Canoeing and Kayaking

woman kayaking on a lake

What is Canoeing and Kayaking all about, and what is the difference between them?  Whether you want relaxing lake trips, or thrilling whitewater adventures, find out that answer to where to go canoeing near me and how to get started in this sport.

Kayak In Your Backyard – By Andrea Lauren

My kayak glides toward the gray and blue reflection of the white peaks of the towering Alaskan mountains, never cutting through the reflection, but moving through the glassy water as part of the landscape rather than as an intruder. Rising hundreds of feet on the side of Resurrection Bay, I see a hanging glacier nestled in the jagged rock, softened by mounds of snow. To my right, I spot a bald eagle in his nest high up in the tree. Quietly, we paddle along the shoreline to get a closer look, when we find another new friend – a sea otter — floating on her back. We stop paddling for a bit to chat, as our guide shares some hilarious vignettes about tourists trying to “rescue” a bald eagle who was just trying to protect his dinner. Technically, I am a tourist, too. I’m visiting Alaska as a birthday present to myself and romping around the state pretty much solo. But while I am a tourist, I’m also not. We are all inhabitants of this world, although many times getting out in nature, especially when we are so tied to technology, makes you feel like a tourist in your own backyard. Your backyard is a great place to start, though. It’s where I began splashing in the creek, exploring in the fields, and hiking the trails. For this trip, I made Alaska my backyard. I tend to do that – go places and decide they are my new “backyard.” Once you’re comfortable playing in your backyard, you try out new things and new places.

Kayaking is something I started in my “backyard” of graduate school by participating in a whitewater kayaking course. After the culminating run down the whitewater river rapids, I decided that a touring kayak was more my style. Taking a class on how to kayak is a great way to get started because you learn the basics and you get connected with others who are also interested in the activity. However, there are other ways to experience the sport besides taking a class. Several people on my Alaskan kayaking adventures had never kayaked before, but by signing up with an outfitter, like Kayak Adventures Worldwide (that’s the one I used), you get equipment, instruction, navigation, and supervision. If you decide you want to try whitewater kayaking, I strongly encourage you to take a course and/or seek out an experienced whitewater kayaker to help you. Besides attending a course or registering with an outfitter, often local outdoors stores will host an introductory class to kayaking. This is a great opportunity to get your feet wet (sorry, I’m a nerd and that pun had to be interjected somewhere). A lake is also a good place to try out kayaking with a friend.

As you prepare for your kayak experience, your outfitter can be a resource for questions and concerns. What you will pack and wear will often depend on both the weather and water temperature. Whether you are kayaking in Alaska or paddling in the tropics, there are some basics to kayaking. The first thing is this: you WILL get wet. Not that you will tip, because if it’s flatwater, and especially if you are in a double kayak, it is actually highly unlikely, but you will be on the water and water is wet. (If you’re now thinking, “Uh, I already know this.” Then you get it – that’s the point! You already DO know about this! There are just some other details to work out to get you on the water.) There are different types of kayaking, so there are different kinds of equipment as well.

teenagers canoeing

What is Canoeing and Kayaking all about?

You may have seen a bit of sedate canoeing, or even had a go yourself, but there is a wide range of canoeing experiences to be had on a range of types of water.

Canoeing is where you paddle a canoe for the purpose of recreation, sport, or transportation. It usually refers exclusively to using a paddle to propel a canoe with only human muscle power.

There are a few differences between a canoe and a kayak. A canoe is an open topped craft that you paddle from a kneeling position with a single blade paddle. Canoeing is perfect for wilderness travel and river cruising. Kayaks are paddled from a sitting position using a double bladed paddle. Just some of the extensive environments for kayaking include sea, surf and white-water rafting. Kayaks are usually closed-decked boats with a spraydeck, while canoes are usually open boats. There are also open kayaks and closed canoes.

Internationally, the term canoeing is used as a generic term for both forms though the terms “paddle sports” or “canoe/kayak” are also used. In North America, however, ‘canoeing’ usually refers only to canoes, as opposed to both canoes and kayaks. Paddling a kayak is also referred to as kayaking.

In modern canoe sport, both canoes and kayaks may be closed-decked. Other than by the minimum competition specifications (typically length and width (beam) and seating arrangement it is difficult to differentiate most competition canoes from the equivalent competition kayaks. The most common difference is that competition kayaks are always seated, and competition canoes are generally kneeling. Exceptions include Canoe Marathon (in both European and American competitive forms) and sprint (high kneeling position). The most traditional and early canoes did not have seats, the paddlers merely kneeled on the bottom of the boat. Recreational or ‘Canadian’ canoes employ seats and whitewater rodeo and surf variants increasingly employ the use of ‘saddles’ to give greater boat control under extreme conditions.

There are many types of disciplines within kayaking and canoeing. With so many different types of canoes and kayaks available, it is up to you whether you take a gentle paddle down stream or battle it out in the open ocean. Whitewater kayaking is extreme fun, whether on man made whitewater courses or on rivers.

Getting your kayak to the water can be done either using a trailer or a roof rack. If you don’t have the space, perhaps you might like to look at an inflatable kayak or canoe.

What Do I Need?

  • Kayak
  • Paddle
  • Spray skirt: Many warmer climates with recreational kayaks for rent do not require you to wear a spray skirt, which you wear around your waist that seals around the opening of the boat when you are in the water. You may or may not need one, depending on where you are kayaking.
  • Footwear: Water socks/shoes, but sneakers can sometimes work, too.
  • Depending on the season and temperatures, you may end up wearing neoprene booties and gloves, or a wetsuit.
  • Attire: When I kayak by my house in the summer, I wear shorts, a tank top, a hat, and some sun protection. Weather and temperature matter, so make sure you check that out before you hit the water.
  • Personal Floatation Device: The one accessory that I always wear is a personal floatation device (PFD) – a life-vest. I tend to be part of the “Just-In-Case Club”, and this is a badge of honor with its members.

All Geared Up – What Next?

Learn the basics of kayaking and canoeing video
Let’s say you are the adventurous type and are trying to hop in a kayak at the lake. The weather is nice, your sunblock is on, and you have a friend to go with you (it’s smart for safety reasons and it’s more fun to share in the moment – and if you’re in a double kayak, it’s pretty necessary). Plus, by being on a lake, you are less likely to deal with waves or a current. If it’s a busy lake, keep an eye out for wake (just paddle through!) and other boats (move out of the way).

The Paddle:

First, take your paddle and put the shaft on your head so that the blades are equidistant from your head. Yes, I’m serious here. Now, you want your arms to make right angles. This is how you can tell where your hands need to be. If you are using an asymmetrical paddle, you want to hold it the correct way. Usually, the writing on the paddle is a dead give-away (as in, can you read the writing? If it’s upside down, so is your paddle). If there is no writing, know that the horizontal side is the bottom, the more curved edge is the top. You want the smooth concave side facing you. Now you know how to hold the paddle, so let’s get you in the boat – but not in the water . . . yet!

The Kayak:

You also want to fit your kayak before you start paddling. In order to fit your kayak, sit on the back lip of the open hole, with one foot on either side of the boat. Lift your feet up, slide them in, and put your bottom on the seat. Each foot should rest on a little pedal. Your heels should be in toward the bottom center of the boat and your toes out with your feet slightly flexed. Your knees will be bent and rest on the sides of the boat; this will help you balance the boat. Your bottom should be all the way back in the seat. If you need to, you can adjust the foot pedals by moving the lever inside the boat. If you have a spray skirt, you should be wearing that before you begin. Like I said, not all places use them and you may not need one. Once you are all set and in your kayak, you will take the skirt and tuck it under the back lip of the opening, moving forward until it’s all tucked under. Make sure the woven handle is NOT tucked under the skirt. You need this accessible just in case you do tip.
Now it’s time to get in the water! There are a couple of options for how to do this. I usually start right at the water’s edge, get in as described above, and scoot to the water, or have a friend push me in.

Time to Move:

Paddle strokes can be broken down into three steps. Think of yourself as propelling yourself forward, rather than pulling water toward you.

  1. Put one blade in the water . Your torso will be turned in the direction of the blade that you have in the water.
  2. Imagine pushing the boat forward instead of pulling the paddle back. You can do this by extending your opposite arm (paddle is not in the water) across your body. Imagine you are punching the air in front of you at about shoulder-height. The blade in this hand will be in the air. You blade-in-water arm will be bent, hand by your waist, blade in the water.
  3. Rotate your torso as you bring your blade out of the water. Paddling is a continuous motion. Now this hand is going to the punching and the other arm is going to catch the water with the other blade. Your torso should now be facing in this direction.

TIP: Make sure you are extending your arms, otherwise you will look like you have dinosaur arms. (Are you pretending to do it now? See? Just like T-Rex!) Try to focus on pushing with your extended arm as you twist, rather than pulling with the arm with the blade in the water. You want your stroke to be smooth, and the grip on the paddle loose. If your knuckles are white, relax a little!

Will I Capsize?

The major concern I hear about kayaking has to do with capsizing, or tipping over. It CAN happen, but if you are on flatwater, it’s infrequent. Still, it’s always good to have a plan and know what to do in case it does. If you capsize, bang on the sides of the kayak three times loudly to signal to others that you have tipped. Then, put both hands on the edges of the opening on either side of you and run them along the oval until they meet at the front, which is where the handle will be of your spray skirt. Then, when you pull the handle, the skirt pops off, and you push with your feet to easily exit the boat and swim to the surface. Like I said earlier, if you are kayaking on flatwater (like a lake) you mostly likely won’t need to do this, but it’s good to know. There are other ways to right your boat back up, which are great to know if you become an avid kayaker and crucial if you decide to attempt whitewater kayaking.

Kayaking can give you chance to explore nature and see it through a different perspective. It is certainly a unique and fun way to experience the outdoors and the water! Now it’s about time for you to strap on your PFD, grab a paddle, and hop in kayak to explore your new backyard.

Find Out More About Canoeing and Kayaking

A good place to start with any sport is to learn the basics first. Hatt Adventures run kayaking and canoeing experiences that are perfect for getting a feel for splashing about in the boats for a few hours, playing some games and learning basic technique. From there you can progress up the on to the BCU (British Canoe Union) certifications. These are designed to improve upon your skills at each stage, awarding you with a recognised certificate at the end of each assessment.

For further information on the sports, check out the BCU website. Here a comprehensive list of clubs and centres can be found as well as further information on the awards and other resources.

If you want to explore harbours, coastlines, cliffs and caves, you can experience the sea from a different perspective by sea kayaking.

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