Cool water, good paddling Boating: The growing popularity of going gently or not so gently down the stream in canoes, kayaks and rafts

Up Front

Paddle Power: A guide to canoeing, kayaking and rafting.

July 09, 1998|By Lisa Wiseman | Lisa Wiseman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On any given weekend along Maryland's many waterways, hundreds of people in speedboats and Jet Skis whiz by at electrifying speeds. Zipping along the water's surface, the scenery around them becomes a dizzying blur of green and blue.

And while the speed demons roar by, another group paddles along at a slower and quieter pace in small boats made of plastic, fiberglass and wood.

Powered only by muscles and the river's steady current, boaters in canoes and kayaks see what the motorboaters miss - the tranquil beauty and abundant wildlife found on Maryland's lakes, streams, rivers, creeks and ocean.

"I like going places that put you in a wilderness situation. In a canoe or kayak, you can get to where the public can't go," said 32-year-old Lindsay Blauvelt of Baltimore. Blauvelt took up kayaking eight years ago as a way to get exercise without putting any stress on her "bad knees." "It's a great workout," she said. "You get to sit down and work the upper body and the hips."

Blauvelt works part time at Gunpowder Falls State Park, which is one of her favorite places to paddle. "There are some nice low to moderate rapids, areas for beginners, and on a day after a good, hard rain, some good whitewater," she said.

Blauvelt, along with Gunpowder assistant park manager Peyton Taylor, has seen an increase in the number of people paddling the Gunpowder River. Blauvelt attributes the increase to the growing number and variety of canoes and kayaks on the market. She should know. She owns seven kayaks. "There's a boat for just about any type of water situation," Blauvelt said.

Taylor believes that the park's increase in water access points and parking lots has made it a lot easier for more people to get to the river.

One of the most popular runs on the Gunpowder is from Harford Road to the Belair Road bridge, where there is now a large parking area. The more adventurous begin the run at Belair Road and travel through areas like Pots Rock, then tumble through Class III rapids below Route 7 and finish up by carving through an old dam site containing a sharp, S-shaped curve.

"For some people, it's just like sledding. They go down the river, then hop in the car, drive up the road and go down again," Taylor said.

"This is a better year for kayaking than last year," said Jeremy Persinger of Cockeysville, who was paddling the Gunpowder recently. "With the amount of rain we've been getting lately, water levels are at an all-time high. I just came back from running the middle branch of the Youghiogheny, and it was incredible." The "Yough," as it's called (pronounced Yock), starts in Ohiopyle, Pa., and runs into Western Maryland. Several outfitters for all skill levels serve its three branches.

With an increase in the number of people paddling, particularly inexperienced boaters, Taylor hopes that people have the sense to follow basic water safety rules.

Taylor and Blauvelt both recommend paddling with at least one other person. "You should never go alone," Taylor said. One of the best ways to meet more boaters is to join a paddling club like the Baltimore Canoe Club, which Blauvelt and her husband belong to. "We organize trips and get together almost every weekend," Blauvelt said. It doesn't take much to start canoeing or kayaking - just the ability to swim, since beginning boaters should expect to fall out of the watercraft at least once. Taylor said that life jackets and helmets are essential for all boaters on the Gunpowder, since river conditions can be unpredictable. Shoes are also a necessity, he said. "You never know what's beneath the water."

And there's more practical advice: "Leave the wallet and credit cards at home." Chad Cadden, 25, of Belcamp learned that lesson the hard way after he and 26-year-old Mike Nealis flipped their canoe on the Gunpowder. "All of the pictures of my kids are stuck together," Cadden said.

This was the first canoe trip on whitewater for both men. "It was a lot of fun. When you sell insurance, it's nice to just get away and get into nature," Nealis said.

"But it can also be very dangerous," Cadden added. "Next time, maybe we won't fall out."

"Beginners should always take lessons," Taylor said. The park offers a variety of paddling classes and water safety/rescue courses along with guided daytime and twilight trips along the river. Several classes and trips even include boat rental. In the Hammerman area of the park, sea kayaks are also available for rental by the hour or by the day.

But beginners aren't the only ones who can benefit from lessons. John Billingslea, who has paddled for 17 years, teaches kayaking skills on the pond at his Norrisville farm. Many of his students have boated for a while but have reached a "frustration point," Billingslea said. "A lot of people go out, buy a boat, paddle it for a while and then take it on whitewater and almost drown, or they think that they almost drown and then put the boat in the garage where it will sit for 10 years."

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