As a family with two teenagers whose social lives hampered by the pandemic, we sought new activities that would get us out and about in a safe sort of way. Usually, that meant exploring the natural settings we have here in Champaign County, and eventually it led us to a spontaneous pandemic purchase of inflatable kayaks. We have some lovely lakes and waterways around here, where natural beauty and wildlife abound. However, with all of this water waiting to be explored, there were no kayak rentals or kayaking experiences to be had; Kickapoo State Park in Vermillion County being the closest opportunity. 


Enter Kingfisher Kayaking. Co-founded by James Krehbiel, Joe Krehbiel, and Ben Thompson, they've brought kayaking opportunities and an appreciation for the outdoors and the wildlife that exists there. 

Smile Politely: What is Kingfisher Kayaking?

Ben Thompson: We are a new non-profit that provides kayak rentals along with occasional tours in East Central Illinois. To make the kayaking experience more accessible to the public, we provide the option to shuttle from designated locations in Champaign-Urbana to the start of the trip.

We currently have two routes you can book on the Salt Fork or Sangamon Rivers.

SP: What inspired you to launch a kayaking business?

Thompson: There were whispers, or chirps, that you could kayak in Champaign County. Though none of us believed it until we bought our first kayaks five years ago and started on the Saline Branch in Crystal Lake Park. We slowly added to our fleet as more friends and family requested to kayak with us and we realized how much we enjoyed showing them the local rivers. Most of them either thought that they couldn’t kayak in Champaign County or that it was an extreme sport with raging rapids. We have taken pleasure in dispelling these misconceptions and changing their minds, just as our minds had been changed five years ago.

SP: Why was it important for it to be a non-profit, rather than a typical rental service?

Thompson: As natives of Urbana, we feel a deep-rooted connection to this community and the health of the rivers. Being a non-profit allows us to make more of an impact by more actively engaging community members through volunteering, donating, or becoming board members to further our mission.

A man in an orange life vest is sitting in a light blue kayak. The kayak is floating on a river, lined with bare branched trees. He is looking through binoculars. Photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.Photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.

SP: What can someone expect on one of your guided trips?

Thompson: They can expect either two or four hour paddles on smooth, lightly flowing rivers with gentle curves. Guides will be there to answer any questions about the river and to ensure the safety of kayakers. Typically, you will see a wide variety of songbirds, waterfowl, owls, turtles, dragonflies, and fish. Majestic trees also tower over the river’s edge with their exposed gnarled roots. Though there are times while kayaking that the sight can be especially wondrous. Bald eagles soar above, beavers swim ahead flapping their tails, and blue herons wade in the river stalking their fish. There are few places in Champaign County where you can experience such a diversity of wildlife. We hope that kayakers will realize how easy and fun the sport of kayaking truly is as well.

A bald eagle is perched on a tall, thin, vertical branch. The sky is bright blue. Photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.Photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.

SP: Your mission statement mentions other conservation-related programming. What do you hope to provide in the future?  

Thompson: We hope to spread awareness of the rivers in Champaign County. We are also planning river clean ups and float trips with our friends from the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy and Prairie Rivers Network and hope to coordinate more events with them in the future.

A black and white bird with it's beak open is perched on a branch. Photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.Photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.

SP: And the name? It's a bird we've heard a bit about in recent months. What made you decide to choose it for your branding?

Thompson: As the kingfisher is being considered as the new mascot, we’ve heard many in the community ask questions about the bird and where it can be found. In fact, the kingfisher was a bird that we seldom saw before we started kayaking too. Now, we see them nearly every time we kayak so they’re a bird that we associate with the river. They’re also uniquely beautiful birds that are expert divers. One of our favorite sights on the river is watching the kingfisher hovering, then plunging headfirst into the water to swiftly emerge with a fish clamped to its beak. You will just have to come kayak and see it to believe it!

Kingfisher Kayaking offers both beginner and intermediate routes. Find out more about how to book a kayaking trip or guided tour by visiting their website.

 Top photo provided by Kingfisher Kayaking.