Gateway Drug

Devil's Lake State Park Gateway Drug

 There has been a growth of kayak tours in state parks over the last few years.  In fact, this is the first year that we’ve had kayak tours at our local state park. I am sure that kayak tours like these are another tool in the never-ending quest to get people outside and on the water.  They may also encourage a few folks to take a class or even buy a boat.  Something worth talking about. 

As many of you know, when coaching I prefer to work with newbies.  There is a point in everyone’s kayaking career (if you want to call it that) when they first catch the full on “rush” of being out on the water, just for the sake of it.  They just paddle. Not well mind you, but they go forward and backward within their environment. The only real goal in these early stages is to go from the beach out into the wild, wet wilderness. Early paddlers just want to see stuff; an eagle, a rock formation, an otter, a turtle or maybe a nearby island.  This is kayaking before the stern pry.  Here, a coach’s number one priority is simply to be an ambassador to kayaking and nature as a whole.

As I’ve been out trailing Sue’s (DLK Naturalist, Sue Johansen) new summer kayak tour program at Devil’s Lake State Park, it’s been a great reminder of why we try paddling in the first place.  It’s nearly always about being out in nature, or finding things we can do by ourselves to relax and just “be”. I’ve been surprised by how often participants will say the main reason they came on the tour was to try kayaking. Yes, they want to learn more about nature and the park, but, but often that is not the driving force for signing up. It seems that the primary reason for taking a state park kayak tour is to get out on the water and try kayaking in a “safe” environment with other knowledgeable people around. And for that reason, our industry should probably be looking a bit harder at ways they can support these sorts of tours. Park tours are the natural gateway to taking that first official “class”.

Standing in a Kayak

What do these state programs need?  Well, training for one thing.  Often times park naturalists are leading these tours solo but they may not have rescue or first aid training. It’s not like the state is going to pay for coach training. They should mind you, but I’m not holding my breath. At another Wisconsin State park last year, I went on a kayak tour with nearly 30 participants, and one guide on a sit-on-top.  Yikes! Luckily things rarely go wrong, but sooner or later it will. The parks and their guides should have ideas about how to manage groups on the water, including managing group sizes. Guides should know how to deal with all the issues that come up on the water including over-turned recreational boats, other rescues, towing and the more. They also need to be equipped to do so. In the paddling industry, we know what skills we expect our guides to have and this would certainly apply to park tours on the great lakes, the Mississippi River or smaller inland water ways.  Either local shops or the ACA should step up here.

As I mentioned before, the tours also need to be properly equipped. Manufactures might want to offer some input when parks are buying their gear.  An 80 lb paddle and a sinking kayak with no flotation are not going to encourage folks to take a class or buy a kayak of their own. The problem is those in charge of purchasing gear may know little about kayaking. How can we help here?

For what it’s worth, these park tours are growing in number and growing more popular. Who in this industry wants to pass up on such and obvious gateway drug?  The thing is, we should start opening doors of communication now and see where it leads.

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1 Response

  1. Awesome post and awesome topic. You should be the director of a program to set standards for safer kayak touring programs – make it national! Perhaps you will send this as a letter with a proposal to state parks officials, and national recreational programs for funding and support.

    Kayaking is growing as a sport, but more and more of this sport seems to be going towards inexpensive and sometimes poorly made rec kayaks sold in hardware stores. People who buy them have no experience, training, or knowledge of the sport and what to look out for, and they go onto water with big commercial ships, high-powered boats and sailboats, cold water, currents, wind, etc.

    People probably won’t like this comment, but I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. If you need a license and some training and experience to drive a car, fly a plane, operate a boat, why don’t you need some sort of certification to purchase paddle craft and paddle? Show a certification card of competence of at least one safety course at the time of purchase of paddle craft, and make it a law that requires stores to add on a fee for a required safety certification course you can sign up for in store, before you can purchase paddle craft if you aren’t certified. Paddle craft are also subject to laws that most people aren’t even aware of.

    I took a weekend safety course in 16 foot sea kayaks after paddling little rental rec boats for a year on small lakes. I was shocked at what I didn’t know. Cold water and hypothermia were the first on the list. Getting back into the boat unassisted was not easy even with a paddle float. Paddling with knowledge and skill is so much more fun, and safer for everyone. I think this would expand and improve the paddling industry, not kill it. And save lives!

    I so agree with you Derek. Thanks for this post. Cheers from Canada. We’re in the same boat here. Sorry, this is such a long comment.

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