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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Hell of a Vision

The Kayak Comes Back

By Tamia Nelson

The year was 1981. The month was September. An actor turned politician was in the White House. Tax cuts were topic number one in Washington. In April, the Space Shuttle had flown for the first time. Now the nation's air traffic controllers were out on strike.

I didn't worry. I wasn't flying. I was humping a big Duluth pack along the old portage trail into Ochre Pond, in New York's St. Regis Canoe Area. Farwell had our canoe. He was bringing up the rear while I walked on ahead. I stopped for a breather. I turned around. No Farwell. Where was he?

I dropped the pack and started walking back. I didn't have to go far. I found Farwell just around the first bend in the trail. He was standing quietly, but he still had the 90-pound canoe on his shoulders. He seemed to have gotten a lot shorter. I took a few more steps, and then I knew why—he was mired in mud up to his crotch. He couldn't go forward and he couldn't go back.

He was remarkably cheerful, though. He wasn't swearing or struggling. I walked up to him, being careful to stay on rock and out of the muck. I squatted down to bring my face on the level with his. He lifted the bow of the canoe a foot or so and smiled. "I've had a vision," he said.

I looked around. Not a burning bush to be seen anywhere. It was a cool day. Sunstroke didn't seem likely.

"What sort of vision?" I asked, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

"Kayaks," he replied.

He didn't have to say anything more. I understood.

Three years later, we were back on Adirondack waters—on the Raquette River, in fact. And now we both had kayaks. When the time came to make the long portage around Raquette Falls, we just pulled our gear bags out of our boats, lashed them to the pack-frames that travelled on the rear decks, and then hoisted our kayaks onto the top cross-bars of the frames. As we walked down the portage trail, our boats rode on the frames, high and secure, locked in place by the foam cleats we had glued into their bilges. The total weight? Seventy pounds for each of us, all of it borne by pack-straps and hip belt. We nearly sprinted along the portage.

That was sixteen years ago. We were pioneers. In 1984, kayaks were for whitewater. When folks saw us gliding effortlessly on ponds or flatwater rivers they'd point at us, shake their heads and whisper to each other. Would-be stand-up comics would paddle over, look down at us from the lofty heights of their canoe seats and ask, "Whaddidya do with the other half of your boat?" Then they'd explode in guffaws.

We laughed, too. We didn't mind being the butt of the joke. We were having the time of our lives. We'd seen the future, and it worked. Kayaks were magic.

Today, nobody's cracking jokes. The future's arrived. Everybody's got a kayak. Everybody? OK. Not everybody. On the Raquette River reservoir that we call home the dominant form of aquatic life in summer is still the jet-ski. More and more often, though, when I look up from my desk and glance out the window, I see a shoal of barracuda-like craft emerging from the two-stroke haze. These boats are long, lean and mean—they're kayaks. The folks paddling them may cough now and again when they hit a particularly bad patch of smog, but the big grins stay on their faces. They're having fun.

Get the picture? A lot of people today are having the same vision that Farwell had almost twenty years ago. Men and women who've paddled canoes all their lives are getting into kayaks. Even Old Town, the granddaddy of all American canoe makers, has had to sit up and take notice. Their Maine factory turned out nearly 100 kayaks a day last year, and they still couldn't keep up with demand.

That's not surprising. Veteran mail-order outfitter L. L. Bean was shipping seven kayaks to every canoe that went out the door of their Freeport, Maine, warehouse last summer. And what's happening in Maine is also happening closer to home. Mike Kaz is one of the guys who runs Wear on Earth, a Potsdam, New York, outfitting center that stocks boats by Dagger, Perception, and Necky, as well as—you guessed it—Old Town. He tells me that he's selling nine kayaks to every canoe.

Whew! Does Mike see an end to the boom? Nope. "The way people are being attracted to kayaking," he wrote me recently, "I don't see a peak any time soon. All ages are buying kayaks."

"All ages"? That's good news. In a time when each generation comes complete with a dated shelf sticker and a brand name, kayaking brings young and old together as almost no other sport can. Wear on Earth also runs Adirondack Teen Adventures in Wevertown, New York. Mike's noticed that kids take to kayaking in a big way. "Our Teen Camp kids really like kayaking," he writes, "whitewater in particular. The thrill and adventure ... really psyches the kids up."

It certainly psyched my former whitewater mentor up. And he definitely wasn't a kid. He was pushing seventy when Farwell and I used to join him on the upper Hudson River's Spruce Mountain Rapid. I've no doubt that he'd have gotten on just fine with any of Mike's teenaged campers, though. Generation gap? What generation gap?

Of course, whitewater isn't for everybody. Late last summer I sold my old kayak to Teresa, a paddler from central New York who vacations in the Adirondacks. She's promised herself that she'll take up whitewater kayaking when she turns fifty. In the meantime, she's going to use her "new" boat to explore the flows and flatwater rivers around Cranberry Lake. She has a vision—a vision of autonomy and independence. "No one stands in the way of my enjoyment of the water except me," Teresa wrote me later. "Kayaking is heady stuff."

Farwell's old boat has found a new home, too. It now belongs to Barry, a Pennsylvania machinist. He came to kayaking from—I'd never have guessed it, not in a million years!—bicycling. Long-time cyclists, he and his wife recently bought a tandem bike. They both love their tandem, but Barry realized that he still liked getting out for a solo spin every now and again. "It feels so light and free," he wrote. "It's great!"

Barry also owns a big, heavy tandem canoe that he's used for years to explore Adirondack waters. He started wondering if paddling a kayak would feel as good as riding his old solo bike. You know, "light and free." So he tried it. It did. Now he's hooked on a vision of his own. And he's looking forward to his first kayak camping trip.

This vision thing's taken hold, I guess. A century after the last kayak boom ended, the slim solo craft is back for a second run in American waters.

And what about Farwell and me? For the first time in sixteen years we're kayak-less. Guess where we'll be this spring? Down at the local outfitters' shops, taking the latest touring designs out on the water for a test drive.

Somehow, I don't think we'll be alone. Now that's one hell of a vision!

Copyright 2000 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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