Open, smooth water. Trees trailing their long branches into the current. Birds, beavers and fish going about their business a few feet away.
The river twisting through Lodi offers a scenic highway to those willing to give another mode of transportation a shot.
Members of the Lodi Paddle Club say hopping into a kayak is an ideal way to get out on the water with a minimal learning curve. The end of summer doesn’t signal the end of paddling adventures, either. For some favorite LPC events, the season is just getting started.
Organizer Jim Schneider was among the core group of Lodi paddlers who frequented Sierra Adventure Outfitters, an outdoor sporting goods store on School Street, five years ago. They began planning trips together on the Mokelumne River, to New Hogan Lake and Lake Camanche, and out on the Delta. Word spread around town until the group turned to a social networking site called Meetup to keep track of events and invite new people.
Schneider says the sport is more accessible now than it was in the ’70s, when he was teaching Boy Scouts how to manage a canoe. Boats are more stable and lightweight than they used to be. There’s a wide range of boats for every inclination, from flat water paddling to ocean fishing.
“The sport itself is just going like gangbusters,” he said. “It’s heck of a way to lose 50 pounds, and I like the people. They’re just good people who care about the river.”
Last weekend, 120 paddlers made their way to Lake Tahoe to enjoy the 60-degree water and try out new equipment. During the summer, the group meets weekly for easy sessions at Lodi Lake. Three-mile paddles are basically a nature walk in a boat, and full moons are a great excuse to check out the river at night.
“What I love about it is when you can really become one with your kayak. It’s your lower body, the paddle is an extension of your hands and you become more of a water creature than someone sitting in a boat,” said Dan Arbuckle, an experienced paddler and one of the club founders.
That feeling is contagious. Over 200 people are connected to the club online. They’re mostly intrepid middle-aged paddlers with one or two kayaks in the garage, though more and more younger people in Lodi are becoming interested.
Right now they’re planning fall tours, winter crab fishing and camping trips. Some go for extreme whitewater to battle rapids or sea kayaking to surf the waves. Many are out just for the exercise and fresh air. All are welcoming to curious new paddlers with questions.
Don’t have a kayak of your own to try out? LPC is linked with Headwaters Kayak Shop in Lodi. Arbuckle, the owner and another club founder, sees kayaking as one of the most accessible sports around.
The shop offers classes and training to get the most out of the experience, and Arbuckle says he’s never seen someone who can’t pick it up in a few hours.
“Every time I set a bar, someone passes it,” he said. A few weeks ago, two women came out for a week-night paddle on the lake. Both were in their 70s with double knee replacements. After two hours in a tandem kayak, they were grinning from ear to ear.
“They did something they thought they were too old to do,” he said. “It was awesome to see that.”
Training is everything. No one starts out with the ability to navigate rapids or roll the kayak upside down and over again.
“It’s all a progression of learning,” said Schneider. “The core members have done just about everything.”
A beginner needs simple equipment. Arbuckle said its possible to get fully equipped with a recreational kayak, life-jacket and paddle for about $400. Renting the same setup for half a Saturday can cost as little as $35. The beauty of owning a kayak versus another boat is that there are no permits or registration to keep up with, and kayaks require virtually no maintenance.
Sport kayaks are great for flatwater, and take only minimal training to handle. Sit-on-top kayaks are easy to adapt for fishing gear. Whitewater kayaks are generally shorter so they can more easily navigate among rocks, and are usually sealed with a skirt to keep water out of the boat if it flips. Ocean kayaks are long, stable and rigged to the max. Kayakers braving the waves need experience to read the water and know their own limits to stay safe.
Safety is paramount. If you’re paddling at night, bring a light. If it’s late in the season and cold, wear a wetsuit or drysuit. Always wear a life jacket, no matter how smooth the water looks.
“If you’re not going to be safe, I don’t want you out there. I don’t want to have to rescue you,” said Schneider, who once had to pull the same paddler out of the American River twice in one trip.
The LPC likes to brave the elements. Schneider recalled one New Year’s Day two years ago, when there was so much fog on the water, paddlers had to play “Marco Polo” to keep track of one another.
Within a two-hour drive, there are enough rivers, lakes and open water to keep the whole club happy. The turnout this season has been better than ever.
“It’s been unbelievable that so many people have been out this year,” said Schneider. “We’ve got so many people, and we take care of them.”
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.