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Kayaking at North Park the perfect quick getaway after work

| Friday, June 1, 2007

I was only about 12 miles away from my office on the North Shore, but I didn't feel like I was anywhere near the city.

About an hour after leaving work, I was in a kayak on North Park Lake with a group from Venture Outdoors, and except for the occasional car driving through the park, I couldn't hear anything but birds and the passing chatter from people fishing on the banks.

After threatening to open up all day, the sky had cleared and turned blue for those precious last hours of daylight, and I was beginning to think there was no better way to end the work day.

Then, a great blue heron took off from one bank and crossed directly in front of our group, flying about two feet above the water and giving us a better view than a scene from Winged Migration before landing on a partially submerged log to our right.

Now this was my idea of a luxury cruise.

I'd never been kayaking before, and I figured with Pittsburgh's wealth of waterways I was probably missing out on something fun. I signed up for the first Venture Outdoors beginner kayak of the season and it was a sell-out, with 15 paddlers ranging from students to seniors.

The evening started with a quick demo on how to fit the life vest, along with the promise that North Park Lake is shallow enough that in most places an overboard kayaker would be able to touch the bottom. That was followed by the reassurance that the boats are quite stable, more like canoes than the smaller, whitewater kayaks people generally think of, and that it would actually take a bit of work to spill out of one.

Then, it was on to the basics of paddling - how to grip the paddle, how to roll your wrists, how to turn left and right and paddle yourself backwards.

Venture Outdoors isn't about learning the Eskimo roll. If you're looking for more advanced or in-depth instruction, they'll be happy to refer you to local outfitters that offer that sort of training.

Soon we were on the water, testing out our new-found knowledge on our own before setting off as a group to tour the lake at a pace that allowed for everyone to feel comfortable.

If you've ever thought you might like to try kayaking, there's no reason why you shouldn't.

It's easy to learn, you can be on the water in minutes, and you can either turn the activity into a great workout (keep Advil on hand for the next day) or make it a relaxing way to unwind and see the outdoors in a different way.

One thing to keep in mind: you will get wet. The paddles come with rubber discs called splash guards that fit between the blade and your hand and are designed to catch the water run-off before it lands on your lap. It's a great concept in theory. In practice, I don't think I saw a single person get out of their kayak at the end of the evening with dry thighs.

Bring pants or shorts to change into for the ride home.

As far as clothing, Venture Outdoors suggests wearing synthetic fabrics, not cotton, to participate in water sports because they dry faster. On this type of a trip, that isn't a great concern. A t-shirt and warm-up pants or shorts would do fine.

Most important is to wear something comfortable, and to be prepared for the weather of the day.

Paddling opportunities abound on Allegheny River, North Park Lake

Venture Outdoors runs beginner kayak outings every Monday, alternating weeks between the North Park Lake and downtown on the Allegheny River. The group also runs other varieties of paddling events, including full-moon paddles, Wednesday morning wake-up paddles and happy-hour paddles on the Allegheny and family trips at North Lake as well as dragon boating and canoeing outings.

You don't have to be a member to register for an outing, although members pay less than non-members. Call the Venture Outdoors office at (412) 255-0564 for assistance. Pre-registration is required and Venture Outdoors requests registration at least three days in advance, although occasionally there will still be spaces open the day of the event.

If all you want to do is rent a kayak and get on the water on your own, Kayak Pittsburgh is now open for business seven days a week. They have two locations - one downtown underneath the Roberto Clemente Bridge (take the staircase on the PNC Park side down to the waterfront walkway) and one at the North Park boathouse along North Park Lake.

They rent flat-water kayaks by the hour and paddlers will receive a life vest and basic safety and paddling instruction. Reservations are not required, although big groups can call ahead to make reservations. Group tours and private lessons are available with reservations.

See www.kayakpittsburgh.com for more details or call (412) 969-9090 for Kayak Pittsburgh Downtown, or (724)935-1968 for Kayak Pittsburgh North.

-- Karen Price

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