My idea of a vacation does not include hanging off the back of a flashy blue speedboat zipping in and out of traffic on an oversized inner tube. So when my extended family fell fast asleep at Deep Creek Lake in the mountains of western Maryland, I snuck out of the house and slid into the kayak Iâ€™d rented for $20 a day.
From the moment I dipped my paddle into the cool, quiet water, I was hooked. In a kayak, you feel like youâ€™re invisible; birds hover so close you feel like one of the flock. River otters glide by, pulling you along in their wake. Blue herons sail overhead, then drift down to rest on a hollowed-out log or in whispering reeds along a sandy shore.
As I inhaled the fresh, fragrant, early-morning air, I was amazed at my surroundings, and even more at myself.
We have a long line of water bugs in my family, but I was not among them. Back in the â€™60s, my brothers snagged trophies for the breaststroke and butterfly. Dad coached our grade school swim team. Mom still swims laps at a local college recreation center almost every morning. I, on the other hand, was the only sixth grader in class of pint-sized guppies who didnâ€™t know how to swim. Though my scrunchy rubber bathing cap long ago disintegrated, my fear of the water clung to me like a zebra mussel on an old iron freighter.
Yet here I was, at age 50, gaining more confidence with every stroke of the long, slender paddle, moving deeper and deeper inside the natural world.
I couldnâ€™t wait to get back home to tell all my friendsâ€”Iâ€™d finally earned my water wings.
â€œKayaking is easy,â€ I told them. â€œIt doesnâ€™t require a lot of equipment, and you can float your boat most anywhere.â€
Try before you buy
A kayak is one purchase you wonâ€™t want to make on the Internet. Visit a reputable paddle shop and try a few on for size. Learn the difference between a sea kayak and a recreational kayak, a sit-upon and an inflatable. Are you seeking fast-water adventure or lazy floats downstream? A single-seater or a tandem? Thereâ€™s a kayak to suit every purpose, and theyâ€™re made in a wide variety of lengths, widths and materials such as composite, thermoformed and rotomolded plastic, and wood. Prices vary, too; expect to pay from $300 to $1,500 and up.
A friend recommended Evergreen Outfitters in Ashville, NY, for its spacious showroom and knowledgeable sales people, including owner Irene Bozogan, an avid outdoorswoman and certified paddling instructor. If you’re in the market for a kayak and all the gear, books, maps, and how-to videos that go with it, this one-stop shop is well worth the visit. Irene will ease you into as many kayaks as you care to try and soon you’ll be signing up for a water safety class or moonlight paddle on Chautauqua Lake.
If you’ve worked up an appetite for more than kayaking, strap your boat to your roof rack and step across the street to the Ashville General Store. Fresh deli sandwiches, homemade soups and humongous cookies make a perfect picnic lunch for a brisk fall day.
Take a lesson
Before you head out on your own, itâ€™s a good idea to learn the basic paddle strokes and bone up on water safety measures. I signed up for Kayaking 101 last summer at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa. And though we spent more time in the water learning basic water rescue techniques, the one-day introductory course gave me a solid grounding in safety and paddling skills.
There are some great books and videos on the market, too, but they are no substitute to hands-on experience. My favorite is Sea Kayaking: A Womanâ€™s Guide, by Shelley Johnson.
Kayak starter kit
Kayaking is one sport that doesnâ€™t require a lot of heavy and expensive equipment. But you will need a few essentials. Before you launch, make sure you have the right stuff.
â€¢Â Â Â Portable Flotation Device (PFD), commonly known as a life jacket
â€¢Â Â Â Paddles, made of fiberglass, aluminum, carbon fiber, or wood laminate
â€¢Â Â Â Paddle leash or tether
â€¢Â Â Â Inflatable paddle floats
â€¢Â Â Â Bilge pump, sponge
â€¢Â Â Â Whistle
â€¢Â Â Â Light for evening paddles
â€¢Â Â Â Kayak car carrier and straps
What to wear
Think safety and comfort, not high fashion, when choosing your water wardrobe.
â€¢Â Â Â Loose-fitting clothing
â€¢Â Â Â Protective footwear like water shoes or sport sandals
â€¢Â Â Â Snug-fitting dry suit or wet suit, depending upon the weather (HINT: Use the 100 Degree Rule — If the combined temperature of air and water is less than 100 degrees, you probably need a dry/wet suit)
â€¢Â Â Â Hat
â€¢Â Â Â Sunscreen
Kayaking by the numbers
Kayaking is one of the fastest growing recreational sports in the United States. According to the most recent National Survey of Recreation and the Environment (NSRE) released in 2003, 20.6 million Americans paddled canoes, 7.3 million paddled kayaks, and 20.2 million went rafting. Kayaking is the fastest growing segment of the entire boating community with 182% growth over the previous seven years.
Lisa Gensheimer is a documentary producer and writer whose work has appeared on public television stations nationwide. She is the author of Pennsylvania Wilds: Images from the Allegheny National Forest. Her column,The Culinary Tourist, appears in Gather.com’s travel channel.Â