has been the most encouraging development. Locally there are efforts to create whitewater parks on the Fox River in Aurora and on the Rock River in Rockford.
On the lake there were so few sea kayakers that when we went to the big city events (Third of July, Air & Water, Venetian Night, etc.) we'd paddle through the anchored boats and over and over hear power boaters tell us we're crazy. A few years later all we'd hear was "kayak...kayak...kayak" as we passed by startled boaters but not as many "you're crazy"s. Now sea kayakers are an accepted part of the lakefront scene. Once we started seeing kayaks in television commercials for everything from cars to insurance, sea kayaking itself lost some of its rare, on-the-edge, almost outlaw sport mystique. Now paddling's pretty middle of the road and there are more and more easy entry level boats instead of more and more high-end new designs.
Q: What are the challenges and opportunities facing the Chicago sea kayaking community?
A: The challenges remain the same...safe, legal, and adequate access to the entire Illinois shore, and maintaining the perception of the general public, Marine Police, Coast Guard and beach staff that kayaking on Lake Michigan can be done safely. The opportunities come and go but still on the table is the (slim) opportunity to create a Chicago Sea Kayaking Center at Northerly Island.
Q: What is your favorite paddling destinations locally and in the rest of the world?
A: Locally, aside from the zen expanse of the lake, I like the smaller tree shaded creeks like Salt Creek, the Little Calumet & parts of the DuPage and upper Des Plaines Rivers. In the rest of the world, I loved paddling in the 8 million year old caldura of Akaroa harbor in the Banks Penesula of New Zealand with penguins & the world's smallest and rarest dolphin, the Hectors Dolphin. It was like visiting paradise before the crowds of the world find it.
Q: What do you do in the non-paddling part of your life, if any?
A: I promote the Chicago Portage National Historic Site though an organization called Friends of the Chicago Portage that I started as an Illinois First grant as part of my job at the time. It’s the birth story of Chicago and most Chicagoan's have never heard of it.
Check out www.chicagoportage.org for more or catch the last free public tour of the season on Oct. 27th.
Q: What advice can you give someone who is having a tough time learning how to roll?
A: First make sure you really need to know how to roll. If you're only going out with friends who know how to do an assisted rescue and you will never, ever, ever, EVER! go out on Lake Michigan by yourself or at night, then you don't really need to know how to roll.
If you do want to go out by yourself, then don't stop trying to learn how to roll. It took me three days of lessons and three years of practice before I was confident I could roll. It took another three years before I noticed that I hardly ever had to do an unintentional wet exit anymore. Feels good to join that relatively small group of humans who are unsinkable in a small boat.
Q: What do you think will be the future of sea kayaking in this region?
A: Chicago should be and could be the center of paddlesport in the Midwest. It's always struck me as odd that the major midwest paddlesport events are located in relatively small towns where nearly everyone has to drive hundreds of miles to get to them. The Chicago Shoreline Marathon and the Flatwater Classic both have the potential to be much larger events. And if the Olympics come to our toddlin' town, we'll have a chance (15 minutes) to highlight our local paddling community, watertrails, and events to the world.
Q: What makes kayakers a unique breed?
A: I don't think kayakers per se are unique. The demographics of the whitewater kayakers are different from the sea kayakers and they're different from the newer "rec" boaters in fat boats without sprayskirts and sit-on-tops that are called kayaks. I also think it’s dangerous for any group to think of themselves as "unique," which all too easily slides into "better".
Particularly on our crowded and multi-use local waterways it is perhaps better to think about how we're all out there doing the same thing...just having some fun in a boat on the water. Perhaps kayakers share something with jetskiers and solo sailors in that we don't choose to "boat by committee" like canoers.
Q: What is the worst kayaking moment that you have had?
A: Towing a significant someone the last few miles of an open water crossing in the Apostles.
Q: What is the best kayaking moment that you have had?
A: Landing on the beach on Oak Island after towing that significant someone the last few miles of an open water crossing in the Apostles.
Q: What is the Illinois Paddling Council and what does it do?
A: The IPC serves to represent and advocate for the interests of Illinois paddlers. It promotes safe, legal and adequate access through the Access Project. It recognizes and rewards excellence in paddling by sanctioning races throughout the state and presenting an annual "Paddler of the Year" award. It promotes stewardship and conservation through the new Illinois Water TrailKeepers project. It promotes safety in paddlesports and sponsors a season "Kick-off" and "Ender" trips to highlight local watertrails and support local efforts to create paddlesport facilities such as whitewater parks in Aurora and Rockford.
Q: There are plenty of paddling groups--e.g., CASKA, Prairie Coast Paddlers, Prairie State Paddlers--what role does the IPC play in this multiple group environment?
A: The IPC is the single statewide organization that takes as its mission promoting access, conservation, competition and safety. The IPC coordinates events that bring paddling clubs together like the Kickoff and Ender and the Water Trail Blitz. In the past the IPC coordinated paddler's participation in the Illinois Conservation Congress and sponsored Paddle in the Park. The IPC also sanctions races throughout the state so that racers can compete nationally. Currently the IPC is organizing a larger coalition of paddlesport business owners and providers (such as park, conservation and forest preserve districts that own sites and/or run paddling programs) to work together to make Illinois a more paddler friendly state.
Q: What are the biggest obstacles to paddling in Illinois?
A: There are no more obstacles to paddling in Illinois than there are elsewhere. There are obstacles to creating safe and legal public watertrails on non-navigable (private) rivers but that doesn't stop people from paddling on them. It just stops paddlesport (and other) businesses from developing near a recreational resource and adding to the tax base of a county. The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association and the Illinois Farm Bureau have put up obstacles to public recreation in a state that ranks 49th out of 50 in recreation opportunities per capita and obstacles to local economic development in a state that is broke and losing its family farmers and major industries.
Q: How can individual paddlers help improve the paddling environment in Illinois?
A: Join and support a paddling club. Support the IPC. Participate in the annual Water Trail Blitz. Volunteer to help out with a river clean-up or join the IPC's Water TrailKeepers. Subscribe to paddling magazines and join a local paddling listserve to be aware of local and national issues and efforts.
Q: The Chicago Water Trail was a real achievement. What is the current state of the water trail movement in Illinois?
A: The Access Project has spread to Northwestern Illinois where local paddlers have instigated site improvements and watertrails on the Pecatonica River and Yellow Creek in Freeport. Under the current administration and state fiscal situation paddlers are unlikely to get much from the state but local governments in northeastern Illinois have been slowly implementing the recommendations of the Regional Water Trails Plan. DuPage County just approved $150,000 for three new launchsites on Salt Creek and even poor Cook County recently made improvements on the Des Plaines and added a new (and much needed) launchsite at Irving Park Road. One goal for the future is to get IDNR to create a State Water Trails Plan.
Q: The paddling population seems relatively old. How do you foresee the paddling community changing
over the next 20 years?
A: The sea kayaking community is relatively old. Whitewater kayakers are generally younger and canoers are both older and younger than sea kayakers. When I watch the larger paddling population launch at the Des Plaines Marathon and the Flatwater Classic I see a much more diverse population in terms of race and age than I see in the paddling clubs membership.
So I don't know how the paddling community will change but I hope it becomes larger, more integrated in terms of working together on projects and events, more politically powerful and more demographically diverse.
Q: What needs to happen to double the population of paddlers in Illinois?
A: Sea levels need to rise about 700 feet.