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THE BALANCED LIFE | Is this there a kayak in your future?

T here are days that social distancing on our Steve Bauer Trail is difficult to achieve. Escaping to the Gerry Berkhout Trail no longer guarantees the serenity of being alone in nature with our thoughts.
Jim Rix of Beamsville socially distancing at Point Abino Historic Lighthouse just west of Crystal Beach on a Peninsula Paddler day trip. JOHN SWART

There are days that social distancing on our Steve Bauer Trail is difficult to achieve. Escaping to the Gerry Berkhout Trail no longer guarantees the serenity of being alone in nature with our thoughts.

Pelham offers another activity and venue which provides peace and tranquility with healthy dollops of socially distanced exercise. It’s kayaking on the Welland River. Launch your boat at E. C. Brown Conservation Area, on River Road in Fenwick, then paddle west. You might hear the occasional car on Highway 27. You may have to contend with the odd jet ski or small aluminum fishing boat if it’s a busy weekend, but after a short paddle, a sharp left into Big Forks Creek will take you into another world.

Herons will silently study you as they stand motionless in shallow water, waiting for a juicy frog to expose itself and become their lunch. The splash ahead of you on the right will be a muskrat, or perhaps even a beaver, diving for the safety of the water. On your left, a love-smitten carp will be recklessly splashing about to attract a mate. Bright spring flowers and emerging water plants are everywhere— kayaking these seldom seen nooks of nature is truly a magic tonic for these times.

In 2020 many friends interested in purchasing a new bicycle contacted me for suggestions. This year those calls are all about kayaks. The purchase and use of kayaks, paddleboards and canoes has exploded during COVID, joining cycling, golf and camping as the four outdoor activities with the fastest growth in North America. NPD Group, an international industry consulting firm, states paddlesports sales grew 56 percent in 2020 over 2019.

The two most common questions posed by those considering kayaking are: what kind of a boat should I buy, and how do I carry it? We’ll stick with recreational kayaking for this discussion—no whitewater thrillseekers ricocheting off rocks and plunging over waterfalls, or Wainfleet warriors in fishing-specific camouflaged kayaks.

How do you see yourself using your kayak? Answering this question thoughtfully will guide the type, material, size, carrying capacity, weight, cost and portability of which kayak you choose.

Does your imagination soar while viewing those gorgeous Newfoundland television commercials, envisioning yourself paddling the rugged coast, communing with puffins, icebergs and whales? That’s kayak touring, or perhaps expedition kayaking. Closer to home it might be Georgian Bay, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that you haven’t really experienced until you’ve paddled its outer islands.

Are you thinking more in terms of a paddling for an hour or two in front of your cottage to catch some sun, or floating in the Welland recreational canal to get away from your husband and computer for an hour? Maybe it’s a launching from Pleasant Beach or Windmill Point, with a picnic lunch and favourite playlist on your phone.

If you like the second option, a “plastic” kayak might be for you. There are many types and designations of plastic kayak material, but in general plastic will scratch without affecting its serviceability, won’t break upon reasonable impact, and is great for dragging over rocky shores when landing or launching. A large cockpit or sit-on-top model that’s easy to get into and impossible to get caught in if it flips is a safe way to start. If it has a small waterproof hatch for your glasses, phone and wallet, that’s a bonus.

For longer paddles and kayak touring, fibreglass, Kevlar and carbon fibre boats are faster in the water and lighter to lift, but can crack or puncture if you hit a submerged rock or stump.

There are no hard and fast rules on kayak length, but if your goal is larger water and extended trips, a 14-foot boat would be my minimum. (Sorry, the U.S. is the world’s biggest market, and they don’t do metric.)

Three things help a kayak maintain a straight line: the skill of the paddler, the length of the keel, and a skeg or rudder. The larger the water and the longer the paddle, the more important this is. It is fatiguing to be constantly correcting your direction when paddling. A longer boat tracks straighter, so more of your energy is devoted to making it go forward rather than maintaining course. A rudder or skeg (small retractable keel controlled by the paddler) can help reduce these corrections, but longer still matters. In rough water, stability relates directly to the length and width of the kayak.

Kayaks sold in Canada must display their maximum load rating. It’s not uncommon for touring or expedition kayakers to carry everything needed for a multi-day trip with them, so be sure your boat will have sufficient capacity if tripping is in your future.

For sit-in kayaks, cockpit size is important. Your hips need to slide into and out of the boat easily, especially if you’re upside down in the water. Ensure there’s enough room for knee and leg comfort, but don’t get a cockpit that’s too big. As your proficiency improves, you’ll realize that much of your steering, power generation and balancing is done by pressing your hips and thighs against the boat.

Most kayaks weigh between 40 and 60 pounds. “How do I load and unload it from my vehicle?” is the most common question from women, and heavy kayaks can be intimidating for anyone. Helpful neighbours are great when loading or unloading. A paddling buddy is even better when COVID regulations allow, but for any kayaker on their own, the challenge of transporting their boat will likely influence which boat and rack system they purchase.

For a slow-speed trip across Pelham to the recreational canal or Welland River, inexpensive foam kayak cradles will work for any size boat. If your kayak is going to spend its life at the cottage and is 10 or 12 feet long, carry it there in the back of your pick-up. Although some friends use foam cradles and lots of rope to carry their boats all over Ontario, if I’m headed to Algonquin or the St Lawrence River, I prefer a strong and safe rack system securely mounted to my vehicle.

If you’re alone and using foam cradles or traditional racks, it’s easiest to load from the back or front of the vehicle rather than the side. There are rollers that attach to the rear rack and allow you to place the kayak’s bow in them, then lift and slide the rear of the boat forward. A pool noodle will provide the same effect, but with a less stability. Use foam or a heavy blanket to protect the vehicle against scratches.

Thule, Malone, and Lift-Assist make side-loading roof racks. These units are pricey, but allow a single person to load their boat onto the rack at waist height, one end at a time, and secure it in place before easily lifting the complete unit and kayak onto the roof.

Relatively new on the market are good-quality inflatable and folding kayaks, with some companies offering models that fold into themselves to become backpacks. These units can be transported easily in any vehicle, and are growing in popularity.

An inexpensive small kayak sells for less than $1000, a Kevlar sea kayak can be $5000, and there are many in between. The good news right now is that if you purchase virtually any boat or equipment and choose to sell it to move up or leave the sport, demand for gently used is strong.

Don’t forget to budget for some quality safety equipment and a “wet exit” course so you know how escape a capsized kayak and get back into it. I can’t swim more than 100 metres, but am comfortable far from shore in big water. I trust my PFD (personal flotation device/lifejacket). It fits properly and won’t come off if I capsize. My kayak has watertight bulkheads that will keep it floating until I can right it. Wet exit training will facilitate my getting back into the boat, and a reliable pump will remove excess water.

Get involved in kayaking at a level that’s easy and comfortable, and you’ll soon learn what types of paddling are most appealing to you. Investigate the local club, the Peninsula Paddlers, to learn where Niagara’s best launch locations are and get tips from experienced kayakers.

One more reason to get outdoors is always a good thing.