Master All Things Paddling

| May 10, 2015 | 0 Comments

By Kate Stepan

Water sports are the way to go during the hot, dry summer. Whether they use one blade (canoers, rafters, standup paddleboarders) or two (kayakers), paddlers definitely know how to keep cool.

Lady kayaker coming out of a roll. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

Lady kayaker coming out of a roll. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

Kayak Tour In the Backcountry

Sea kayaks can carry overnight gear, offering the opportunity to live out of your boat in the wild, says Dana Paskiewicz, a guide for Illinois-based adventure travel company The Northwest Passage. Her favorite self-supported kayak trips for paddlers of all abilities include excursions in the Boundary Waters near the U.S./Canada border; for a more pampered approach try one of NWP’s inn-to-inn tours on the south coast of Crete. Dana advises getting comfortable in a kayak on calm, flat water and learning rescue techniques before attempting any open water crossings or unguided tours. Also, learn to use the bathroom comfortably and properly in the woods, and bring enough feminine supplies to last a few days in case of an unexpected monthly visitor. “Ditch the perfumes, sprays, scented lotions, and hair products,” says Dana, one of two ladies on the company’s roster of ten guides, though 58 percent of the outfitter’s participants are women. “No one cares what you look or smell like, and it can be an attractant to wildlife, including bears!”

Team Up: Paddle a Raft

Inflatable rafts have the most space to transport people and equipment down the river. “They are the perfect craft for a group of friends or expanding family,” says Jessica Mason, the captain and guide for the U.S. Women’s Raft Team. She’d obviously recommend a raft trip but has one key piece of advice. “Choose one person to guide the boat while the rest of the crew listens to her commands and paddles in sync,” says Jessica, who plops her 8-month-old son Atlin, asleep in his carseat, in the back of the team’s raft during flatwater training on the Colorado River near her home. Consult experienced rafters before taking children on the water, then make sure they are wearing properly fitting flotation, not strapped in to a raft, on moving water.

SUP to Get Fit

Paddling’s newest discipline, standup paddleboarding, is gaining popularity on flat water—from Florida estuaries to the California coast. The reason? It offers a superb, full-body workout while honing balance and a nice tan. “I totally enjoy using my paddle and board as my gym,” says Karen Mirlenbrink, a Pilates instructor who came to SUP three years ago. For on-water yoga and Pilates, choose a long, flat board with a round nose rather than a race board, which would have a pointed nose and a rounded hull (bottom), kind of like a boat. And “the less worried you are about falling in, the more fun you are going to have,” she says.

SUP to Go Fast

Jess Rando started SUP two years ago and immediately began racing. She now paddles in races around eastern Canada and the U.S. and recommends SUP newbies focus on the fundamentals of efficient paddling and board maneuvering. “Most races last one to two hours or longer,” she says. “Being comfortable on your board in all conditions is really important.”

Canoe at Any Age

Canoes have a certain “old school” grace and versatility, says certified canoe instructor Looie Voorhees. “Canoeing’s kneeling stance also offers a more stable and powerful paddling position,” says Looie, who has led outings and taught workshops with the Philadelphia Canoe Club for 18 years. She advises seniors and other canoeing newbies to join a club to take advantage of safety in numbers in the water and have a few extra sets of hands when it comes time to hoist your boat onto the roof of the car.

Protect Your Waters

Washington state kayaker Susan Hollingsworth took interest in the proposed dismantling of the outdated Condit Dam on the White Salmon River and began speaking up for boaters, who wished to see the river return to its natural state, at stakeholder meetings. After the dam crumbled in October 2011, river users delighted in the unobstructed stream flow and return of salmon and steelhead migration.

“I find it increasingly difficult to work on anything that doesn’t help promote clean, healthy, and accessible rivers,” says Susan, who now serves as the sole female—and youngest—member of the American Whitewater board of directors. American Whitewater is a resource best known for river beta and links to gauges around the country. Find these at, along with information on how to get involved if your local run is threatened by a new dam, eligible for Wild and Scenic status, or could benefit from an improved boat ramp.

Live the Dream

Haley Mills’ most recent accomplishment was placing in the top five at the 2011 Freestyle Kayaking World Championships in Plattling, Germany. Now, she’s also paddling standup boards for manufacturers Badfish and Boardworks, entering SUP events at the whitewater competitions she was already attending around the U.S. “Staying competitive in two sports takes hard work and skill. But as long as I’m on the river, I’m happy,” says Haley, who’s been paddling for 14 years and has her sights set on this year’s Kayaking Worlds on North Carolina’s Nantahala River.


Freestyle kayaking involves “surfing” and performing tricks in (often manmade) river waves and holes, where water pours over rocks to create recirculating currents. The discipline offers beginners a chance to practice rolling in current, hone balance, and get a feel for the edges of a kayak without actually traveling downriver, which requires paddling partners and a car shuttle from the end of the run.

Buying a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Often mislabeled “lifejackets,” PFDs require a little user input to actually save a life. Along with swimming in current and other self-rescue techniques, though, a snug, properly fitted PFD will help keep your head above water. Look for women’s-specific models from Astral, Stohlquist, and MTI Adventurewear. Some have “cups” in the front panel to accommodate a range of, um, chest sizes, while others are simply cut so as not to squash feminine physiques. Other features to consider: over-the-head or side-zipper entry, tabs to attach a river knife (for spreading peanut butter at lunch), and hand-warming fleece pockets.

Learn to Roll

Right your Upside Down Kayak: Because staying in your boat is always safer than swimming in the river or ocean alongside it.

Find the set-up position. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

Find the set-up position. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

1. Find the set-up position. Tuck forward, align your paddle along one side of the boat, and focus your gaze on the logo sticker on the outside of the kayak near your knee.

2. “T” it up. Sweeping one paddle blade along the water surface, reach the other arm around your boat and toward your butt to create a “T” with the hull (bottom).

T it up. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

T it up. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

3. Hip-snap. Drop the butt cheek farthest from the sweeping paddle blade first.

4. Raise your body out of the water from the bottom up in a slithering motion.

Raise your body out of the water from the bottom up in a slithering motion. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

Raise your body out of the water from the bottom up in a slithering motion. (Illustrations by Sarah Chesnutt)

5. Breathe. Beginners tend to lift their head too early, dragging their body back down into the water in a move called “carping” the roll. Stay relaxed and resist the urge to throw your head upright until the kayak has stabilized underneath you.

The best way to learn is under the watchful eye of an American Canoe Association–certified kayak instructor. Find one, and a reputable paddling school near you, at Still confused? Check out “Anybody Can Kayak! Rolling,” a comprehensive DVD that can help anyone from first-timers to those looking to bombproof a shaky roll (

This article was originally published in Women’s Adventure magazine‘s Summer 2013 issue.

Category: Water Sports

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Written by the dedicated, hard-working Women's Adventure staff and their very generous team of volunteer writers. Want to lend a hand at making this splendid magazine even more splendid? Contact us at and let us know!

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