Jan 1, 2017

Going with the flow: Kayaking becoming premier paddlesport for water enthusiasts in central Pa., US

The view from my kayak while I paddled down a canal in Avon, Outer Banks, North Carolina.

*Note: This story first appeared in an earlier edition of the Altoona Mirror's "Blair Living" magazine.
By Brian Yermal Jr.
For Blair Living
During the opening weekend of trout season in central Pennsylvania in mid-April, anglers converged on nearly every accessible part of shoreline surrounding Canoe Lake in Canoe Creek State Park to the point where latecomers had little chance of finding an open spot.
Some fishers, however, used kayaks to escape the crowds and to access more open areas of water.

Some anglers escaped the crowds on the first day of trout last season by fishing from kayaks on Canoe Lake in Canoe Creek State Park. Other fishers stood shoulder-to-shoulder along the shoreline.
Meanwhile, on a Saturday in early May, a group gathered to remove litter from a portion of the Little Juniata River. A few of the volunteers brought kayaks to reach some of the river’s islands that housed trash dumped by people upstream.

Volunteers helped the Little Juniata River Association clean the river by using kayaks and canoes to access islands in the middle of the water. Paddlers cleared the islands of debris, including tires and propane tanks.
Whether they’re fishing, cleaning trash or just floating, more people are picking up paddles and embracing kayaking in central Pennsylvania, according to local experts involved with water sports, tourism and environmental conservation.

Becoming mainstream

Kayaking has floated to the surface as the most popular paddlesport in the United States. In 2014, about 13 million Americans said they participated in kayaking, according to a study from The Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit group that focuses on outdoor recreation. Kayaking surpassed canoeing, rafting and stand-up paddling in participation numbers in 2011 and has remained on top since 2014, according to the study. Data for 2015 was unavailable.

Kayaking continues to grow as the top paddlesport in the country. You can find kayakers just about anywhere that features water, including cities like Pittsburgh.
Kayaking’s growth as a paddlesport comes down to a few different factors.
One reason is its affordability.
“Kayaks have become pretty inexpensive, and more and more people are using them,” said Bill Anderson, president of the Little Juniata River Association.
Higher-scale kayaks can cost several hundred dollars or more, but basic, single-seat models are available with price tags as low as $200. Likewise, paddles range in cost from as low as $50 to a few hundred dollars.

Basic, single-person kayaks sell for as low as $200 (or lower if there are sales). Tandem kayaks, which have two seats, tend to cost more at about $500 or higher.
Another reason more people are leaning toward kayaks is because they’re easier to transport since they weigh less than some other watercraft, said Tim Yeager, assistant park manager of Prince Gallitzin State Park and interim park manager at Canoe Creek State Park. While people can use a trailer to haul a kayak, they also have the option of placing it in the tailgate of a truck, Yeager said. Many paddlers use roof racks to mount kayaks on top of their vehicles, as well.

Kayaks come in different lengths, but many are short enough that they can be transported on a car's roof or the tailbed of a truck.
Kayaks are rising in popularity among different groups of hobbyists.
At Canoe Creek and Prince Gallitzin state parks, people use the watercraft to observe wildlife, especially birds, Yeager said. Photographers also paddle around in kayaks to take pictures in areas not accessible by land, he said.
More fisherman are choosing kayaks for lake fishing, Yeager said. Anglers are taking advantage of using kayaks for fishing in the Little Juniata River, too, Anderson said.
Fishing while kayaking has also gone up in waterways in Huntingdon County, including Raystown Lake and the Juniata River, said Evan Gross, “energies coordinator” at Rothrock Outfitters.
“We’re certainly seeing an uptick in the fishing market as we do have a lot of places that are great for fishing,” Gross said.

Kayaks can be useful for photography, bird watching and fishing. They also come in handy when you get into a fight with your parents.
Kayaks can be used for less-conventional purposes, as well.
Volunteers for the Little Juniata River Association boarded kayaks, canoes and boats to access islands between the towns of Spruce Creek and Barree during a trash cleanup in May. The group collected more than 15 bags of litter and larger objects including tires and a propane tank.

The ‘rail-trails’ of kayaking

Central Pennsylvania is home to several lakes and rivers – all of which are suitable for kayaking, local experts said.
Many of the lakes are situated in state parks, including Canoe Lake in Blair County, Glendale Lake in Cambria County and Shawnee Lake in Bedford County. These state parks offer kayak rentals for single-person and two-person kayaks, Yeager said.
Kayaking at a lake suits many people because the water lacks a current, Yeager said.
“You’re in a lake, so the water, other than wave action, isn’t moving,” he said.
Paddlers can also engage in several activities in the same day at a state park, including kayaking on the lake, hiking a trail on shore and having a picnic, he said.

Cassidy and I rented kayaks at Shawnee State Park in Bedford County this summer. I've also used rental kayaks at Canoe Creek State Park. Rental prices can vary at each park.
Kayakers looking to paddle in a larger body of water might consider Raystown Lake in Huntingdon County, which is the largest lake located entirely in Pennsylvania with about 8,300 surface acres of water, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In comparison to Raystown Lake, Canoe Lake is 155 acres, according to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Like the lakes at the state parks, Raystown tends to be calm, Gross said.
“The lake is really tempting just because it is relatively flat water,” he said, but Gross warned that kayakers must be cautious of strong wakes produced by motorboats and quick changes in weather.

Beginning kayakers should seek out calm waters like a lake or a slow-moving river. The Allegheny River in Pittsburgh suited Cassidy and I well.
Rothrock Outfitters offers kayak rentals to customers at its two locations – one in Huntingdon Borough and another at Seven Points Marina on Raystown Lake.
Kayakers have options other than lakes for paddling in central Pennsylvania – the most significant one likely being the Juniata River Water Trail.
At 126 miles long, the Juniata River Water Trail includes the Little Juniata River starting in Tyrone, the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River starting near Canoe Creek State Park, and the main section of the Juniata River, according to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. The trail cuts through five counties – Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata and Perry – and empties into the Susquehanna River at Duncannon.
Local kayakers recognize the Juniata River as an optimal waterway for paddling because its flow is calm in most sections.
“For the most part, it’s a pretty simple trip for beginning paddlers,” said Matt Price, executive director of the Huntingdon County Visitors Bureau.
The Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River runs along the Lower Trail, which is a popular rail-trail that starts near Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County and ends by Alexandria in Huntingdon County.
Price is also an avid kayaker who is part of a group known as the Juniata River Paddlers. Started in September 2015, the organization hosts river paddles on various sections of the Juniata River on Mondays during Daylight Savings Time. The paddles start at 5 p.m. and typically go about two hours, spanning a distance of about 4 to 4.5 miles, Price said. The group posts the launch site of each week’s paddle on its Facebook page and the website Event Smart.
Price helped start the organization because of his passion for kayaking and nature.
“Part of the reason I started organizing these is because I wanted to get out every week,” he said.
The number of people who attend the kayaking trips varies, Price said. Once in a while, he ends up paddling solo, but on other trips, about 10 or more people might tag along. If the group on a specific paddle consists of more than seven kayakers, it requires each person to pitch in $5 to rent a shuttle to bring them back upriver, Price said. After some trips, the group holds a social hour at a restaurant, bar or ice cream parlor, he said.
Price and the group prefer the Juniata River because it offers variety in scenery and is an easy paddle for kayakers of any level, he said. The river contains certain obstacles such as rapids, aqueducts and dams, but Fish & Boat Commission maps label possible hazards, so kayakers have fair warning.
A portion of the Juniata River Water Trail consists of the Little Juniata River from Tyrone to the confluence of the two rivers. More kayakers are taking interest in the Little Juniata River because, like its larger neighbor, its waters are calm.
“It’s a really tame float,” Anderson of the Little Juniata River Association said. “I would call it an easy river to kayak,” he added.

Volunteers with the Little Juniata River Association prepare to float a boat filled with trash to the other side of the river during a cleanup in May.
The Little Juniata River does pose some complications, however. The river only has a few decent access points for paddlers to launch their kayaks, Anderson said. During the LJRA cleanup, the volunteers launched their watercraft from the parking lot of a local church.
The Little Juniata River’s popularity as a fly fishing and trout destination also creates some friction. Anglers and kayakers sometimes lack proper communication when they’re near one another, which results in paddlers scaring away fish or getting their watercraft caught on fishing lines, Anderson said. The best way to avoid problems is for kayakers to pass behind the fisherman so they do not interfere with the fishing line, he said.
Anderson isn’t discouraging paddlers from kayaking on the Little Juniata, but he said both kayakers and the fishermen have to share the water.
“There needs to be some communication between the boater and the wading fishermen,” Anderson said.
The Juniata River is also part of another water trail.
The Raystown Branch Juniata River Water Trail extends 60 miles from Saxton near Warriors Path State Park to Bedford Borough, according to the Fish & Boat Commission. While maps show that most portions of the Raystown Branch Juniata River Water Trail are relatively calm, there are portions where rapids and fast currents occur, so kayakers are advised to be careful.
Local kayaking experts suggest watching water levels throughout the year before going out to paddle. They recommend going in springtime or fall, when frequent rain and cooler weather allow the water level to stay higher.

Parts of the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River flow faster and have rapids, but other portions -- such as this section that wraps around Warriors Path State Park near Saxton -- move so slow that the reflection of the land around it is almost perfect.
Regardless of where people choose to go kayaking, they have many options available that suit paddlers of any experience level, Gross said. Most of the rivers and lakes tend to be calm, he said, adding that they’re similar to bike trails in the area.
“I think the paddling around here can be very much assimilate to rail-trails for biking,” Gross said.