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CLEVELAND, Ill. — The mission was clear: Hold on to your hats and hug the opposite shoreline to use the trees as cover from the blustery conditions.

That was the strategy prescribed last Sunday by Carlos Barreto, a water sports enthusiast, who runs a new kayak rental and river tour company in the Quad-Cities. But wind-whipped waves made paddling across the main channel of the Rock River much more daunting of a task than normal.

Traveling downriver from the Cleveland Boat Ramp toward Interstate 80, headwinds as strong as 30 mph significantly slowed our group of three-dozen — mostly novice — kayakers from as far away as Donahue, Iowa, and Rock Falls, Illinois. Forceful gusts stopped some paddlers in their tracks and spun others sideways.

The river usually is not as rough, Barreto said. We were heading to a much calmer and canopied stretch of backwater he dubbed, “The Amazon,” seemingly away from civilization.

'We rent an adventure'

Although Barreto has just three years of kayaking under his belt, the former competitive barefoot water skier has explored area waterways, including the Mississippi River, for more than 25 years. And safety is his priority.

Anyone who rents one of his kayaks must wear a life jacket at all times, he said. If you message him via Facebook (Quad-Cities Kayakers Group) to reserve a spot on one of his frequent trips, Barreto will charge $25 per boat. He and his wife, Shelly, along with their crew of volunteers, transport their fleet of kayaks to the starting point and lead groups the rest of the way.

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Carlos Barreto

Carlos Barreto, of Colona, founder of the Quad-Cities Kayakers Group, prepares to load kayaks onto vehicles last Sunday at Timbrook Field Boat Ramp in Colona after a trip on the Rock River. 

People who bring their own boats may tag along for free.

Barreto also gives waterskiing, wakeboarding, wakeskating and wakesurfing lessons under the entity, Barefoot Plus Watersports. When he retired early last year from Kone Elevators & Escalators, he noticed kayaking was exploding in popularity among baby boomers and there was a need for an outfitter that provided rentals and tours. The result is his second water tourism business, officially called Quad-Cities Kayak River Adventures.

While the new venture supplements his income, Barreto said he wants to keep it accessible and affordable for people. He enjoys sharing the “wild side of the Quad-Cities” — barely discovered and beautiful public places — many people likely do not know exist.

“We don’t just rent a kayak,” Barreto said. “We rent an adventure.”

Nothing beats good company

As the front of the pack closed in on “The Amazon,” he waited for everyone to catch up, congratulating folks for making it through the most challenging part of the 6.5-mile, two-hour voyage.

“Good job, everybody” he shouted. “That was the hardest wind we’ve been through all year; now it’s going to be all fun and games.”

As the breeze died down on the secondary channel of the Rock River, paddlers socialized as they navigated the meandering water trail, guided by a gentle current.

“Are you impressed?” Linda Cady, of Colona, asked as I drifted alongside her. “We build it (“The Amazon”) up a lot.”

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Kayaking "The Amazon"

Approaching an overhanging tree on a backwater stretch of the Rock River referred to as "The Amazon" by members of the Quad-Cities Kayakers Group. 

Cady, who is “damn sure” she is the oldest member of the Quad-Cities Kayakers Group at 74, picked up paddling when she lost her husband a little more than a year ago. It keeps her active and helps her meet new people with similar interests.

“I’d rather be outdoors than in the house any day,” Cady said as she listened to classic rock on a portable radio affixed to her boat. “As long as I can keep up, I’m gonna go.”

A GoPro camera and a faux amphibian named “Prince” were fastened to a boat captained by Lisa Leibold, of Davenport. She mainly goes fishing off her bright green kayak, which is festooned with quirky fishing-related stickers, but she appreciates leisurely paddles, too, especially with this team.

“Everybody is so friendly,” Leibold said, commending Barreto for his direction. “It’s all about having fun on the water and being safe; we help each other out.”

Charmaine Sibley can attest to that.

“Even when I got stuck, they helped me turn around,” said Sibley, a recent East Moline transplant from Chicago. “That says a lot about this group; they’re super sweet.”

She wants to convince her husband, a computer programmer, to join her on the next trip. “If I get him out here,” she said, “he’ll enjoy it.”

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Quad-Cities Kayakers Group

A kayaking couple rests their paddles as they float toward a railroad bridge along "The Amazon" of the Rock River on the border of Henry and Rock Island counties. 

All are welcome

Aside from a few makeshift tents scattered along the shoreline, the biggest landmark on “The Amazon” is an active railroad bridge. The tracks cross Barstow Road to the north.

The scenery changes depending on the height of the water, but it always feels like a little oasis of serenity, said Barreto, who enjoys sitting back in his kayak and listening to singing birds.

After reentering the main channel of the Rock, we passed under another railroad bridge and Illinois 84 in Colona. Around the next bend, TPC Deere Run, home of the John Deere Classic professional golf tournament, marked the end of our course.

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Quad-Cities Kayakers Group

Dozens of kayakers rest before loading their boats into vehicles last Sunday at Timbrook Field Boat Ramp in Colona after a trip on the Rock River. 

One by one, paddlers arrived at Timbrook Field Boat Ramp, near where the Green River and the Hennepin Canal feed into the Rock River. Participants helped each other carry their boats ashore and shuttle back to their vehicles at the starting point in Cleveland. 

The Quad-Cities Kayakers Group is doing it all over again this Sunday.

“Come anytime,” Cady said. “You’re welcome.”

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Jack Cullen covers health, wellness and outdoor recreation for the Quad-City Times.