Upper James River Water Trail

Starting Out

I'm Ready! How Do I Begin?

Photo by Chris Raper

By Tamia Nelson
Scenic Photo

OK. You're ready. You've bought a good-quality PFD. You've borrowed or rented a boat. And you've found an experienced paddler to show you how it's done. What's next?

That's easy: Go paddling! Books help, of course, and you'll find some suggestions in my "Paddler's Booklist." Read what catches your eye or tickles your fancy, by all means. But there's just no substitute for experience, and experience doesn't start till you begin. So get started!

Don't make it hard on yourself, though. Pick a day when the weather's pleasant—a warm, sunny day, with little or no wind. Make sure the water's warm, too. (Give your skin a break. Keep you sleeves rolled down and wear a hat with a brim. Sunburn isn't much fun.) No big lakes nearby? No problem. You don't need a lot of water. Small is beautiful. Even a farm pond will do fine. In fact, if you must use a big lake, pick a sheltered bay. And keep off bodies of water with strong currents or a lot of powerboat traffic. Such places aren't for beginners. Make the most of your first day. Pack a lunch and bring a water bottle. Enjoy!

But what if you don't know any experienced paddlers "to show you how it's done"? What do you do then? You can learn on your own, of course. A lot of folks have. Still, it's really not a very good idea. Not only is it dangerous—you can drown, even in a farm pond—but it's hard. You're likely to keep making the same mistakes over and over again, and it's easy to get frustrated. When that happens, it stops being fun. Learning is almost always easier (and quicker) with a little help from someone more knowledgeable than you.

How do you find that someone? Actually, we've touched on this before, in an earlier article, but we'll run through the choices again. First, make some new friends. Maybe there's a paddling club near you. Ask around. No luck? Then what about local chapters of organizations like the Sierra Club? Some even offer formal courses of instruction, and these are always worth considering. The company is good, the cost is low, and there's usually an empty space in a boat.

Can't find a club? Then check out nearby colleges. Many offer non-credit canoeing and kayaking courses. You'll have to pay tuition, of course, but at least the college should provide all the equipment you'll need. It's a good way to get started.

Still no joy? Then see if you can find a local outfitter who offers instruction on the side. This can also be an excellent way to learn. Sometimes, in fact, it's the best way.

Once you've found a teacher—and you will, sooner or later, wherever you live—the rest is up to you. Experience starts when you begin, remember? And you can go as far as you want, too, from around Golden Pond to right round the world. But be patient. You can't learn everything at once. Relax. Take it easy. Have fun. Go with the flow. And against it. Enjoy the magic of moving across the water under your own power. Have a picnic. (But leave the beer and booze for later, when you're done for the day. You'll want all your wits when you're paddling.) Take a nap on a rock. Watch the ducks. Enjoy the ever-shifting play of light and color on the ripples. Watch the sun go down behind the pines.

That's what it's all about. That's why you're here, isn't it? 'Nuff said.

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