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The Short Version: Janee Matteson had always loved sports and the outdoors, but her hometown of Morris, Illinois, located along several bodies of water, had few opportunities for getting out on the water in human-powered watercraft. So she launched Kayak Morris, a business that offers kayak rentals, two levels of guided tours, and affordable beach camping. The adventure company also offers glampouts, which provide a more luxurious camping experience for those who are new to the outdoors. Only an hour from Chicago, Kayak Morris is the perfect place for an adventurous daytime date or a nature-inspired overnight getaway.
Growing up in Morris, Illinois, Janee Matteson loved sports and the outdoors, but she was always surprised that her hometown, which has three waterways running through it, lacked any opportunities for kayaking or using other human-powered watercraft.
Janee studied sports medicine in college, and while she enjoyed helping people once she began working in the field, working inside all day quickly became dreary and unchallenging. So, in 2010, she had the idea to start Kayak Morris: A company to offer kayak rentals and guided tours.
“My hometown always had the nickname River City, but it was always used for pontoon boats and fishing boats,” she said. “It’s a working river, so we have commercial barge traffic as well, but never any human-powered watercraft.”
She changed that with the launch of Kayak Morris. And after a few years of success, she purchased a tract of land and added wooded, beachfront campgrounds — perfect for an overnight getaway for adventurous couples.
Kayak Morris is uniquely situated along three waterways: the Illinois River, the Mazon River, and the Illinois and Michigan Canal.
“The Mazon River is unique because it’s the only waterway where the state fossil — the tullimonstrum — is found,” Janee said. The river has many fossil beds, which are unusual for their quick formation. That means the beds preserved both hard and soft tissues, forming a distinct fossil form.
The Mazon also doesn’t allow power or motorized boat traffic since it’s so shallow, making it an excellent place to kayak.
The I&M Canal, which is accessible from the Kayak Morris site, is also a significant waterway since it opened in the 1800s and was the primary avenue for transporting goods before the damming of the Illinois River. Few kayaking businesses are lucky enough to be located near the convergence of several different waterways.
The campground is also on a unique plot of land; it’s a wooded beach, which is an unexpected sight in Illinois. Couples in the Chicago area may be surprised to find that just an hour away from the city — and even less from some of the suburbs — is a relaxing spot on a quiet beach that offers the opportunity to kayak through several rivers.
At Kayak Morris, you can rent a kayak to explore the surrounding area on your own — or with a special someone — or you can go on a guided tour. The company offers two types of tours, depending on your level of kayaking experience. One is the beginner tour, which is two hours long and ideal for those who have never kayaked before.
More advanced kayakers — or those who want an extended adventure — can choose one of the two premium tours, which last up to four hours. The Four Rivers Tour takes kayakers along the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the Dupage River, the Desplaines River, and the Illinois River with a stop for lunch. The other premium tour is the Starved Rock Tour, which takes adventurous singles or couples on a tour starting at the Starved Rock State Park.
The tour provides incredible views of canyons and more that can’t be seen by hiking. Each tour is led by a guide who is focused on both storytelling and your safety.
There are two options at Kayak Morris: single kayaks or tandem kayaks that hold up to three people. “The tandem kayaks are way more stable than a canoe; it’s almost impossible to tip over a tandem kayak,” Janee said.
As you move through the water, you’ll likely observe local wildlife, such as turtles bald eagles, great blue herons, great American pelicans, egrets, owls, kingfishers, and wild turkeys, said Janee.
In addition to fun on the water, Kayak Morris also has wooded beachfront campgrounds where you can pitch a tent and camp out before or after your kayaking adventures. No RV camping is allowed, but you can park your car very close to the tents.
“Our campgrounds are popular with families, couples, singles — anybody interested in outdoors,” Janee said. “We’re not a pull-off-the-highway-and-camp-for-the-night kind of place.”
Janee said that, when she first brought kayak rentals and educational tours to the area, demand for overnight accommodations followed quickly. “We were working with a lot of youth groups, especially scout groups, and they wanted to stay overnight,” she said. “The only place I could recommend was a state park in town that you’d have to park at and hike all your gear in about half a mile. A lot of groups didn’t want to do that. So I bought some land right on the river, and right next to another state park.”
She purchased the land for Kayak Morris in 2012 and slowly turned it into a campground over the next two years. She chose the plot for its proximity to several waterways and its sandy, wooded beach. “It gave groups a chance to stay overnight, and it also attracted customers from a larger geographic area,” Janee said. “They could not only kayak for the day, but they could also stay overnight and wouldn’t have to travel back to wherever they call home.”
Tent camp fees are only $8 per adult, making it an affordable getaway for couples. Showers are available at the Morris Community Swimming Pool just a mile away, and, if you forget anything, stores are just down the road.
If you’re looking to do more than just kayak and relax on the beach, other activities in the area include geocaching, hiking, biking, and fishing, Janee said.
Most of the people who come to Kayak Morris aren’t locals, Janee said, but are from the Chicagoland area. “We’re so easy to get to; people don’t have to go to Wisconsin or Michigan to have a small getaway. This is like a staycation,” she said.
Not everyone is into rugged outdoor camping, pitching tents, or making fireside meals themselves. That’s why Kayak Morris hosts unique 24-hour glampout — or glamorous campout — events as a fun and convenient alternative. “With glampouts, my mission is to get people outdoors who otherwise wouldn’t go outdoors,” Janee said.
For glampout events, the Kayak Morris staff puts up and takes down tents for guests, and they provide sleeping cushions to make the accommodations more comfortable. And the team places chairs for people to relax in, brings in wood, starts the campfires, and keeps them going.
Kayak Morris also serves a potluck dinner and screens a movie outside during glampouts, but you can also hang out by the campfires if you prefer to unplug from technology. In the morning, the staff serves breakfast with items like sausage, eggs, pancakes, fruit, pastries, and Starbucks coffee.
A two-hour guided beginner kayak tour is also included with a glampout package. There’s also plenty of time to hike, fish, read, or just relax. Janee said the package is great for a single person who doesn’t want to camp alone, or a couple or family who wants to enjoy the outdoors in more convenience, allowing them to focus on relaxation and fun rather than logistics.
Next on the horizon for Kayak Morris is opening a second location to bring even more offerings for outdoor-loving couples in the Midwest.