Paddle yourself to recreation and exploration

Kayaking is a fast-growing activity, and Harford offers several places to get on the water


On Thursdays, Wendy Baker Davis secures her 16-foot sea kayak to her car. Next, she packs her personal flotation device, a water pump and a pair of water shoes.

Then she sets out from her home in Lancaster, Pa., to meet up with 20 other kayaking enthusiasts at Jean Roberts Park in Havre de Grace.

Davis' bunch, known as the Pirates of North, is a northern Maryland offshoot of the Chesapeake Paddlers Association, a volunteer nonprofit group based in Greenbelt.

The weekly outings by the Pirates are one of several paddling ventures available in the county for beginning to experienced kayakers and canoers.

Kayaking is catching on, whether for exercise, water recreation, bird watching or just plain fun. And it's winning converts from the more traditional canoe.

"Kayaking is the fastest growing sport I'm involved in," said the 43-year-old Davis, who is also an avid hiker and cyclist. "Although there are still die-hard canoers, about 95 percent of the people in the paddlers association have switched from canoes to kayaks."

To meet the growing demand, several county parks have expanded their offerings of kayak excursions.

In some cases, canoe and kayak trips that cost $4 for members and $6 for nonmembers are booked as early as January, said Aimee Harris, 21, a naturalist at Eden Mill Nature Center in Pylesville. "Our trips are usually all booked up by early spring," she said.

Thematic canoe excursions focused on bird-watching, flower viewing and the like are offered to groups of up to 32 people. They run from May through the end of September, with trips generally lasting from 5:45 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Eden Mill offers introductory workshops on canoeing and kayaking that include an explanation of equipment as well as instructions. "We even cover rescuing people," said Harris.

No two trips are the same, she said. "We go out on Otter Point Creek and see the plants, birds, beaver and owls," said Harris who started coming to the camp as a volunteer about eight years ago. "And you have different guides each time, so you can go out repeatedly and it's a new experience."

At the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Abingdon, kayak, canoe and pontoon trips are being offered through November. The kayak and canoe excursions are designed for people ages 8 and older. (Pontoon rides are open to children 30 pounds and above.)

The thematic trips are the most popular, said Shanna Schoen, park manager.

The estuary center offers trips in the morning, afternoon and at night, said Schoen. "We also have bird-watching trips and full-moon tours," she said. "And the critter cruises are a favorite for people of all ages."

But regardless of the type of trip, the demand for kayaking activities continues to grow.

"People are really into kayaks right now," said Schoen. "They can take them into the marsh, and they are so close to nature, it helps to foster a love of the environment."

Davis attributes the kayak's popularity in part to its maneuverability, especially in the waves and wind that often buffet the Chesapeake Bay.

"When you get out on the waves in the wind in a canoe, there's only so much that you can do," said Davis. "It's much easier to handle a kayak."

A kayak also sits closer to the water, so it's easier to creep up on wildlife and maneuver through shallow waters, Davis said.

Finally, kayaks can be taken out alone. Canoes are losing popularity because typically more than one person occupies them, and they have jokingly been dubbed divorce boats, Davis said.

"On a canoe you have a husband in the front and a wife in the back, and they argue over which way to go," said Davis. "But, if you're in a kayak, you make the decisions for your boat. Only you get to decide where you'll go."

Although most of the trips go off without a hitch, occasionally the trips have to be canceled because of bad weather or scorching temperatures, as was the case last week. If the temperature and humidity are too great, then the Harford County Department of Parks and Recreation considers conditions unsafe for being outdoors.

"I had to cancel one event this week and then one other time, so it rarely happens," said Schoen.

But the Pirates of North kayakers, a private group who take guests with them by prior arrangement, often use the heat as an excuse to practice safety procedures - and as an opportunity to get in the water.

"We do something called roto-rolling, where we tip the kayak, fall off into the water, and then practice getting back on," Davis said. "Usually this keeps us cool, but as hot as it is, we'll see what happens."

Also, although more people are learning to kayak each year, the cost of kayaking is still keeping some people at a distance.

The average sea kayak starts at about $1,500, said Davis. You need a life jacket and a paddle if your kayak didn't come with one, and a method for carrying your kayak on the car - from foam blocks to racks - a water pump, and water shoes or waterproof sandals.

To get started, it could cost from about $700 to $2,000. There are less-expensive kayaks suited to paddling in the flat water of creeks and rivers around the Chesapeake.

Kayaking and Canoeing events

Eden Mill Nature Center

1617 Eden Mill Road, Pylesville

Intro to Kayaking

Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Ages: adults only Fee: $65

Intro to Canoeing

Aug. 19, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Ages: adults only Fee: $65 Information: 410-836-3050

Anita C. Leight Estuary Center

700 Otter Point Road, Abingdon

Bloomin Marsh Canoe Trip

Aug. 19, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Ages: 8 to adult Fee: $10 per person (maximum 32)

Bloomin Kayak

Aug. 20, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Ages: 8 to adult Fee: $10 per person Information: 410-612-1688

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