A water girl am I, there’s no doubt about it. We have a 24-foot boat for family cruises down the wild, tea-colored St. John’s River, or snorkel jaunts in the tropical waters of the Florida Keys and manatee-filled springs of Crystal River.
Our canoe is just the ticket for still, peaceful morning sunrise paddles on the lake. And the jet ski rounds out the water vehicle line for our family’s summer slalom, tube and wakeboard escapades.
So, I’m not sure what propelled my desire for a kayak. Somehow a kayak beckoned, filled a longing none of those other vessels seemed to.
Florida has so many pristine streams and remote backwater creeks that just couldn’t be gotten to in another craft, with perhaps the exception of the canoe, which could often be unwieldy in high winds or on streams with strong currents, downed trees or tight turns.
And now that our children were out of the house, a pair of kayaks would be a pleasurable way for my husband and me to create new memories, just the two of us, in places we hadn’t experienced with our kids.
After becoming a birding photographer for floridabirdwatching.com owned by Jenny and Kenny Boyd, I’d become ever more drawn to the world of kayaking. Not merely passionate birders and nature enthusiasts, the Boyd’s own Central Florida Nature Adventures, the premier guided kayak touring company of Central Florida.
For years I listened raptly as they shared their wonder over the unique, unspoiled locations to which they’d introduce awed clients from virtually every country on the globe. I’d even joined them to kayak the pristine streams, for which Florida has always been famous, the “real Florida” that still exists, in large part, due to an aggressive state land acquisition program that preserves these matchless and distinctive wilderness jewels for all, who muster courage, to experience.
In childhood, my family canoed several of the Florida State Parks, but we had been motorboat enthusiast and I remained so, passing the love of that pleasurable pastime on to our children. Yet listening to the Boyd adventures reminded me of the wilderness treasures I’d experienced in youth, and I longed to again enjoy these marvels of our naturally beautiful State.
Canoes use to be the popular boat for backwater exploits, but with kayaks now light enough to carry up townhome stairs and store on patios, the sport had exploded for the landlocked.
On Florida weekends, nearly every vehicle in town had a kayak strapped to it and the sport had taken on a bit of snob appeal as it grew in popularity, array of construction materials, and available gadgetry.
Wandering the kayak section of several sporting good stores for about two years, I learned a smattering of what to look for, but the salespeople knew little more than I did and it seemed easy to make a pricy mistake.
Prices ran the gamut. What made for quality and what just made for hype and snob appeal? What did “roto-molded” mean, and what was the best material for a kayak?
Paddles were a world unto themselves! The task of figuring out myriad details of boat, seat and paddle options intimidated me into feeling out of my league, so I just kept leaving the stores befuddled and frustrated.
One fine day I hit my limit for merely listening to Tales of Exploration from Central Florida Nature Adventures’ fervent participants. It was time to launch into the unknown, to get beyond feeling intimidated by ignorance and the dread of looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, which I didn’t.
It started with a simple e-mail to Jenny Boyd of Central Florida Nature Adventures, firstname.lastname@example.org and from there my own kayak adventure took off. Without talking down to an obvious neophyte, Jenny began educating me, regarding what to look for and why it was important.
At the outset, it seemed logical that a shorter kayak would be less pricy and easier to handle, load and unload. But Jenny helped me widen my knowledge.
“A shorter kayak may or may not be less expensive. And it’s not necessarily easier to load in or on a vehicle. Weight is a real factor, but shorter may not necessarily be lighter. Price and weight both depend on the manufacture, what it’s made of, and what amenities are included, the weight of the seat, etc.”
One might assume a shorter kayak would be easier to maneuver through the water, but not necessarily! “The shorter the kayak the more it will move from side to side as you paddle. This actually requires more effort to move through the water. The longer the kayak the truer it will track, the straighter it will move through the water, and the less effort it takes to paddle,” Jenny informed me.
As a professional kayak guide, Jenny paddles a lightweight 9’ Dagger and loves it. Though it takes more effort to paddle the straight runs, she’s better able to maneuver quickly to serve a client’s needs or move rapidly from one position to the other while shepherding a tour along swift streams and tight spring runs.
For a first kayak, I really didn’t want to invest a lot of money, in case my needs changed as I learned, or I didn’t enjoy it or use it as often as I thought I would. But Jenny warned, “Be careful with the cheaper brands. While you might save a few dollars on your initial costs, those kayaks will often delaminate. They can’t take the intensity of the Florida sun or the rough treatment kayaks often endure through loading and unloading from whatever method of transportation you use. The snaps, straps and cushioning of seats are cheaper and don’t last as long. Those are important elements to consider when purchasing a kayak.”
I hadn’t considered any of those aspects, and now realized how valuable her professional help was in avoiding decisions based on ignorance that I would surely regret.
Jenny suggested I purchase a roto-molded polyethylene kayak, which would be easy to load onto an SUV due to its lightweight, and be relatively inexpensive compared to Kevlar or fiberglass kayaks which, while light, are stiffer, scratch more easily and are much pricier.
She also suggested a 12’ length, that would track straight and true for undemanding paddling along streams, but be nimble enough to make turns and curves without a lot of back paddling.
Then there was the choice of a sit-on kayak, definitely the easiest to enter and exit, or a sit-in kayak, which was the choice for a dryer ride.
For kayak builders, she suggested I consider Perception, Emotion, RTM, Dagger, Wilderness Systems and Old Towne as brands known to be durable and well-built. And she suggested I head to Mosquito Creek Outdoor www.mosquitocreek.com or a similar company that specialized in kayaks, and had a pool where one could actually paddle a kayak before making the investment.
“That’s the main thing, to paddle the kayak before you buy. These guys paddle for the enjoyment of it all the time. They are in the kayak business and that’s what they do well, for business and for recreation. Their passion and experience allows them to help you make wise choices for your particular usage, since they paddle the same areas and know what you’ll be dealing with.”
With that tutorial under my belt, I headed to Mosquito Creek Outdoor in Apopka, Florida. While they have a wonderful store in the front, filled with everything the outdoor enthusiast could dream of, the real action was in another building to the back.
Upon entering the place, I was astounded to see every size, style and color of kayak imaginable, yet the staff was friendly and especially patient, putting me at ease to ask questions without feeling ignorant or intimidated. Right in the middle of the huge showroom was a pool for paddling one’s selection around, to get a feel for how it moved, and how one moved with it. Gary then proceeded to spend nearly an hour helping me make informed choices, based on his personal experience as a paddler and vast knowledge of the sport as a professional.
Gary showed me the differences between models, helped me compare the things we needed, and didn’t, and helped me whittle down choices based on the type of water on which we’d spend the most time. He even educated me on the value of color. “If you plan to spend time in waters shared by motorized boats, you want a lively color that allows you to be seen easily. If you’re photographing wildlife, colors that imitate nature will help you blend into the environment more effectively.” Even a kayak’s color was about so much more than mere good looks.
Paddle options could baffle the mind, but Gary gave me a lesson on the reason for differences in construction materials, and the value of light weight paddles versus rugged ones that could stand up to abusive conditions. It was important to balance those factors based on the usage they would endure.
Most state parks and kayak guide companies use aluminum shaft, nylon bladed, one-piece paddles for ease of use and durability. They’re also less expensive to purchase, but tend to be heavier. For the day-tripper, that’s sufficient.
But for the individual who kayaks often or for longer distances, fiberglass shafts or carbon blades can’t be beat for lightness of weight and construction. And weight is a factor you’ll appreciate more with every paddle stroke. Just a few extra ounces adds up on long distances and can really tire you out, detracting from your enjoyment of the sport.
Fiberglass shafts are usually married to carbon blades, which tend to chip more easily than nylon does. It can’t take the punishment of carelessness or withstand a beating like a nylon blade can. Paddling in rocky-bottomed areas or places where you might push off rocks along the edge will shorten the life of a fiberglass and carbon paddle very quickly.
Two-piece paddles are more expensive but make great sense for flexibility of use and ease of storage. The shafts can be extended to different lengths to accommodate your personal taste and are marked to allow for paddles to be “feathered”, that is, set at different angles. Storing two shorter lengths inside a kayak is easier than having one long paddle protruding out to trip upon or drop overboard.
Never underestimate how quickly you can get into an emergency situation on the water. While kayaks are stable, it’s not hard to flip one in a tight turn or swift moving current, and life vests are essential safety equipment to wear or at the least carry on board. And most state and national parks require them to be included in your safety gear before paddling their waterways.
Kayak vests are different from typical ski vests or life preservers in that they are cut to allow for ease of continual arm movement and therefore chafe less than other types of vests. Shrewd kayakers include a small first aid kit, a towel or sponge for bailing, a whistle for location, an extra break-apart paddle and a poncho as important safety gear to prevent a day’s kayak adventure from turning into a nightmare experience.
By the time I left Mosquito Creek Outdoor, I’d purchased two 12’ Perception Prodigy sit-in kayaks, Adventure Technology Glass Shaft Ergo T4 carbon bent shaft paddles to go with them, and a few essential accessories to keep our gear dry and bodies safe.
Two days later, we were gliding along Rock Springs Run, heading against current with near ease due to the perfectly suited 12’ Perception kayaks and lightweight AT paddles. Yet we didn’t even realize we were getting a near full-body workout in the swifter turns and twists of the run. I could go off alone to photograph silently the elusive bird life that inhabit those serene waters and in moments rejoin my husband to continue our adventure exploring the crystal stream’s spectacular vegetation and wildlife.
For me, kayaking was no longer an intimidating snob sport but a new avenue through which to connect with my husband and experience the tranquil marvels of nature, plus get a respectable work-out in the bargain. After all these years, life in Florida is still pretty great…
© Amy K. Munizzi