As she hauled her ice-encrusted kayak from the North Branch of the Chicago River, Mo Stenger was asked why she woke up early and spent the first morning of 2011 paddling down a stretch of urban waterway just warm enough to remain fluid.
"Why not?" asked Stenger, of Chicago.
To wit, reasons why not could include the specter of hypothermia, a hangover or the stinging north wind, but hundreds of canoeists and kayakers have found peace and wintery beauty on the river each of the last 26 New Year's Days, said Ralph Frese, 84, the founder of the annual paddle.
Though his legs aren't what they once were, Frese joined about 200 others who made the trip, estimated at five to six miles, from the dam at Willow Road near the Winnetka-Northfield border to Linne Woods inMorton Grove.
The annual rite grew out of a "crazy idea" involving four people, and Frese, his broad ears frozen bright red to match his knit cap, said he plans to continue "as long as the good Lord will allow." Though the event is about camaraderie, Frese said the paddle is also designed to stoke awareness and concern for a waterway he calls "my river."
"It's a beautiful resource," he said.
Participants ranged from wetsuit-clad weekend warriors in nimble kayaks to a heavily bundled Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who took the stern of a canoe. County Commissioner Larry Suffredin wandered the launch point, calling out to everyone he encountered, "Happy canoe year!"
As Melissa Cornelius, of Evanston, prepared to step into a 1949 Willits Brothers canoe recently restored and varnished to a high shine by her husband, Brad, she said they were mentally prepared for a potential icy dip on their new vessel's maiden voyage. She said these "crazy adventures" make their marriage stronger, though she admitted the endeavor might not appeal to everyone.
"We're a crazy bunch," she said.
Another bunch of people celebrated the new year by swimming in Lake Michigan.
Members of the Chicago Polar Bear Club welcomed 2011 by taking a dip at North Avenue Beach.