Wednesday, June 13, 2007


(News-Herald, June 2003) There I was, paddling away and thinking that everyone needs a kayak. French Creek is a special treat, because it’s not accessible all summer long. Well, it’s accessible, but you have to get out and walk for long stretches, which is not the most enjoyable way to spend the trip.

There was a time, a century or so ago, when French Creek was considered the vacation destination of the area, sort of a Venango County Poconos. It’s not hard to see why.

There’s the stretch below Utica that offers many islands, side trips, and interesting little eddies. There’s French Creek’s generally windy nature. I love the Allegheny, but there are long straight expanses that can feel a bit like the waterway equivalent of Indiana—long and flat and after traveling for a while, you can look up and see exactly what you saw an hour ago. But French Creek has so many twists and turns that there’s always another corner to peek around, another view to be unveiled like a series of beautiful paintings behind a row of velvet curtains.

French Creek also offers long stretches away from civilization, completely quiet but for the sound of birds and water. It is good for the spirit to be reminded of what real quiet sounds like.

I am partial to the view from the water. The tree-covered hills, families of geese, ducks overhead—and I’ve seen deer at the edge of the water plenty of times, but there is something special about seeing them from the creek itself.

You can make the journey by canoe if you wish. I confess to being totally biased in favor of kayaks. You sit lower, you travel lighter, and you always have available the minimum number of people needed for an enjoyable trip (that is to say, one).

Selecting a kayak can be daunting—there’s a great deal to choose from out there. Kayaks are available to be used for acts of momentary insanity, mythic foolishness, and conservative wimpiness. It’s important to make the selection appropriate for you.

Acts of momentary insanity are best committed in what are often called “playboats.” Do not be fooled by that term, which suggests a ten-year-old romping in a friendly fish pond—these are the boats that you see in ads for SUV’s in which studly young men pitch themselves over dribbly cliffs, their legs wrapped in a slim sheath of multicolored vinyl. That slim sheath is the kayak.

Playboats are short and tricky. In our neighborhood, I can’t honestly think of what you’d do with one, although if you have a three story house you could run a garden hose up to the roof, drag your playboat up there, and ride the drizzle all the way to the downspout.

There are expedition kayaks as well. These are slender and longer than a Lincoln Continental. Strap one to the top of a VW Beetle and not only will you look ridiculous, but you will fly away in the first stiff crosswind. These come with lots of straps and compartments, the better to store and carry all the supplies you’ll need when you leave to circumnavigate Antarctica.

Both types require a certain amount of physical stamina. It’s not just the paddling; steering has a lot to do with using your lower back to aim your legs. Hang from a doorjamb by your arms, pick up a bottle of ketchup with your feet, and use it to write the Declaration of Independence on the floor. It’s kind of like that.

Find kayaking appealing yet? Fortunately, there is also a large category of Kayaks for Normal Humans. Not too long, not too thin on the bottom. You may want to try a few out to get the right combination of characteristics. You may not want a boat that tips over easily, but on the other hand, if it’s too stable, it will handle like a brick.

In one respect, kayaking is like bicycling. You can sink a gazillion bucks into flashy equipment, cool accessories, and scary fashions to wear, and become Way Too Serious about it all. Or you can just get some cheap basic stuff and have some fun.

Kayaks can be found used (think ebay, though the postage can be a killer) or rented. Used kayaks are not as pretty as new ones, but since most modern kayaks are made out of the same sort of indestructible materials used in space rockets and Tupperware, they’re usually a safe bet. After the human race is extinct, the cockroaches will be tooling around in our old kayaks.

And whatever you do, get some advice from reputable professionals. In other words, drop this paper in the recycling bin and go ask the guys at Wiegels Marina to fix you up.

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