Kayaks overtake canoes as paddlers' choice in Western Pa.
Call it the Kingdom of Kayaks.
From the calm waters in Moraine State Park, Butler County, to the varying rapids of the Youghiogheny River in the Laurel Mountains, brightly colored crafts dot our waterways like recreational punctuation.
They are in rivers, streams and lakes, piloted by seniors, teens and time-tested paddlers. Kayaking seems to have become the paddle sport of choice, letting users get closer to nature, their towns or even their family and friends.
“You can do it alone or in a tandem or with a group,” says Joey-Linn Ulrich, executive director of Venture Outdoors, which has, for 10 years, rented the craft, educated users and led trips at its Kayak Pittsburgh on the North Shore. In the summer of 2013, it served a record 26,000 paddlers there and at its North Park site, a figure the group is hoping to break this year, she says.
Ulrich says in the past five years, participation has grown 30 percent annually.
That popularity holds nationwide, as well, according to the Outdoor Foundation, a Colorado-based group founded by the Outdoor Industry Association, a business group.
More than 141.9 million people kayaked in 2012, the foundation's annual report says. It also says that whitewater kayaking rose 12 percent from 2009 to '12, while sea and touring kayaking were up 12 percent and recreational kayaking 10 percent.
In that same span, canoeing dropped 1 percent.
Perhaps kayaks are less hassle.
“Kayaks are smaller and lighter and can be loaded onto a car and transported easier than canoes; therefore, it makes is easier for someone to do on their own,” says Mac McKeever from the Maine headquarters of L.L. Bean, which sells the craft and sponsors outings.
“Kayaks are also very easy to paddle and maneuver, so it's an accessible, approachable activity with a very low learning curve,” McKeever says.
He and others say there are kayaks for virtually every occasion — whitewater, sea, recreational, touring, sit-on-top and fishing.
Alice Johnston, a member of the Venture Outdoors board and a kayak trip leader, agrees that kayaks have replaced canoes in outdoor popularity for accessibility and ease of use.
“They feel a lot more steady on the water, and they don't take a lot of physical strength to paddle,” she says. “With canoes, it takes awhile to learn some paddling technique.”
At Wilderness Voyageurs, an outfitter in Ohiopyle, interest in canoes is so low, “we don't even stock them (for sale) anymore,” owner Eric Martin says. “If someone wants one, we can get them, but we don't carry them.”
Martin's company has led trips on the whitewater of the Youghiogheny for 50 years.
He says the price of kayaks has added to their popularity. It's possible to get one for $250. That makes it easier for someone to grab a kayak and hit the water — without much preparation.
Twenty years ago or so, Martin says, the image of a kayaker was that of a rugged adventurer, tackling rapids or heading out on camping trips in some unknown wilderness. But the majority of today's kayakers, Martin believes, are looking for easy-going day trips on the water. He says they don't seem as committed to learning proper handling techniques for tackling those bigger adventures.
But Barry Adams from Three Rivers Paddling thinks the wealth of online information might be more of a reason modern kayakers aren't seeking formal instruction.
In the past, he says, paddling talk was exchanged at meetings or on trips. People who wanted to learn gathered to do it.
But the paddling group's Over the Falls Festival, set for Aug. 16, still draws participants from many states at the only sanctioned day for shooting the falls in Ohiopyle, Adams says.
Membership in the group has stayed steady at about 300, he says.
Venture Outdoors' Johnston suspects current kayakers are simply a little more “rise-averse.”
The group's most popular outings are led by trips to watch fireworks displays at river level. Educational ones also are popular.
She also sees growth in the overnight camping trips such as those of the Quemahoning Reservoir in Somerset County and to French Creek and upper reaches of the Allegheny River.
Paddlers always are finding new ways and places to kayak.
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.