Story: Kerri Regan
Flatwater and Whitewater Kayaking
Whether you’re looking for a leisurely paddle around Whiskeytown Lake or an adrenaline-fueled trip down the Trinity River, a kayak just might be the vessel for you.
Kayaking on a lake (“flatwater”) requires no more instruction than playing golf; but it’s wise to take some lessons before careening down a raging river (“whitewater”). Whatever your style, the North State is a playground for these human-powered watercrafts, so here’s how to get started.
Flatwater: If you’ve got a life vest, a kayak and access to water, you’re ready to start paddling, says Garth Schmeck, the owner of Penguin Paddlers in Redding.
“There’s no difference (in necessary skill) between flatwater kayaking and riding a bicycle,” he says.
The first place to start is to find a kayak that fits you. Penguin Paddlers sells more than 100 types, and their staff helps customers figure out the best fit for their needs.
Other venues rent kayaks. Free kayak tours at Whiskeytown Lake (starting around Memorial Day) and the Redding Recreation and Parks Department’s paddling classes let you dip a toe into the sport to see if you enjoy it.
Then it’s time to decide where to go. Why not ask those who know best? The Penguin Paddlers Web site, penguinpaddlers.com, is a virtual gathering spot for some 600 kayak enthusiasts of all ages. An online calendar outlines the club’s road trips, clinics and regular events for people looking for company on the water.
At age 43, Schmeck says he’s one of the youngest in the club - most are from 55 to 75. But don’t let those numbers fool you; kayaking is easier than a gym workout, but it’s great for fitness and you can’t beat the scenery, he adds.
Prime paddling season is between October and May, when it’s not so hot, but it’s truly a year-round sport, Schmeck says. Splash jackets or dry-tops will keep you toasty even when the December chills come to the area. And the greater North State features countless places to dip a paddle - Whiskeytown, Ajumawi, Siskiyou, Baum and Britton lakes are just a few that Schmeck recommends.
“Kayakers like going where it’s beautiful. They’re looking for beauty, pristine surroundings, and peace and quiet,” he says.
Whitewater: For folks looking for a faster pace, whitewater kayaking provides an adrenaline rush - all while treating paddlers to an otter’s-eye view of the North State’s spectacular scenery.
“Rivers are just nice places to be,” said Mark Twitchell, who has been kayaking for 20 years and is a member of the Shasta Paddlers. Spring and summer are the best times to whitewater kayak, Twitchell says before admitting, “When I was younger and dumber, we’d go out when it was snowing.”
Before you start, you need some gear and some instruction, Twitchell says. Whitewater kayakers need to wear helmets. “Anything that protects your head when you’re bouncing along the rocks will work,” says Twitchell. Taking a class also is wise. “You learn to read the river - to learn the difference between rocks and waves,” Twitchell says. “Some little techniques make all the difference in the world.”
Adds one-time pro kayaker Jerimy McNeely: “The less you’re out of your boat swimming, the safer you are.”
Sundance Kayak School on the Rogue River (just west of Medford) and the Otter Bar Lodge in Forks of Salmon are high-class schools, Twitchell and McNeely say.
When you’re ready to hit the water, the Trinity River is an ideal place to learn. “Take a guided trip with an inflatable kayak - it doesn’t require as much balance as a hard shell,” Twitchell says. The stretch from Lewiston to Douglas City is a nice starting point.
Clear Creek near French Gulch, Cow Creek, Battle Creek and the Upper Sacramento above Lake Shasta are a little more challenging, kayakers say. If you’re looking for a little more adventure, try the Class 4 and 5 water of Clear Creek from Whiskeytown Environmental School to Placer Road, Twitchell says. “If you went in there and didn’t know what you were doing, you could have a pretty ugly day,” he says.
When you get into the expert whitewater, Brandy Creek is tops, says McNeely, a 38-year-old Redding native. The Upper Sacramento also has Class 5 runs, he says.
The beauty of kayaking is that you can choose the run that suits your mood, McNeely says. Sometimes he needs to go head-to-head with a raging river; other times he wants to take his kids out for a more leisurely adventure.
“Being on the river and being out in nature,” he says, “it’s my Sunday church.”