Paddlers find strength and peace in a kayak
When Debbie Bowman and her husband were looking for an outdoor activity they could do with their kids, hiking was one thing that came to mind. But they knew there was only so much distance their children, then aged five and six, could cover and so much gear they could carry. So they opted for what seemed like a logical alternative: kayaking.
Before you could say “wet suit”, the Vancouver family were on a two-week adventure on the west coast of Vancouver Island in the Broken Group Islands, their double kayaks stuffed full with camping gear, food, a cast-iron frying pan, a water pump, and even some wine.
They went from beach to beach, some days paddling for hours on end.
“My shoulders were pretty buffed by the time we got back,” Bowman says with a laugh in a phone interview. “It’s a good workout, but you’re enjoying yourself so much you don’t really notice.”
She’s right about kayaking being a physical challenge—one that works more than the shoulders.
“Current trends in fitness training are focusing on core strength,” says Bob Putnam, co-owner of Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak Centre and Deep Cove Outdoors. “Many people don’t realize it, but kayaking can be great core and upper-body exercise.”
Besides developing core power, paddling increases muscle strength in the back, arms, shoulders, and chest. But it requires lower-body stamina too, as Chris Ladner, owner of Granville Island’s Ecomarine Ocean Kayak Centre, can attest.
“If you’re doing proper paddling, it’s a full-body workout,” Ladner tells the Straight. “You need strong legs. You can definitely build up a sweat.”
Kayaking boosts cardiovascular fitness and burns calories—about 400 an hour in someone of average build who weighs 150 pounds.
Unlike jogging and many aerobics classes, paddling is a low-impact form of exercise, meaning it doesn’t involve intense wear on the body’s weight-bearing joints.
“Running and hiking can leave you sore for days,” Putnam says. “After a day of paddling you will be tired for sure, but the next day you’re not usually sore.”
There’s a lot more to paddling’s appeal than the fact that it’s a challenging type of exercise, however. Avid paddlers maintain that it’s as good for the soul as it is for the body.
“Kayaking in the ocean environment, feeling the sea beneath, is great for the spirit,” says Putnam, who was won over on his first trip years ago in Johnstone Strait, along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island, where he saw dozens of whales. “You can feel the pulse of the ocean.”
Ladner too finds a sense of peace when he paddles English Bay or False Creek early in the morning, when only the birds are out and about.
“The mornings are just stellar,” he says. “As soon as I get in the boat, I’m in a different space, even though I’m in the middle of an urban environment. It’s quiet, it’s calm. It’s a wonderful way to start the day.”
There are other benefits.
“It’s an extremely social activity, especially if you are in a double kayak,” Putnam says. “You can pack a great lunch and head out to a secluded beach for a picnic and a swim.”
Then there’s the scenery.
“We live in a kayaker’s paradise here in B.C.,” Bowman says. “It’s so sheltered here, and we have so many tiny little islands that are just beautiful. You see so much wildlife: deer, bear, eagles, seals, dolphins.”¦We once saw a humpback whale with her baby; we’ve seen orcas. It’s phenomenal.”
Living in the Lower Mainland naturally brings ocean paddling to mind, but the region is also home to many spots for white-water kayaking. There are the Capilano, Lynn, Seymour, and Chilliwack rivers, and, a little farther away, the Thompson and Nahatlatch, among others.
“The really neat thing about white-water kayaking is that here in Vancouver it’s wet a lot of the time, and a lot of activities are not that much fun when it’s raining; you want it to be sunny when you go hiking,” explains Claudia Schwab, vice president of the Vancouver Kayak Club. “With white-water kayaking, you’re dressed to get wet, so it doesn’t really matter. Your dry suit keeps you warm and dry.
“Ocean kayaking can be compared to riding a bike uphill all day, while white-water kayaking is like riding downhill: the river moves you down the hill,” says Schwab, who wrote the guidebook Whitewater in Southwest British Columbia (Wetcoast Publishing, $22.95). “They’re both worth doing, but white-water kayaking has an additional kick.”¦It’s exciting. There’s play-boating, too: you look for waves and surf those waves in the kayaks.”
Regardless of whether paddlers pick rivers or oceans, there are bodies of water for all abilities.
“As you develop skills, you can challenge yourself by paddling in rougher conditions, much the same way a downhill skier will try mogul skiing,” Putnam says. “At the ski hills, the runs have different degrees of difficulty: green circle is easy, blue square is more difficult, and black diamond [is hard]. Certain areas are more challenging than others for kayaking. Certainly, Deep Cove is the green circle of kayaking. It is very sheltered, almost as calm as a lake at times, and the currents that exist are mild and usually imperceptible.”
Although beginners can always find placid waters to dip their paddles in, some may want to start by taking a lesson or two in a pool first. Being able to swim isn’t mandatory, but it helps. Swimmers are naturally more relaxed than nonswimmers.
But then, gliding along crystal-clear waters might be enough to calm anyone down.
“It’s an easy way to escape the stress of the city or your job,” Ladner says. “People come from all over the world for the terrain we have at our doorstep.”