Where do I go?
It has dawned on me while writing this series for beginning kayakers that we do things the wrong way, at least around here. When I wrote the page about buying a kayak, I suggested that people should rent a kayak at least a couple of times before they purchase one of their own. But for the most part, the only places that rent out kayaks are the liveries on rivers, and rivers aren’t the best place for a first time kayaker to begin. The best place for a first time kayaker would be a small, quiet lake, where they could get used to the feel of a kayak and get the hang of maneuvering before tackling a river.
It is really a remarkable thing that more aren’t more drownings than there are. The liveries think nothing of sticking a first time kayaker in a boat and sending them down a river like the Pine or the Jordan. The same livery operators will tell you horror stories about lost or mangled equipment due to beginners not knowing what they were doing. Usually, it isn’t the beginners that drown, it is the people with some experience, or even a lot of experience.
I grew up on and in the water, I don’t fear it at all, but I do have a healthy respect for it, especially moving water. Moving water doesn’t have to be very deep to be powerful enough to sweep you off your feet, twist an aluminium canoe up like a bow tie, or turn a plastic kayak inside out.
I’m not trying to scare people, but I have seen people swept off their feet, aluminium canoes twisted up like bow ties, and kayaks that look like they were turned inside out. Those things shouldn’t happen, and maybe if we did things the right way, they wouldn’t.
Actually, some people do start off the right way, they take a class. I know some of the outfitters that sell kayaks hold classes for beginners, and I believe many universities do as well, although I assume the university classes are priced above the average person’s price range. I’m not sure every one needs a university level class in order to go kayaking anyway, kayaking isn’t that difficult. On the other hand though, people shouldn’t take their first kayak run down a river such as the Pine, the Sturgeon, or the Little Manistee either.
Here’s the way I would start some one out, knowing what I know now. I would take them to a small lake on a warm day, put their kayak in the water, and have them sink it before they ever even sat down in it. I would have the rookie wade out into water two or three feet deep, and have them turn their kayak on edge until it filled with water. There are a couple of reasons I would have them sink their kayak, one is that people have no idea how heavy a kayak filled with water is, or how hard it is to get the water back out of one. Then they would also know whether their kayak would sink or float when filled with water. While they were there, I would also have them check their paddle to see if that sank or floated. If it sank, I would suggest they add some kind of floatation to their kayaks, because a kayak that sinks is not good on a river, and really not good out on one of the big lakes.
Being the sadist that I am, I would watch them struggle trying to lift the waterlogged kayak out of the water before telling them the first trick of the day. That is, bend one your legs and pull the bow of the kayak up onto your thigh. as the water starts to run out, continue pulling the kayak up your thigh until almost all the water is out. It takes a couple of minutes, but it works, and easier than any other way that I know of. Once the water is almost out, they can pull the kayak on shore and drain the remaining water out of it.
Once they have it drained, I would let them get in it for the first time. Then I would take them out into slightly deeper water, and have them flip their kayak with them in it so they learned several more lessons. One is how far they can lean before they roll, the other is to learn how to slide out of their kayak when they roll. That one may have to be repeated several times, depending on how well they do the first time.
Once they have learned how far they can lean their kayak before rolling it, and how to exit a rolling kayak, then we would begin to work on making sure they never have to use what they had just learned, starting with a few basic paddle strokes. I would follow along behind them and offer advice and tips to make paddling easier, and how to turn and stop their kayak as we paddled around the lake. Hopefully they would find that part of the lesson more pleasurable than the rolling the kayak exercise was.
After that first lesson, much would depend on the types of water the rookie wanted to kayak in the future. If they wanted to mainly lakes and work their way up to the Great Lakes, then that’s what we would do. Go to a larger lake with plenty of powerboats to kick up some wakes, and let the beginner get the feel for waves. If you can handle large boat wakes, you’re pretty much ready to tackle any types of waves any one with any sense should try in a kayak. Boat wakes may not be as large as the waves on the Great Lakes, but they are actually harder to handle in a kayak than 4 or 5 foot rollers out on the big lakes. That’s because they are closer together and get you rocking more than the larger swells on the big lakes.
If they wanted to do rivers, I would start them off on a couple of easy ones, like the Rogue River above Rockford, the Thornapple, the Flat, and go from there.
Actually, most of the rivers in the lower peninsula of Michigan are OK for beginners, or close to it. After one or two outings on a lake, the only rivers I would hesitate to bring a beginning river kayaker to are the Pine, the Sturgeon, and the Little Manistee Rivers. All three are fast, about equally as fast. The Pine is the easiest of the three, since it is the largest of the three and the fast water is fairly straight forward as far as chosing a line. The Sturgeon is a bit smaller, and a lot twistier than the Pine, with more strainers and sweepers to avoid. The Little Manistee is the toughest river in lower Michigan, it is as fast as the first two, much smaller and tighter, and it’s one hairpin turn after another, with logjams at the bends just waiting to catch you off guard.