There are some places in the world you just can’t get to without a boat – virgin forests dissected only by a clear, fast river; deserted tropical islands off remote coasts; secluded beaches snugged into rocky shorelines. Your canoe, river or sea kayak can take you to these Shangri Las, and give you the thrill of the ride to boot – once you know how to paddle.
That’s not much of a caveat, though, because whichever paddle sport you choose, you’ll find you’ll learn quite quickly. That’s because as a woman, you’ll rely on technique, over the muscle, to get through the tough spots. Your lower center of gravity helps maintain balance, and you’re probably flexible, too, in both mind and body. The process, then, becomes as much fun as the goal – and that’s great news for any beginner.
What bodies of water are river kayaks, canoes and sea kayaks suitable for?
Whitewater kayaks are designed for rivers with rapids. They work fine in slow rivers and lakes, too, but if that’s your emphasis, a canoe will probably be more comfortable. A properly outfitted canoe can go from moderate whitewater to flat water. Sea kayaks are especially good in bay and ocean waters, but can also navigate broad rivers with the best of them.
What kind of workout will I get when paddling, and how can I train?
Much of paddling requires technique more than muscle. Still, you’ll enjoy yourself more if you’re in shape. Paddling works mainly the upper body – arms, back, chest and torso – but some disciplines, especially whitewater kayaking, require bracing with your legs and thighs. Try this exercise for developing flexibility and strength in your back and shoulders: Rest a pole or broom handle on your shoulders, and hook your elbows over the pole. Keeping your hips still, fully rotate your upper body from side to side. Concentrate on starting the rotation from your lower torso.
How long does it take to learn to paddle?
With proper instruction, you’ll learn your basic paddling strokes in a matter of hours. But multi-day classes will boost your confidence and help you refine your technique. Five days of whitewater kayaking instruction and two days of canoeing or sea kayaking classes will have you paddling comfortably and learning to read the water and impending weather signs. Local outdoor shops that offer paddle sports (such as REI) can also be a source of instruction, as well as gear. If the shop doesn’t offer certified courses, it will be able to refer you to a school in your area.
Do I need to learn an Eskimo roll?
The Eskimo roll is a technique that all whitewater kayakers must master for safety’s sake. It enables you to flip your boat upright, with you still in it, after capsizing. The roll is easiest to after capsizing. The roll is easiest to learn in a lake or swimming pool; with instruction, many people can roll after a session or two.
You won’t need a roll for most recreational canoeing. It’s considered an optional skill for sea kayakers, who can rely on other self-rescue techniques.
Do I need a partner?
Whitewater kayaks are made for singles, and canoes and sea kayaks come in both singles and doubles (tandems). On all but the most familiar or quiet waters, solo paddlers should go with a “buddy” for safety.
Are there organizations I can paddle with for a day? Will they provide equipment?
Outdoor or paddle sports shop can refer you to paddling clubs or organizations. Many of them have extra equipment, and most can set you up with a paddling partner. Shops often rent boats and accessories. Some have “demo” programs that allow you to try several types of boats and accessories before you buy. University or community recreation programs often include paddle sports as well and offer Eskimo roll practice sessions in their swimming pools.
How do I plan a route? Where do I find maps of rivers?
Rivers are rated according to their difficulty — Class I being the easiest and Class V being nearly unnavigable. “Difficulty” refers to the steepness of the river, obstructions, and rapids. Marine maps show water depth, currents, and obstructions.
To familiarize yourself with a route, talk to paddlers who have been on it recently. Walk the riverbank, lakeside or beach to scout it yourself. If you’re paddling in a state or national park, get information on water conditions from the local ranger’s office. From your paddle sports dealer, purchase a map or guide of the route in question.
If you haven’t paddled in an area before, it’s best to go with an experienced paddler. On the flat water in light or no wind, you’ll average 2-3 miles per hour; make sure you turn around in time to be back before dark. On rivers, bends and scouting can make the trip longer than its miles. You’ll also need to plan for a shuttle to return you to your starting point.