Get your paddle on

The preserves offer excellent canoeing and kayaking opportunities on our local waterways 

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |


If you’ve hiked the trails and biked the paths that traverse Will County, it may be time to see the preserves from a different perspective by taking a trip on the water.

The Forest Preserve District of Will County’s preserves include a variety waterways, and many of these are perfect for canoeing and kayaking.

Below is information about paddling in the preserves, including some tips and tricks from our resident kayaking experts. 

Where to go

A kayaker out on the water.

Several of the Forest Preserve District’s preserves offer excellent canoeing and kayaking opportunities.

Paddling is available at four of the District’s fishing lakes: Lake Chaminwood in Minooka, Monee Reservoir in Monee Township, Rock Run Rookery Preserve in Joliet and Whalon Lake in Naperville.

For river access, paddlers can use the canoe/kayak launches at several preserves:

  • Hammel Woods – DuPage River Access, Shorewood: DuPage River
  • Hammel Woods – Route 59 Access, Shorewood: DuPage River
  • Isle a la Cache, Romeoville: Des Plaines River
  • McKinley Woods – Frederick’s Grove, Channahon: Des Plaines River and I&M Canal
  • McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove, Channahon: DuPage River
  • Riverview Farmstead Preserve, Naperville: DuPage River

The Forest Preserve District’s boat launches close for the season on October 31 each year. The District allows canoes and kayaks to be launched on preserve property at any of the above listed preserves at any time during the year as long as there is no ice on the water. Launching kayaks and canoes is prohibited when ice is present.


Getting started

Two empty kayaks on the water.

Canoeing or kayaking is a great way to explore our natural areas while practicing your paddling skills.

If you’ve never been paddling before, don’t be intimidated. Plenty of great resources are available to help you prepare for your first trip out on the water.

For starters, the Forest Preserve District offers many paddling programs throughout the summer season, including both beginner and intermediate level offerings. For a complete list and description of the paddling programs available, visit the District’s event calendar.

You can also check out videos online which show how to get in and out of your canoe or kayak and some of the basic paddling strokes. One good resource is the American Canoe Association’s YouTube channel, said Sara Russell, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District.

Russell suggested that beginners stick to the basics before heading out on the water for the first time.

“Don’t go down the rabbit hole before you ever get on the water,” she said. “Just check out the proper way to hold your paddle, how to sit in the kayak and the basic forward stroke. There are some simple tips that make you a much better paddler, and then you don’t have to unlearn any bad habits.”

Good technique can be a boon to your paddling experience, she explained.

“Everyone can get from Point A to Point B, but not everyone does it efficiently,” Russell said. “Your paddling experience can be so much more enjoyable with proper technique.”

Paddling for exercise

Two kayakers in a tandem kayak.

Even a leisurely paddle will give you a good workout.

Spending time in the great outdoors is good for your mental and physical health, and paddling is a great opportunity to get in a workout while also enjoying nature. 

A 170-pound person can burn more than 230 calories during 30 minutes of kayaking, Water Safety Magazine reports. Paddling also strengthens and tones your upper body muscles, including your shoulders, abs and chest, as well as your core muscles.

“All kayaking is exercise,” said Erin Ward, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District.
If you’re looking for a good paddling workout, Ward suggested checking out Whalon Lake, because it tends to be the windiest of the Forest Preserve District’s lakes. Rivers, too, can be a good workout when going upstream.

Rivers are a breeze to paddle when going downstream because the water’s natural flow carries you down river. Paddling upstream is a different story — you’ll have to paddle hard to move against the current.

“If you put in and go upstream to start and then float back down, it’s a great workout,” Russell said. 
Paddling upstream for a workout to start and then turning around to head back to your launch point also avoids the necessity of coordinating cars at your launch and end points if you don’t get in and out at the same place.

One good spot for upstream paddling is the launch at Isle a la Cache, Russell said.

“It gives you a workout right away because you have to go under the 135th Street bridge,” she said. “The Des Plaines River is constricted there and you have to paddle fast and furious to get through. Just be careful and concentrate so you don’t capsize.”

Enjoying the view

Two kayakers in a tandem kayak looking at a swan.

Bird-watching opportunities are great at just about every preserve that offers paddling.

Paddling is a great way to enjoy nature and see the preserves from a different perspective. You can explore all the nooks and crannies and see parts of the preserves you would never be able to from land, Ward said. 

All the preserves that offer kayaking and canoeing are good places to see wildlife in and along the water, Ward said. 

“I’ve seen beavers and kingfishers at Lake Chaminwood, and beautiful snakes, as well as egrets, eagles and great blue herons at Rock Run Rookery. On the I&M Canal access at McKinley Woods – Frederick’s Grove, I’ve seen lots of species of turtles, hummingbirds in their nests, green herons and eagles,” Ward said.

Pelicans are a big draw at McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove each spring and fall as they pass through on their migratory journeys, and these, too, can be seen from the water at the preserve, along with eagles, wood ducks, egrets and herons. 

At Lake Chaminwood, the water is so clear you can see all the way to the bottom at many parts of the lake, giving a great view of all the aquatic life, Russell said.

“The last time I was in, I saw this great fish, clear as day, going about its business at least 6 feet below me,” she said. 

Bird-watching opportunities are great at just about every preserve that offers paddling, and each offer their own species to see and admire. Both Russell and Ward have even seen loons at Whalon Lake, a good find because loons are not a common sight at the preserve. 

“Truly, I think if there’s water, it’s worth checking out the preserve from a kayak,” Russell said. “You just see wildlife from a different perspective, and you’re more likely to get close to a heron or egret from a kayak.”
Plus, the diversity of wildlife you see on the water can be incredible.

“I’ve seen lots of snakes, turtles, frogs and all kinds of dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies and water birds, even muskrats from Isle a la Cache’s launch,” Russell said.

One note of caution: Do not touch or interfere with the wildlife. It’s meant to be seen at a distance. If a bird or other animal is responding to your presence, you are too close. 

Be prepared and be safe

A life jacket laying on a wooden surface.

Always wear a personal flotation device at all times when you are on the water.

The No. 1 safety precaution to take on the water: Wear a personal flotation device at all times. The Forest Preserve District requires people who rent kayaks and canoes at Monee Reservoir to wear a personal flotation device, or PFD. People participating in District-sponsored programs also must wear PFDs, and all children younger than 13 must wear them at all times when on the water.

“Always, always, always wear your PFD,” Ward said. “Anything can happen out there. You could be the best swimmer in the world, but if you hit your head or hurt yourself it could be very hard to swim. PFDs save lives.”

If you spend a lot of time on the water or find the bulky fit of a PFD to be uncomfortable or hindering your movement, look for one that fits well and is designed with activity in mind, Russell said.

“There are some really great options made for kayakers that allow for great range of motion and aren’t as hot,” she said. “Invest in a good, comfortable one if that is an issue for you.”

And it’s always a good idea to tell someone your plans before you leave, including when you will return, Ward said. Before you head out on the water, you can check water levels on the National Weather Service’s webpage monitoring flooding and water levels. Also, check the weather forecast beforehand to ensure storms aren’t moving in. Once out on the water, keep an eye on the sky, making sure storms don’t appear to be forming. 

“Weather can be very unpredictable on hot and humid days,” she said.

It’s also important to make sure you are prepared for the sun. Wear sunscreen as well as sunglasses and a hat, Russell suggested. Sunscreen should be reapplied every 90 minutes. 

Dress to get wet, and dress for submersion, Ward advised. Remember that the water may be colder than expected, especially early in the season when the temperatures are warm but the water has not yet begun to warm up.

“The water will be colder than you think,” Ward said. “You need to be aware of the risks and don’t paddle during those times unless you have proper paddling attire such as a dry suit.”

Later in the season, during the height of summer, make sure to wear breathable, fast-drying clothes that will help keep you cool and also dry quickly if you get wet.

Make sure to wear shoes or sandals with thick soles that won’t fall off while getting in and out. “No one wants a fishing hook in their foot,” Russell said. 

And bring water to stay hydrated, but skip alcohol while paddling, Ward advises. 

As always, be courteous to others on and around the water, including anglers and other boaters, and pay attention to your surroundings.

Kayak and canoe rentals and launch passes

Aerial view of two kayakers out on the water.

Don't have a canoe or kayak? Then rent one for the day.

The Forest Preserve District offers kayak and canoe rentals on a first-come, first-served basis at Monee Reservoir from May 1 to September 30. Rentals include PFDs, oars and paddles. Kayak rentals are available at Whalon Lake through The Forge.

Launch passes are required at Monee Reservoir for people who bring their own canoes and kayaks. Both seasonal and daily launch passes are available. 

For more information, visit the canoeing/kayaking page on the District website.


(Photos Chad Merda and Shutterstock)

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