Rock Your Boat: Learn to Love Kayaking


Taking the plunge, contributing editor Christie Aschwanden shares her first kayaking experience.

I don't like water. The very thought of being adrift on top of it terrifies me. But so many of my friends have become passionately devoted to kayaking that I finally decided to find out why. I booked a trip to Washington's San Juan Islands—quite a distance from where I live in Colorado, so I couldn't just give up and go home. Besides, the notion of paddling among seals and whales seemed enticing … at the time.

Now, though, standing on the beach in a storm, with a cold wind and sheets of rain whipping around me, I realize that I've chosen a bad day for my first kayaking adventure. My inner voice is chanting, "I told you so. I told you so."

But my instructor, Allan Willis of Discovery Sea Kayaks, is a man with a plan. He takes me to a calm oasis in an inlet called Smallpox Bay. I'm grateful, but can't help wondering if I really want to get anywhere near a body of water named after a disease. I try to adopt Willis' easy attitude as I don a waterproof "drysuit" to keep me warm and a life vest to keep me afloat in case I (gulp) tip. With the kayak still halfway on the beach, I get in and adjust the seat to a comfortable position. Willis shows me how to hold the paddle, and we push ourselves forward into the water.

Ferocious waves slap at the mouth of the bay, and we stay close to the shore, which suits me fine. Then Willis insists that I confront my worst fear: capsizing. The notion of going overboard frightens me, but Willis assures me that it will boost my confidence. He demonstrates, purposely tipping his boat and then gracefully climbing back in. I take a deep breath, then spill into the water. Thanks to my trusty life vest, I quickly pop back up next to my still-upright kayak. He's right: Falling out is no big deal. But when I try to pull myself back into the boat, it shoots out from under me. After a couple of tries, Willis suggests I swim to the back of the boat, pull down on the end so I can get it beneath me, straddle it, and slide forward to the cockpit. To my surprise, it works.

Next, he teaches me the basic forward stroke: inserting the blade into the water at the front of the boat and pulling straight back. My arms quickly tire, until Willis tells me I can gain more power with less strain by using my ab muscles and twisting my torso like a wind-up spring. I try it, and the pressure on my arms immediately lightens. It's like I've discovered an extra gear.

I then learn to turn the boat by taking the blade in a giant arcing motion and gently tilting my hips in the direction opposite the way I want to go. I realize I'm actually having fun as I rotate in circle after circle.

I make it through my first lesson intact, but I want more. So the next day, armed with nice weather and new confidence, I head out for a sightseeing tour with kayaking outfitter San Juan Safaris. Paddling in the shadow of snowcapped peaks alongside picturesque islands, I finally begin to understand why my friends are so passionate about this. Life feels different on the water. As if to punctuate my newfound appreciation, a harbor seal swims up to my boat and stops, head cocked, eyes fixed on me. We gaze at each other for several moments before he disappears back into the deep.

What's in it for you
Kayaking burns an impressive 340 calories per hour (based on a 150-pound person) while toning your back, shoulders, arms, and abs. (Read how kayaking compares with other water workouts.)