Kayaking on the Hudson

Monday, February 28, 2011

5 Reasons to take a kayak lesson

Practicing a bow rescue during kayak class
When I am presenting my “Get Started Kayaking” program at libraries, colleges, or wherever else I end up, the audience is usually a bit surprised when I tell them how to get started kayaking.  I’m not talking about how to choose your equipment; I’m talking about how to actually get out on the water.  I tell everyone that a great way to get started is to take a lesson or a tour from a reputable outfitter.
A kayak lesson is just what it sounds like; you paddle around and your instructor teaches you how to kayak.  When I first stated kayaking, I took a very comprehensive lesson (it went from 8am to 4pm).  I learned more in one day than I had learned in two years of paddling on my own.
If you’re not sure about kayaking, then a tour is even better.  With a tour you do get some very basic instruction, but instead of paddling around in circles, you get to actually go somewhere.  This is what kayaking is all about.
So why am I so big on tours and lessons?  Here’s why:

  1. You don’t need your own equipment – the outfitter provides the kayak, the paddle & the pfd.
  2. You know the equipment is good and everything fits, because an expert set you up with it.
  3. You learn from an expert.
  4. You get to test out equipment without buying it.
  5. You don’t have to worry because the outfitter has done all of the planning and will keep you safe.
A basic tour ranges from $40 to $120 depending on the location, the length of the tour, etc.  Lessons usually run $60-$200.  So it’s a great way to get a taste of kayaking, but after a couple of trips, you may want to invest in your own equipment.
See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Erie Canal - Genesee to Palmyra

Kayaking through Genesee Valley Park
Day 1: A leisurely paddle along the Erie Canal.  We started in the afternoon on the Genesee River south of the Erie Canal.  We paddled down river to the canal and headed east.   We took out at Lock #33 where our friend met us and helped shuttle our kayaks to the Jewish Community Center—our campground for the night.  It was a short paddle, but the scenery was fantastic.  We were surrounded by the green of Genesee Valley Park while Blue Herons flew along the banks.  The sheer size and complexity of the canal guard gates left us in awe.
Guard gates on the Erie Canal
Richardson's Canal House in Bushnells Basin

Day 2: Without our friend’s station wagon, we had to belay our fully-loaded kayaks down an embankment which took some time and effort.  But it was well worth it, because our first stop for the day was Pittsford.  Pittsford is a quaint little canal village with excellent shops and restaurants (we had crepes for breakfast).  After getting our fill of food, shopping and just plain walking around, we headed east to Bushnells Basin where we camped at a nice park alongside the canal.  Our friends Rich & Val met us again and gave us a ride to Wegmans, where we picked up a variety of tasty foods.  (You can read all about Wegmans at ) After our cookout at the park, we wandered about Bushnells Basin taking in the wonderful architecture.
Kayak Camping at Lock 30 in Macedon

Day 3: Launching from the park proved to be difficult.  We ended up lowering the kayaks off of the dock with ropes-like the lifeboats being lowered off the Titanic.  In the end, we did fare a bit better than those poor folks.  We headed out early to Fairport where we met a dozen members of the Genesee Chapter of the ADK.  We enjoyed a beautiful day of paddling with them including a stop for a picnic lunch.  We ended up at Lock #30 in Macedon where there is a designated camping area. We set up camp while our new friends went through the lock just for fun.

Day 4: A short but wonderful day of paddling brought us to Palmyra where we took out.  We left the canal knowing that we would return.  There was just so much good paddling left, that we vowed to complete the entire canal—one section at a time.

Note: (This was an ADK trip, so all camping was prearranged and required insurance from the ADK-so please don’t camp where we camped without permission.)
See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Friday, February 25, 2011

Kayak Review: Acadia 12ft. by Perception

This was the second boat we bought and like our Loon, we paddled the Acadia everywhere.  We crashed it down the Delaware River and braved the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson River.  This was one of the first mass-appeal kayaks built and there are thousands of them out there.  It has a rear bulkhead and our Acadia never leaked in the 14 years we owned it.  Great for beginners, stable and fun.  12’6”, 50lbs.  This version is no longer in production.  Newer 12 ft. models have more hydrodynamic hulls and cushier seats.  Still, you can pick one up used pretty cheap.  Still a good boat for the money.
Acadia kayak after 13 seasons of use.  Still looks like new.

Uses: Beginning kayakers, flat water, general recreational use.

Pros: Early versions were made out of bomb-proof, heavy plastic.  Later versions saw a thinning of the plastic but were still pretty tough.  Dual channels help the boat track a little better.  Rear bulkhead and hatch.  Good deck rigging for a recreational kayak.  Very stable and easy to paddle.

Cons: Very slow kayak.  Does not track well (no 12ft. kayak does).  A little on the heavier side.  No front bulkhead so use float bags for safety.  Flat shape does not handle rough water well.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kayak Safety: Seaworthiness & Bulkheads

Kayaking is a great sport, but it is inherently dangerous.  You’re going somewhere man was not meant to be for very long.  You had better respect the water or you will end up being a statistic.  So make sure you have the right kayak for the conditions you will encounter.  If you are going out on big water – big lakes, big rivers, the ocean- you need to have a kayak with 2 bulkheads or at least you need to use float bags.  You could be miles from shore and you can’t risk your kayak sinking while out that far.  Let’s look at some samples:

This is a kayak with 2 bulkheads that has had the cockpit completely filled with water.  Notice how Lou can still paddle the kayak. 
A sea kayak with 2 bulkheads can still be paddled with the cockpit full of water.
This kayak has 1 bulkhead in the rear.  Do you really think you’d be able to empty this boat and get back in while you are out at sea?  Note: If you must paddle a kayak with 1 or no bulkheads, make sure you put float bags in to displace the water.

Recreational kayak with 1 bulkhead that has been swamped
This kayak has no bulkheads.  Lou is actually sitting in the kayak which is now resting on the bottom of the Hudson River! 
Recreational kayak with no bulkheads ends up on the river bottom

I don’t like the idea of using float bags in a recreational kayak, because bulkheads are not the only issue.  I’ll post again in the future on why recreational kayaks are not made for big water.  

Now I get that these pictures represent a worst-case scenario, but with kayaking it’s not how likely a problem is to occur that matters.  What matters is how severe the consequences are if the problem does occur.  If you paddle out into big water with a kayak that isn’t built for it, you are risking your safety and your life.  Now you have an excuse to go out and buy another kayak!

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Thanks to Lou Rudisch from the Mid-Hudson ADK for being such a good sport and paddling the swamped kayaks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kayak Review: Loon by Old Town

Summary:  This was the first kayak I ever owned;
Loon Kayak by Old Town
a grey one that we nick-named the “grey whale.”   It was pretty basic- no bulkheads, no hatches, no bungees on the deck.  It was simple, but durable.  We paddled it for 13 seasons and it still looked like new when we sold it.  We paddled it just about everywhere- on lakes, down the Delaware River, out on the ocean in Maine.  It is no longer in production, but if you want a very stable, easy to paddle and virtually indestructible kayak, this may be a good choice.  13 ft. +/-, 50 lbs. approx.
Use: Beginner kayak, flat-water paddling.

Pros:  Awesome, 3-layer plastic construction.  It is stiffer, stronger and more durable than just about any other plastic out there.  Comfortable and easy to paddle.  Huge cockpit opening, big enough to bring my 50 lb. dog along for the ride.  Super stable.

Cons:  Most of these were built with no bulkheads, so use float-bags for added safety.  Cockpit opening is so big that there is only 1 spray skirt made that fits.  No bungees on the deck.  Easy fix to install your own.  (See picture for example) Very wide – great for beginners, like paddling a bath tub if you are an advanced kayaker.

Kayak Reviews: My Approach

There are lots of reviews out there for kayaks.  It’s a good idea to check a site like to get some other opinions.  But if you’d like mine, here they are.  I will be reviewing a lot of kayaks that are no longer produced because it’s harder to find reviews and advice on some of these older models.  The guy trying to sell you a new one is sure not going to give you much advice on the old models.  But let’s face it, many of us do buy used kayaks.  One last thing, I try to review each boat with its intended purpose in mind.  It’s not fair to compare a 16 ft. sea kayak to a 12 foot recreational kayak.  So I’ll try to tell you what each kayak is good for as well.

Thinking about buying a particular kayak model and need some guidance?  Just send me an email with your questions and I’ll see what I can do.
See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Monday, February 21, 2011

Kayak Camping

Preparing for kayak camping is a lot like preparing for a backpacking trip only less so.  Like backpacking, you have to watch the size and weight of what you bring.  But with kayaking, you do have a bit more leeway.  Backpacking tents, ground pads, sleeping bags, stoves, and cookware are all good choices and perform double duty if you backpack.

What’s more important with kayak camping is how you pack the kayak.  Remember, if it won’t fit through the hatch opening, you are leaving it behind.  Another rule of thumb: If you don’t want it to get wet, then put it in a dry bag.  I’ve owned over 30 kayaks and regardless of price, the majority of them leaked at some time or other.  It doesn’t take much water in a hatch to soak your clothes or sleeping bag.

I like to pack my clothes in multiple dry bags just in case one gets wet.  Even if the dry bags don’t leak, you may have to open one in the rain.  I also have dry bags big enough for my tent and sleeping bag, although many people just use garbage bags for these items.
You’ll need to distribute the weight evenly when you pack the kayak so keep this in mind.  If you don’t your kayak could list to one side and you’ll get tired using corrective strokes all day long.  Also keep in mind what you will need to access when.  You can stuff extra sandals and ground pads way up in the bow and stern, but your extra clothes and food should be easy to get at.

Finally, if you are paddling in a group and have help carrying the kayak; feel free to bring some extras.  My favorites:  A Crazy Creek chair.  I fold it up and strap it right on the deck.  A book to read.  Wine to drink while reading the aforementioned book (just make sure to put the wine into a plastic container).  And my favorite extra?  A camp shower.  It folds up nice and small.  

Don’t worry about what kayak you have.  I took a 4-day trip in a 14 foot kayak and brought all of the stuff mentioned above.

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You'll never kayak without a pfd again.

Kayak safety rule #1 is to always wear your life vest (pfd-Personal Flotation Device).  The reason is simple; you are much, much more likely to survive a kayaking “accident” if you are wearing one.  Consider this fact: in the last 30 years, there has been an average of more than 1 death per year on the upper Delaware River.  Truth is, it’s the deadliest river in the continental U.S.  Hardly a season goes by that there aren’t a few drownings.  But, no one who was wearing a properly fitted pfd has drowned!*  That’s enough proof for me, I wear my pfd every time I paddle. 
*(Only 1 person who was wearing a pfd has drowned, and his didn’t fit properly so it came off as soon as he hit the water.  He was also canoeing in January wearing only a sweatshirt and jeans).

See you on the water,
Don Urmston

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick

My wife, Andrea, paddling Hopewell Rocks
We had heard about the tremendous 30 to 40 foot tides in the Bay of Fundy, so while we were vacationing in Maine, we decided to drive up to New Brunswick and see for ourselves.  Every brochure you’ll see for New Brunswick shows the Hopewell Rocks.  So, we decided we had to paddle them.  The Hopewell Rocks are a series of “flower pots” – very big, tall rocks that stand out in the water offshore and have arches and tunnels carved by the water.  The location is in a park with an interpretive center and nature trails.  This means that access is restricted so we did have to pay the entry fee for the park ($8 each).  I’m not one for paying to paddle, but this experience is definitely worth the price of admission.  

Paddling amongst the flower pots
Once we checked in and signed a waiver form, we were shown a nice little beach where we could launch from that was right next to the “rocks.”  We bumped into the guys from Baymount Outdoor Adventures- the local guide company.  They were extremely helpful and told us all about where we should launch, the tides, conditions, etc.  They even offered the use of their hose to clean our boats when we were done! Everyone in Canada is so nice!    We launched just before high tide.  The tide is so severe that while we were getting in our boats, the tide crept about 15 feet up the beach- in just 10 minutes!  We paddled out to the Hopewell Rocks, and we were not disappointed.  Paddling among these giant rocks, we ducked into caves and crevices –some so narrow that we had to use our hands to push along the rocks. 

 After about an hour, we returned to find the beach was completely gone!  As we landed among the sea grass on the shore we were treated to the sight of several hundred thousand shore birds flocking on the shore.  At first we thought the crowds of people with cameras were watching us, until we found out that we had inadvertently planned our paddling on the peak day of the birds’ migration.  We also managed to be there for the highest tide of the year.  How’s that for a lucky break?  

 Of course, if you paddle the Hopewell Rocks, you have to go back and see them at low tide.  Since the admission to the park is good for two days, we came back the next morning (the lowest tide of the year) and walked on the ocean floor – looking up some 20 feet at where we had paddled the day before! 

This trip is a very easy paddle, unless the wind kicks up.  The distance is very short, but you could spend hours exploring the coast line.  It’s definitely worth the trip and it is only ½ hour drive from Fundy National Park.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Choosing a Kayak Paddle

Choosing a good kayak paddle is just as important as choosing the right kayak.  Think about it, you wouldn’t buy a new car without an engine would you?  Well, guess what?  You and the paddle together ARE THE ENGINE!  This post will only cover European style paddles.  Greenland style paddles will get their own post.  So here’s what you need to know:

Kayak Paddle Parts:
Blade – end of the paddle that goes into the water and makes you go.
Shaft- round part of the paddle that you hold

Kayak Paddle Types:

High Angle Blades – Shorter, wider blades.  You paddle closer to the kayak with the paddle almost straight up and down (it’s at a high angle to the water).  These paddles give more power and you can accelerate faster, but they require more energy with each stroke.  Good for aggressive paddlers and those with lots of upper-body strength.
Low Angle - Top / High Angle Bottom 

Low Angle Blades – Longer, skinnier blades.  You paddle further out from the kayak at a lower angel to the water.  These paddles don’t push as much water, so they don’t give as much power, but they are easier to push.  So you take a few more strokes, but each stroke is easier.  Good for long trips and people who don’t want to fatigue or aggravate shoulder, back and other injuries.

Kayak Paddle Length:
Put 100 kayak experts in a room and ask each one what length paddle you should use and you will get 100 different answers.  If your paddle is too long it will be unwieldy and cause unnecessary fatigue.  Too short and you will scrape your hands on the side of your kayak.  The ideal length is a combination of your height, the width of your kayak and the style of paddle you choose.  Most mass merchandisers sell paddles that are way too long.   A low angle paddle will have to be longer so it will reach the water.  Paddles come in lengths measured in centimeters.  My rule of thumb is that you really shouldn’t need a paddle more than 220cm unless you are 6ft or taller or you paddle a really wide boat (like a tandem).  I’d be glad to give a more personalized answer- just email me at:

Kayak Paddle Weight:
Weight is key in a kayak paddle.  The more you paddle, the more fatigued you become.  If you’re just out for an hour bird watching, it won’t matter what you have.  If you go out for a few hours or days, you’ll want the lightest paddle you can afford.

Kayak Paddle Materials:
Metal / Plastic – $24-$200  Heaviest, cheapest
Fiberglass – $200-$300 Middle weight, mid-priced
Carbon Fiber – $300-$500 Lightest & most expensive
Combos – $129-$250 New paddles that combine light materials like a carbon fiber shaft with inexpensive materials like plastic blades.  These give significant weight savings without the cost.