From afar, people on paddle boards look almost like gondoliers, only in swimsuits instead of striped outfits, and minus the singing.
But from a wobbly stance on top of one, you feel like you are engaged in an exhilarating cross between surfing, kayaking and working with a stability ball.
The lake glistens in the sun. You are standing on the water, paddling atop the lake and making feverish plans to come back and do this again.
Stand up paddle boarding, known as SUP, has in recent years become a fine addition to Chicago's lakefront recreation menu.
It's a simple concept, said Andrew Leary, lead guide at The Northwest Passage, which offers SUP at Gillson Park in Wilmette:
"Essentially you're standing on top of this very buoyant board in the water and you have an elongated canoe paddle ... and you're paddling around switching from right to left," he said.
If there are waves, you can also surf, sort of. "These are boards are oversized surfboards which can be surfed in the right wave height," he said.
Along with the fun, you get a full-body workout, with special attention to core muscles and stabilizer muscles in the legs. And though it takes a bit of time to develop confident balance, ordinary souls can easily learn to do it.
"People can pick it up really fast," Leary said. Especially, apparently, female people.
"The rule of thumb is that women are better than men initially," said Chris Paustian, lead SUP instructor at Northwest Passage. "A lot of big, muscly guys with big shoulders have a really high center of gravity, so they're a bit more tippy on the boards."
A group of women stood on Gillson Park's beach, ready to test the rule of thumb. It was Northwest Passage's SUP Salutation class, which involves doing yoga poses on the floating boards, and last Wednesday's session happened to be all female.
Yoga is a popular enhancement of SUP, multiplying the balancing challenge. "It turns you into a beginner again, which is fun," explained yoga instructor Kristin Andrews, who runs Northwest Passage's yoga SUP programs.
Some of the women this morning were regulars who sang SUP's praises. "Just to be able to be out on the water on a surfboard — it's really fun," said Colleen Floyd, of Wilmette.
Colleen is 10 years old, and her confidence was bracing. We newbies listened as guide Brian Thomson went over the basics.
Take a wide stance for stability, feet facing forward. Anchor your feet on the board's grippy surface. Reach forward to start your paddle stroke. Use your core muscles more than your arms.
"The key is to think about the power coming from your hips but to keep relatively loose in the hips," he said.
We carried our boards into the water, where small waves lapped against the sand.
To start out through the mild surf, we paddled from a kneeling position. But after a few yards, it was time to stand, and it was every woman for herself.
I made my way to a squat, then slowly straightened up.
And nearly fell off the board. There were genuine swells rolling in — small ones, but enough to throw me off balance. I nearly fell of the board, repeatedly.
Leary and Thomson circled on their boards, coaching.
Loosen your legs and hips, letting them take the waves. Use your feet, held fast by the grippy board top, and your hips to turn the board. Keep your paddle in the water, giving you another point of contact for balance. If you want to take a break, return to a kneeling position.
The yoga people were doing headstands on their boards, with varying degrees of success.
My legs shook as I tried to balance. But I stood; I paddled; and I began to get the feel of it.
And the feeling was wonderful. Including when I finally fell, splashing into the deliciously cool water.
We paddled. We laid out on our boards. We jumped into the water on purpose.
Then it was time to go in. Colleen speedily paddled by me. I headed back.
And for a few moments I found myself apart from the others, nothing between me and that vast expanse of glittering water but a softly bobbing board and a paddle. They were fine moments.
I paddled in to shore. As a final gift, a small wave lifted and pushed my board onto the sand.
We first-timers had been won over.
"It was great," said Marla O'Keefe, of Highland Park, after laying her board on the sand. "It was challenging, but once you get it, it's fun."
It's not a gondola, and Wilmette isn't Venice.
But you may want to go ahead and sing.
IF YOU GO
The Northwest Passage's SUP programming at Gillson Park in Wilmette includes two-hour SUP lessons ($50) and the two-hour SUP Salutation class ($70). For information, call 800-732-7328 or visit nwpassage.com.