The beautiful weather is calling and you like the idea of going out on the water in a small boat. You’ve heard paddling a kayak or canoe can be fun and not too difficult for a beginner. But, where to start?
We spoke with two experts — Paul Klonowski, an American Canoe Association canoe instructor and Lake County Forest Preserves volunteer, and April Vaos, an American Canoe Association kayak and canoe instructor and Lake County Forest Preserves educator — to get some tips.
Q: How long have you been teaching classes and how and how long have you personally been kayaking and canoeing?
A: Teaching since 2002 (Paul), 2004 (April). Canoeing and kayaking since about the age of 10 or 12 (Paul), about 5 (April).
Q: What do people like best about kayaking and canoeing?
A: Some enjoy the solitude of paddling while others like having a different way to view nature.
Q: Kayaking vs. canoeing — what is the difference?
A: The boats and paddles are different for each, but also vary depending on intended use. (For example, a river and sea kayak look very different but are both kayaks.)
As far as ease of use, kayaking can be easier when first starting out and kids often pick it up faster initially. Kayaking is most often solo, which may be a reason why it is easier for some.
Canoeing can take a bit more learning and practice initially, but has the advantage of more space for people and gear.
Canoeing is often tandem (two people) so one may need to learn the strokes for both bow and stern and how they work together to maneuver the boat.
Q: What are health benefits of canoeing and kayaking? Is it a good workout?
A: There are many benefits to paddle sports:
• Cardio: If you are white-water paddling, sea kayaking for hours or otherwise paddling hard, it can be a great cardio workout.
• Strength and flexibility training: If paddling correctly, no matter how fast you paddle, it is a good core and upper body workout.
• Relaxation: This benefit is what brings many people to paddling — a way to relax and unwind.
• Eco-Therapeutic: Connection to nature through outdoor activities improves mental and physical well-being.
Q: What should people wear and what should they bring when kayaking and canoeing?
A: Life jackets should be worn properly at all times in these boats. We often hear, “I’ll put on my lifejacket if I fall in the water,” which is extremely hard to do! Or, “I’m a good swimmer,” but how well can you swim after the boat flips over and knocks you unconscious?
What to bring all depends on the length and type of paddle you are doing but here is what you want to bring for a short paddle (up to 3 hours) on a flat-water lake:
• Lifejacket for that paddle activity, worn properly
• Wear synthetic fabrics that will dry quickly if you should get wet. Cotton clothing dries slowly and decreases body temperature, chilling you.
• Wide-brimmed hat that keeps the sun off the face, ears, and neck
• Sunglasses to protect your eyes
• Sunscreen to protect your skin
• Lots of water or sports drinks to maintain hydration (caffeine and alcohol are poor choices, as they are diuretics, and will dehydrate you).
• Dry bag to keep your cellphone and car keys in
• Other items that can be helpful: rain gear, first aid kit, etc.
Q: What advice do you have for beginners?
A: Take a class taught by a certified instructor. Doing this will shorten your learning curve tremendously; it’ll make paddling more fun; and your muscles will hurt much less at the end of a paddling day, as you’ll learn proper form, which also helps avoid injuries.
Q: What is the most common mistake beginners make when learning to paddle?
A: People tend to overestimate their own skills. If you haven’t taken a class from a certified instructor, it’s worth doing to improve your skills.
Another common mistake we see is paddlers using only their arms to paddle, which means sore muscles the next day. Instead, if you use your core, it helps to decrease strain on arms and increases time spent on the water because you aren’t as tired.
Other things to remember are to always let someone know where you are going and when you will be back, in case you run into problems on the water. And as usual, always wear your life jacket properly.
Q: What is the most common mistake when getting in and out of the canoe or kayak?
A: Most capsizes occur while getting into and out of these boats. Learn how to enter and exit the vessel without dumping it.
One helpful tip is to always use three points of contact to get in or out of the boat.
What is three points of contact? It means having three appendages (legs or arms) in contact with the boat or ground at all times. And always enter or exit the boat when it’s free-floating, not beached.
Q: What is a good age to start taking kids out in a kayak or canoe?
A: You can start anytime with them in the boat with you, as long as they can fit into a lifejacket. It helps to get them used to it early, and it’ll be routine for them.
In our summer camps we don’t put kids into solo boats until they are around 9 years old due to the strength needed to control a boat on their own. But you can always tandem paddle with a younger child. Just don’t expect them to have the strength of an adult.
And keep in mind wind and waves can make paddling extremely difficult, so we don’t take boats out on windy days (12-15 mph winds) since it’s so much harder to paddle.