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Kayaking Queens: Why Women Love to Paddle
Kayaking is Among Growing Water Travel Trends for Women

by Garry Gaudet

I must confess I'm neither a woman, nor even American. I'm a male (gulp!) Canadian.

Kayaking on Okanagon Lake
Marion, kayaking away on Okanagan Lake at dusk.

But I do love travel overland and on water, and I'd like to tell you about some remarkable women - American and Canadian - who pursue both.

I met Christine last summer on the north shore of Lake Michigan with a group of her women friends.

"We belong to a swim club," Christine explained over the non-campfire, unlighted because of an extreme forest fire hazard. "We work out with a coach, set personal goals for fitness - and sometimes we arrange social events. Three years ago someone suggested renting sea kayaks for a day. Well - some of us got hooked on paddling as a natural extension of our swimming. Now, we search out beautiful, remote campsites and beaches where we can camp, swim, paddle and hang out together. It's a fabulous package - and the price is right!"

Berta lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. An information technology professional, she loves to camp solo, and has built her own wooden kayak. We met at Parsons Lake, Nova Scotia. "Canada's a lovely place to visit," she offered. "Folks are friendly, the scenery's amazing - and my US dollars are worth about $1.60 Canadian!"

She hadn't brought her boat on this trip, but keeps her life jacket in the car. I lent Berta my kayak for a tryout; she checked over my malfunctioning laptop computer. "I have a terrific career, my own house and my own business," Berta offered. "None of them requires a man in my life. Neither does kayaking. My former guy had a sailboat - but both he and the boat were too high-maintenance. My kayak set me free."

Berta bid adieu to high-maintenance men and found kayaking (and freedom).

Why is kayaking among North America's fastest-growing recreations among women? Simply because these safe, stable boats take you to beautiful, hidden places on lakes or the sea coast, bringing upper-body fitness in the process. It's quiet. You hear the birds, the lapping of water, droplets from your paddle, and you visit snoopy seals in salt water, loons on the lakes. It frees you from the sound and stench of motors. Paddlers can be home in a few hours, or pack gear and food for several days out, unbound by roads and trails. You can tour alone or with friends for an extra margin of safety and companionship, while enjoying the independence of being "captain" of your own boat.

A few months ago, Paddlesports Business Magazine reported that in 1999 "Kayaking grew by 39 percent among women 16 or older". Hmmmm. WHY? On a recent cross-continent trip of 15,000 miles, I met paddlers across four states and all ten Canadian provinces. My research led me to a simple, one-word conclusion: Feminism.

Today's free spirited, adventurous, capable woman is embracing active outdoor recreation as never before, with the ocean kayak increasingly her vehicle of choice.

Lake Manitoba, north of Devil's Lake, North Dakota, is immense, subject to sudden squalls and high winds. Brenda told me she'll sail or canoe with any competent partner, but feels safest in a sea kayak. "So many times I've started out on flat calm, still mornings, and paddled home into headwinds and choppy water," she declares. "Kayakers learn to sniff every breeze and watch every cloud. But whatever the weather does, I know I always have a paddle blade in the water, my centre of gravity is at the water line, and I'm in the most stable boat you could ask for. Safety first!" Brenda grins.

Diminutive Marion, from the BC Okanagan, weighs barely 110 pounds. "My kayak weighs just a third of what I do, so I can lift it on and off the car by myself," she smiles. "It's an independence thing, too. I usually paddle with friends - but now and then I paddle solo along the shore of a bird sanctuary lake. I putter along and enjoy the marine and plant life for hours, at my own pokey pace."

Designer Barry Bezaire, whose touring kayaks are manufactured under the brand name "Azul" in Canada, agrees that light weight, economy of effort and stability are crucial for many paddlers. His 14'5" touring boat for paddlers up to 150 pounds, weighs just 44 pounds.

There are two main types of kayaker.

Most whitewater kayakers are male, from late teens to thirty-something. They challenge swift rivers, rolling their small boats and playing in the ceaseless might of roaring, foamy currents. Extremely active, many also snowboard, climb and mountain-bike. Relatively few whitewater kayakers are women, perhaps 25 percent.

Susan

Sea-kayakers are found both on tidewater and on lakes where the canoe once reigned supreme. We're more likely to be mature, from our twenties into our sixties. We prefer to savor nature at a gentle pace. We love the trackless freedom of touring, the ability to view marine life, sometimes floating in less than a foot of shoreline water, and the security and stability of a closed boat that's surprisingly easy to move. The condescending term, "soft adventure," is laid on our recreation.

Those drawn to kayaking tend to be fairly affluent (good boats cost about $2,000). Research among retailers, guides, rental operators and instructors, supports my observation that about half of all ocean kayakers today are women.

Susan loves paddling tidal inlets from Dartmouth to Lunemburg, Nova Scotia, and the coves of St. Margaret's Bay, where she grew up using her family's rowboat. Then, a gentleman friend swept her off her feet with a gift of a used ocean kayak.

"Brendan loved kayaking, of course, and he figured I'd take to the sport. He guessed right," Susan laughs. "We prefer to paddle together for safety and each other's company. But even when our shifts conflict, each of us can get on the water independently."

"We started to see west-coast kayaks up here a few years ago, and I noticed that lots of women were taking lessons, and going on guided trips," Brendan adds.

Susan and Brendan

Perhaps a Sensitive New Age Guy - "SNAG", Brendan had stumbled on a profound truth. "Women almost always seek formal training - not like us guys, who just jump in, assuming we don't need any training. Hey, the first time I tried a kayak I flipped it," he laughs. "That was a cold, wet awakening. So I took lessons. That smartened me up about the sport and the kind of people drawn to it. When I met Susan we totally hit it off," he concludes. "I knew she'd enjoy switching from rowing to paddling."

The most telling reason for her choice of a sea kayak came from Rosemary, a plain-spoken North Dakota kayaker. "I started paddling in a boyfriend's canoe. I loved being on the water, but wanted to get out more often. And I wanted to paddle in the stern once in a while. That was a big no-no for Barry," she continues. "He told me the stern paddler has to have all the skills and be the captain, and that the bow paddler is basically just an engine. When I took lessons I learned that Barry was actually as unskilled in the boat as he was in the sack. So I dumped him," she laughs, "bought my own kayak, and now I paddle whenever I like, with whoever I like."

The writing's on the wall, SNAGS. Ignore it at your peril.

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