Three summers ago, rafting on Oregon's Rogue River, I felt like Huck Finn on the Mississippi. I was in the lead position, about to lead our group down a three-foot drop over an old embankment -- that is, until I lost my foothold and my handhold and fell completely out of the boat. Our guide looked at me mournfully. He'd been doing this for 10 years, he said, and in all that time, I was the first guy he'd ever had go overboard.
Suddenly I wasn't feeling like Huck Finn anymore. Yet in the spirit of self-improvement, I really do still want to learn more about paddling around. That's how I found myself asking questions of Mountain Gear's Tomas Lynch and Patrick Coleman and hoping not to appear like too much of a newbie.
"In a canoe," says Lynch, " you're in an open cockpit, you sit higher, and you're less stable" than in a kayak. "Then you've got to consider, do you want recreational, overnight trips or active runs, rivers vs. lakes?"
I fantasized negotiating Class 5 rapids -- that is, until I heard Lynch's and Coleman's definitions of the various levels of difficulty: Class 1, "mild drops with ripples"; Class 2, "more dramatic drops, like at the Harvard Road section of the Spokane River"; Class 3, "Bowl and Pitcher -- you pick a line and you go"; Class 4, "requires a course correction while you're in the rapid"; Class 5, "just before unrunnable."
Then there's Class 0: about what I could handle.
"For Class 2 and 3, you want a boat with more rocker -- higher at the ends, because that increases the stability -- and a shorter boat, about 14 to 16 feet," says Lynch.
He points out a red canoe, the Mad Rivers Royal X, made of composite plastic. Looks serviceable to me. Why would I ever want to buy a canoe made out of Fiberglas or Kevlar? "Because you can bang the crap out of them," he says.
Turns out that Fiberglas is actually easier to repair than composite boats. "Besides, they're faster and more hydrodynamic," says Lynch, smiling at his own geek-speak.
"You can turn a boat like this on a dime," he says. Of course, with the canoe itself along with paddles, the flotation bags, PFDs (personal flotation devices -- aka lifejackets) and other accessories, getting into the canoeing game can easily set you back a couple of grand. No wonder there are canoe rentals.
Coleman conducted my personal kayaking seminar. "You want the boat to be sleek in the water," he says. "The longer the boat, the faster it will go. For the kind of use you're talking about, you'll want about a 20-foot boat, about 20 inches wide." He notes that getting into a kayak -- preferably Fiberglas -- along with paddles (up to $150 for carbon composites), a spray skirt, helmet, bilge pump, a whistle... it adds up.
But Coleman was also pretty encouraging: "The learning curve is steeper than with a canoe, but after taking our afternoon class, you'll feel pretty good. Most people find canoes pretty tippy."
If you want to get started paddling, the Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club has upcoming clinics that will prove helpful, including Intro to Paddling on June 12 from 9 am-2 pm at the Medical Lake boat launch. Cost: $25. Learn the basics of river kayaking -- equipment, strokes, peel-outs, eddy turns, self-rescue and more -- on June 12 at 8 am at Corbin Park in Post Falls, Idaho, and on June 13 at 8 am at Harvard Road in Spokane. Cost: $65 per boat. Or learn how to canoe in moving water during classroom sessions on July 7-8 and on July 17-18 at Corbin Park and Harvard Road. Experience sea kayaking on all day on June 19 and on the evening of June 24. Cost: $95. June 26-27 brings an overnight paddle. Visit www.sckc.ws or call 328-9750.
Check out the Paddle Fair (an expo of various canoe and kayak goodies) on Saturday, June 19, from 10 am-4 pm at Liberty Lake, and then get your feet wet, so to speak, in the Canoe Classic on Sunday, June 20, at 11 am, when paddlers will take off from Corbin Park in Post Falls and race along the Spokane River either to the Harvard Road bridge (6 miles) or to Plantes Ferry (13 miles). Cost: $15 per person.
And don't forget the Extreme Sport Canoe Race near Soap Lake, Wash., on July 11-12. This is a "run and row" event, paddling across five lakes and portaging in between for a total distance of 17 miles. Visit www.soaplakecoc.org or call (509) 246-1821.