kayaks on a river
Jill J. Easton
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Ever thought about going kayaking? If you like nature and freedom, there’s no better craft to have. Other than arranging pickup at the take-out point on rivers, these boats run strictly on your muscle power. “Kayaks close the distance to wildlife,” says Zettie Jones, a famous wildlife painter from Arkansas. “I bought my first kayak 10 months ago. A few weeks later, I bought a second one so my husband, Ken, could see Ozark rivers the way I do, from otter-eye level.”

She carries a small camera in a waterproof bag. “When the light on a mountain looks right, I snap a picture,” Zettie says. “My whisper-quiet kayak is great for sneaking up on wildlife like herons or deer. The pictures I take help me capture details on canvas later.”

Kayaking isn’t just popular on rivers with a current. They’re very much at home on lakes, far from shore in salt water or on any water that’s big enough to float a boat. But there’s no one kayak that’s right for everyone. The boat you buy is a personal choice that should be based on your climate, how the boat will be used and the amount of money you can spend.

Before You Buy

The best way to choose a kayak is to go to a store that has knowledgeable salespeople and a good variety of boats. Sit in several to see how the layouts fit your needs. Seat configuration, leg room and location of the hatches and storage lockers are all important. Just don’t get boat fever and buy a kayak on the first visit.

Now, find someone with kayaks and go on a float with one, or rent a boat. Not everyone likes kayaking, and you may be one of those people. Learn the basic strokes and how to get into and out of the boat. Decide if paddling a kayak that gets you wet and can flip over is scary or fun. Making these decisions before you buy a boat can, but might not, save you money.

After using Zettie’s spare kayak all summer, I made my second trip to a big kayak store. I planned to buy a 9-foot fishing kayak with a small dry locker. The one I brought home is a 12-foot Wilderness System Tarpon Angler that has enough dry storage to hold a tent, sleeping bag, Labrador retriever and everything else necessary for an overnight on the river. It is one heck of a boat for a novice kayaker, and I still don’t know how that happened.

Kayaking Basics

Operating a kayak takes about five minutes of instruction. Sit on the seat, get balanced, then swing your legs in. As for the kayak paddle, the main difference from the canoe paddle is that the former has blades on both ends.

“Holding a paddle correctly is the foundation of a good day in a kayak,” says Jake Anderson, owner of Norfork Adventure Supply in Norfork, Arkansas. His store has a wide variety of supplies to aid folks who spend time outdoors. “To correctly hold the paddle, make a loose circle with your thumb and forefinger around the shaft and lift the other three fingers in the air. This is how to hold a paddle. Now rest those three fingers lightly on the paddle. They provide balance and give extra support in whitewater situations; the rest of the time they aren’t doing anything. Loose and relaxed is the way to paddle.”

To find the correct places to hold the paddle, balance the shaft on your head, then move your hands out until your arms are at a 90-degree angle to the paddle. These are your paddle-holding points.

“Focus on using your core muscles, not your arms,” Jake says. “Think of the water at the side of your kayak as a rectangular box. Stick the blade in the front of the box, then pull backwards behind your torso. Slice the paddle out of the water; repeat on the other side.”

Adventure Kayaking

The only sound in the cathedral of tupelo trees was the quiet dip and splash of paddles rhythmically cutting into the meandering river. South Carolina’s Revolutionary War Trail is an amazing place full of shadows of history. Six inches above the surface of the Pee Dee River, it’s easy to imagine Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion and his troops slipping through the twisting byways, attacking the British and then evaporating into the misty swamp. Without their efforts, the United States might still be a Crown colony.

Adventure kayaking is becoming the travel craze of the 21st century. There are thousands of scenic, adventurous and historic places that can best be viewed from the water. Joining a kayaking or canoeing club is the easiest way to explore with your own kayak. Organizations like Bluff City Canoe Club in Memphis, Tennessee, arrange regular trips both in the Memphis area and to paddling locations like Charleston, South Carolina. The collective experience among members of these paddling groups makes learning new skills and finding kayaking spots easy.

“We have seasoned travel pros that scout locations, find places to stay and provide advice and help if there is a problem,” explains Richard Day, a member of Bluff City Canoe Club. “The group also make arrangements to transport the boats back to your vehicle.”

Kayaking Groups

Another nice thing about groups like Bluff City is the way they look out for individuals who are participating in the events. “We travel in convoy,” says Richard. “Any issues are dealt with by several cars designated to render assistance and first aid when traveling and on the water. Bluff City offers amazing support and is a caring, safety-conscious group.”

Road Scholar, a senior travel and hands-on education group, has adventure paddle trips for participants over 50 in places like the Hawaiian Islands, Alaska and many international locations, and it furnishes the kayaks.

Another option is to rent a kayak at your destination. Using a livery service offers the added benefit of drop-off and pickup; there’s also someone who knows what section of water you’re paddling. Outfitters frequently have maps and suggestions for places that are particularly scenic, and they can usually provide drinks and snacks.

In the area around Florence, South Carolina, home city of the Revolutionary War Trail, there are six outfitters that rent kayaks. The website for the Florence Convention and Visitors Bureau, like the sites for most CVBs, is a great resource for paddling in the area. Not every area will have kayaking opportunities, but you may be surprised at how many do. Soon, your own paddle may dip into South Carolina waters, giving you a whole new understanding of the Revolutionary War. Just be prepared: Destination paddling is addictive.

Fishing from Kayaks

“Kayak fishing is here to stay,” says Chris Holmes, a kayak writer and angler. “These boats offer new fishing challenges to experienced anglers and are easy for beginners to use. They transport easily and cause zero pollution. Unlike motorboats, the paddler gets exercise.”

Chris, a South Louisiana native, began kayak angling out of boredom with fishing. He grew up paddling and fishing in a pirogue (a bayou boat designed to float in inches of water), and kayak fishing brought him back to his roots. He doesn’t limit his fishing to fresh water, either—the biggest fish he’s caught out of a kayak is a 130-pound tarpon. He’s caught sharks, sailfish and tuna from his Hobie Outback. The boat has foot pedals that work paddles on the underside. These paddles fold up into the hull in shallow water and when there are rocks and other obstructions.

“The pedal drive allows me to fish with both hands,” Chris says. “I can even steer the boat without losing contact with a hooked fish. The Outback is stable, quiet and has let me safely pursue fish in the marshes of Louisiana and in oceans around the world. It’s my favorite kayak.”

Quiet Fishing

Stealth is another big advantage to using a kayak for fishing—there are no noisy engines or humming trolling motors to disturb fish. However, the quiet of a kayak can cause problems. “Watch out for toothy creatures, especially in salt or brackish water,” Chris warns. “Sharks and alligators are bound to help themselves to your fish. I use a soft-sided cooler in the boat to hold fish Vicky and I are going to eat.”

A basic fishing kayak can be as simple as fastening a crate behind the paddler to hold rods and tackle. The other necessities are a knife or multi-tool and a soft cooler to store drinks and fish. Most any place there are fish, kayaks can go. The shallow draft and maneuverability of a kayak are a real advantage in marshes, swamps and shallow ponds. During spring spawning season, there’s no better way to get to nesting fish than in a kayak.

High-End Fishers

Kayaks modified for fishing can have lots of bells and whistles. Top-end boats built by Hobie, Wilderness System, Jackson and other manufacturers are set up to run electronics that are comparable to those found on the fanciest bass boats. There are also rod holders, tackle crates and other fishing equipment that will fit in or on these specialized boats. You can even find kayaks that are balanced to allow you to stand up to fish.

Try a kayak. If you enjoy the experience, buy one or two—that way you can share with a friend. In a time when everything is electronic and gratification is instant, it’s nice to have a way to relax, return to basics and, at least for a few hours, control your own destiny.

This article is from the summer 2019 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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