Getting Started in Kayaking: A Primer

I’ve had an uptick in secret pals since I posted that I actually had secret pals. If you are interested in being a secret pal, don’t get overly excited. There are no benefits, no great salary, no perks that involve romance or anything else but friendship. You can, however, get mentioned in blogs, give me blog ideas and provide inspiration that keeps me from spiraling down into the depths of midlife moments hell. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, get in touch with me. The application process is easy. Just show up, and if I don’t hate you, you’re in. If that doesn’t float your boat, then one of my new secret pals suggested I do a blog on how to get started floating another kind of boat – a kayak.

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Lake Washington in Kirkland

I got started kayaking on Lake Washington in Kirkland WA when I lived there from 1998-2000. I was looking for ways to meet people, and there was so much water there that I thought it might be a fun thing to take kayak lessons. You could rent them for an hour on the dock downtown or take lessons with a group. I took the lessons and learned enough to be dangerous. I traveled about 90% of the time while i lived there, so I didn’t get out frequently, but I did get out on my own a few times. I absolutely loved the feeling of being down in the water in a kayak on a lake in the sunshine with the volcanoes as a backdrop. The lapping of the water against the hull of the boat was meditative, and I really felt like I was taking a mini-vacation.

That kind of access has not been available anywhere else I’ve lived, but I have always looked up the paddling clubs wherever I’ve lived. They are a great way for novices to start paddling with support. I recommend that the first time you go out, you go out with an instructor or at least a guide. I’ve led a few trips with beginners, too. So, your friends who are even just a few steps beyond you in skill can help you on your first trip. I have paddled in canoes, too. I prefer the kayak because it sits in the water and feels to me to be a little more stable. Of course, when I’ve been in a canoe, I’ve usually been with a husband, and it’s not always been a pleasant experience. I’ve seen more couples come to blows in a canoe than in any other sport. It’s bizarre. I like the kayak because it is easy to captain my own ship.

One of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever paddled was in Grayling MI. My parents went with me and my ex, and, when they got home, Daddy said that the Au Sable River was listed in Field and Stream magazine as one of the top streams in the country for trout. Indeed, the water was so clear that you could see the trout in the water below. One of our trips there ended in a violent thunderstorm, but it was worth the preceding hours in that beautiful place. I found a video on You Tube of the Au Sable River.

In Memphis, I floated the Wolf River frequently. It had a canoe trail that took you through 3 really distinct eco-systems. The first stretch of the river was a magical little narrow river that was amazingly clean and pristine. In the summer there were lots of huge snakes, and once a water moccasin charged my boat. I flipped it out of the water with my paddle, but it did kind of freak me out a bit. I always thought snakes would leave you alone, but that critter was headed straight for me with his head out of the water and ready to pounce. Most of the time they just curled up on the tree trunks, though. After the river started to widen, The Ghost River Canoe trail will take you through a truly beautiful, natural spot. People do get lost in there and spend the night on occasion, but I think it is well-marked. But, that’s exactly why I say to go with a group your first time or two to make sure you know the river. The Wolf River Conservancy has frequent trips on different sections of the Wolf, and they usually welcome beginners. The Ghost River section is a very beautiful cypress swamp which is no big deal down here, but in other parts of the country it is unique. There is also a lake section which takes some muscle power to navigate. At times the Wolf gets very narrow and turns into a sandy or muddy stream only wide enough for a canoe or kayak to pass. In some places, you have to pull the boat depending on the water level. But, it is a beautiful, special place near Memphis.

Scenes from the Wolf River

I don’t always get a lot of pictures while I’m kayaking. I’ve had too many close calls where I almost drop my phone in the water to risk it. I take most of the pictures in my head and just catalog them under wonderful places to be when I can’t be someplace fabulous. In Louisiana, Lake Martin is a beautiful, quiet place to paddle, and the local paddling clubs have frequent night-time paddles on the lake.

Scenes from Lake Martin

Paddling is a sport that is accessible for all ages and all fitness levels. It’s a way to get out and enjoy the outdoors that is peaceful and can be extremely solitary or very social. I highly recommend trying a paddling club, and I’ve provided some links below for the clubs in Southwest Louisiana. They have trips almost every weekend. Just rent a canoe or kayak until you decide if you like it and which kind of boat you like. It’s a relatively low cost sport in that you only need a boat, a life jacket and paddles. There’s a lot of other stuff you can buy, but it’s all optional. I bought my kayak from LL Bean, and they shipped the kayak, life jacket, car rack and paddles in a truck to my front door. It cost me about $500 for the entire order. I do recommend carrying a dry bag for keys and cameras. My kayak turned over in a current in North Georgia, and I would have lost my keys and any small items if I hadn’t had them secure in a floatable bag. There are dangers in the sport, but, unless you get into whitewater, most areas are pretty navigable.

Below are some tips for first-timers.

  1. Listen to your guides. You may figure out a better way later, but they’ve usually traveled the body of water before, and they know best. Besides, they set the rules as leader of the trip.
  2. Stay sober. It’s not like tubing. You can easily turn over or cause injury to someone else if you are not paying attention.
  3. Wear clothing that is wicking and that you can wear wet. Duh… you will probably get wet.
  4. Leave anything that can’t get wet or lost in the car. It’s hard to find stuff at the bottom of a river. You can use a dry bag, but I never trust it 100%. In fact, on a recent trip, our dry bag broke off the boat and got lost upriver. An honest person returned it to us with our money, phones and keys. We were very lucky.
  5. If you decide to buy a boat, get the lightest one you can find. Loading and unloading gear is the biggest hassle of the whole thing. And, beware … once you buy one, you will want to buy another … and maybe another. Different styles have different benefits.

Most of all, enjoy the journey. There is nothing like being out in a kayak on a nice day. The pace is lazy. The paddling is easy. It’s great to jump in the water to cool off and not have to dry off or worry about anything until you get back to a nice hot shower. It’s meditative to me. When I get in the bed at night, I’m usually still paddling. The sport of paddling is physical but it’s also very mental. At every log, branch or curve, you have to figure out the best strategy to keep from getting snagged or banked. Beginners get frustrated with getting stuck, but that’s part of the game. If you don’t get stuck on a log, well … you’re not really paddling at all.

Oh, and if you’d like to go on a paddling trip in the next month or two, get in touch with me privately. Maybe we’ll plan a trip on our own. Newbies welcome. 

Links to Louisiana Resources

Bayou Haystackers Paddling Club

Pack and Paddle – This retailer in Lafayette sells all the gear, boats and provides lessons and frequent trips at a reasonable cost.

Lafayette Paddle Club

Lake Martin Kayak and Canoe Rentals – You can rent by the hour here!

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area Paddling Information – Trips, resources, trail maps and links.

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