The fat and gray of the winter doldrums have settled in. Despite ambitious resolutions and dubious gym memberships, a body needs the outdoors, the crisp air, the chapped skin, the smell of the city, to revive a dull attitude.
Try out these favorite outdoor activities, as well as a few untraditional adventures that complement winter madness. Though recent winters haven't been too bad, there's always February.
Runner's groups Runners are an odd group, so it should be no surprise that there are weekly "fun" runs throughout the wintertime. Fleet Feet Chicago sponsors free, three- to six-mile runs from any of its three Chicagoland locations. All levels are welcome on the 6:30 p.m. Monday night runs/walks, ladies-only runs take off at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays from the Piper's Alley location and on Wednesday from the Lincoln Square location. Damn the slush and snow: these friendly groups run along the Illinois Prairie Path in Elmhurst; along the North Branch River Trail that separates Albany Park and Lincoln Square; and on the lakefront path from the Piper's Alley location. Regular Saturday morning runs are scheduled as well. Other running associations, with nominal membership fees, meet year-round in Chicago.
Water fun Winter's effect on the psyche is most evident in the gaggle of good-timers that make up the Chicago area's Polar Bear Clubs. The 8th Annual Polar Bear Club New Year's Day Swim meets at North Avenue Beach before noon to pose for photos and disrobe for Lake Michigan. Participants, a growing number of fiends who meet once a year, follow two rules: no nudity and you must be submerged in Lake Michigan before dashing out. Spectators and newcomers are welcomed and encouraged. If you miss it or need another dose of clubbing it in the Lake, The Lake View Polar Bear Club usually meets at the end of February for its Celebration of Shrinkage, which raises money for a destitute area family.
New Year's canoe and kayak If the notion of shrinkage scares you, try canoeing or kayaking the North Branch of the Chicago River on New Year's Day. Ralph Freese, paddlesport enthusiast and owner of Chicagoland Canoe Base, captains the 21st annual New Year's Day float, which starts at the Willow Road Dam at Skokie Lagoons. Flanked by woods alive with waterfowl, this placid, scenic paddle on one of the area's most overlooked recreational opportunities instills wonder and calm. It seems unlikely that it's the same river as downtown. Car pools and buses are available to and from the 6.5-mile course, which ends at Linne Woods in Morton Grove.
Ice skating Chicago Park District placed nine full-service ice skating rinks throughout the city. At Warren Park, 6601 N. Western Ave., pick-up hockey games are known to break out in the less-crowded later hours. A nearby sled hill draws plenty of families during the peak hours. McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park is the place see and be seen, where talented skaters practice axles in the center area and the less talented stumble-skate under the skyline off Michigan Avenue. Sure, it's a Rockefeller Center rip-off, but that's what makes us the second city. All CPD ice skating rinks are free! Skate rentals are available for $5 ($7 at Millennium Park) and each rink has warming stations and bathroom facilities.
Biking Bike Winter hosts several events and workshops to promote biking as a year-round, urban activity. Its ideology is simple: a bike in motion stays in motion and a bike in the basement stays in the basement. Bike Winter is all about the joy of biking, especially in the snow. At two inches or more of snowfall, bikers meet at the sled hill by Soldier Field, usually at 7 p.m., to ride and slide to a random destination. Bike Winter, a tongue-in-cheek response to the national Bike Summer events, started in Chicago and has now spread to Madison, Milwaukee and Ann Arbor. It is more of a community than a club; there is no membership other than your participation in any of the 30+ events planned for this winter.
Sledding Sledding can be a difficult recreation to carry out in the city limits. More than once I've been burned by the illusion of a hill, the lure of a thick snowfall, and the reality that the only downhill sensation I would get would be by rolling (note: don't bother sledding Cricket Hill at Montrose Harbor). As if in response to the numerous sledding hills in the suburbs, the Soldier Field renovation included the Sledding Hill in the south end zone, which claims to have a vertical drop of 23 feet and keeps a snow machine on the premises. Parking is available and the family friendly Polar Adventure Days is a short walk from the Sledding Hill. Other designated Chicago sledding hills can be found at Indian Road Woods, Dan Ryan Woods, the Jensen Slides area and the aforementioned Warren Park.