Kayaking grows in popularity in North Park

| Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Ten would-be kayakers of various ages listened as volunteer instructor David Bennett demonstrated the correct way to use a kayak paddle at North Park Lake.

“You need to rotate your body so that you're using your hips and legs,” said Bennett of Observatory Hill. “You're going to get more tired” using only your arms.

Bennett showed how to stop a kayak by paddling backwards — and how to turn — during a recent, two-hour Family Paddle lesson sponsored by Venture Outdoors.

Jenn Strang of Venture Outdoors, a South Side-based nonprofit that operates the kayak rental franchise on the lake, said kayaking provides a good workout.

“It strengthens the core, and depending on your body, you can burn up to 400 calories an hour,” she said. “It's also very good for people who have joint issues” in their lower body, such as sore knees that make running difficult.

“Kayaking is a good way to stay active,” Strang said.

Each kayaker in Bennett's class wore a personal flotation device, which he had checked to ensure the safety of the paddlers so they would float even if their kayaks capsized.

He adjusted the personal flotation device on Ian Kilpatrick, 18, of Brighton, to make sure that it would not choke him in the event of an emergency.

The young man was there with his mother, Erin, and sister, Leigh, 20. Ian and Leigh Kilpatrick are runners, but their mother said she thought kayaking would be “something fun to do, learning a new skill.”

Bud Mahoney of North Huntingdon signed up with his wife, Lauren, and daughters, Elizabeth, 10, and Mary, 8. “I was going to buy a kayak, so I thought we should try it first,” he said.

“I'm one of those people with knees being shot due to age and misspent youth,” volunteer Skip Young of Scott said. He and Bennett accompanied the group in solo kayaks.

Men's Journal magazine has called kayaking “that rare upper-body-centric cardio exercise.”

Still, Todd Finley, an owner of Oak Orchard Canoe & Kayak Experts in Waterport, N.Y., which has had many customers in the Erie-to-Pittsburgh area in its 40 years, said kayakers can get a full-body workout.

“You use your legs to brace yourself, your legs and hips are moving with the kayak,” Finley said. “You have torso rotation as you're using your arms; your arms are locked. … One of the nice things about kayaking is, you're not required to be very athletic or muscular or have a lot of endurance. You can still get from Point A to Point B.”

Finley said it's important to match a person's height, weight and workout or experience goals to a kayak. He suggests that those interested in buying a kayak consult an expert knowledgeable about the products.

“I love to kayak,” volunteer Bennett said. “If I'm biking and see people kayaking, I think, ‘Darn, I should be kayaking instead.' ”

Strang said the popularity of kayaking is growing at North Park. This year, Venture Outdoors put 2,000 more people on the water between Memorial Day Weekend and June 30 than in the same period in 2013. Venture Outdoors is in its seventh year of operating North Park Lake kayak rentals and 10th year of offering kayaking in the Pittsburgh area.

Strang attributed some of the increase to more amenities in the park. “The Friends of North Park are doing really great events and increasing the exposure,” she said.

During the Family Paddle session, Bennett gave tips to the kayakers and pointed out natural attractions, such as cliff swallows that had nested in a bridge abutment.

“It was not as taxing as I thought it might be,” Ian Kilpatrick said after the session. “I do feel it in my shoulders and arms.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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