Hit the Water

(Courtesy of Alaska Sea Kayakers)

7 tips for sea kayaking like a pro

[by Deborah Kearns]

I ’VE NEVER CONSIDERED MYSELF TO BE MUCH OF AN ADVENTURE JUNKIE. I’m also not terribly athletic so when I travel, I tend to play it safe on excursions. But our first trip to Alaska last September was a time for self-discovery—and for testing my limits. Sea kayaking on pristine blue-green glacial water surrounded by Alaska’s raw beauty instantly appealed to me. When I showed up to the outpost for Alaska Sea Kayakers in Whittier on a cold, rainy September day, I was quickly whisked into all the gear necessary to keep water out and stay warm. Rubber boots, a splash bib, and a water-resistant jumpsuit complemented my own water-resistant pants and three (maybe it was four) layers of tops.

After a tutorial on how to paddle, steer, and avoid overturning, we were on our way. I assumed kayaking would require some arm strength and endurance to paddle across the sea. And because I would be in a tandem kayak, I knew it would take some coordination. However, I definitely underestimated the endurance part. And the part where your legs sit stock-still for several hours, which made for a stiff exit. But the minor aches and pains were worth it.

I saw countless salmon (“zombie” and live), rushing waterfalls, secret coves, and the places where majestic trees, glaciers, and rock met to create a stunning natural backdrop. Our guide also recounted local folktales and explained how Whittier evolved from a humble outpost to a major sea transportation hub. In short, it was magical.

Ready to embark on your first sea kayaking adventure but not sure where to start? Peter Denmark, co-owner of Alaska Sea Kayakers in Whittier, shares these seven expert tips for doing it like a pro.

1 Dress for the weather. If it’s a warm, sunny day, you can get away with a T-shirt and shorts. But as Alaska’s summer fades to cooler, rainy weather, come dressed in layers so you stay warm. Synthetic wicking fabrics are the way to go; cotton will absorb your body heat and won’t keep you dry.

2 Stretch ahead of time. If you’re new to kayaking, you’ll definitely want to stretch beforehand. Although you use more push than pull when you’re paddling in the water, your arms will still get a workout. A tip to help reduce arm fatigue: rely on your core abdominal muscles to help you paddle, rather than arm strength.

3 Make three points of contact. Before you get started, you’ll get into your kayak while it’s still on dry land, with the rear cockpit loaded first. Your body needs three points of contact with the kayak: the seatback, the footpegs, and the sides of the cockpit. Your rear should be settled firmly into the seatback, ensuring you’re as upright as possible. Place the balls of your feet on the footpegs, keeping a slight bend in your knees. Finally, bend your knees firmly against the sides of the cockpit so your legs create a diamond shape. Keep your hips loose to make paddling and balance easier.

4 Paddle with precision. Put your paddle in the water by your feet and push off with your arm (using your core for help) rather than pulling. “It’s two-thirds bench press and about a third bicep curl,” Denmark says. “Your paddle should come out at the hip; anything farther back is wasted motion and energy.” Also, your paddle blade shouldn’t go any deeper into the water than the blade, otherwise, you’ll end up working twice as hard and tire much faster.

5 Coordinate with your partner. Many sea kayaking tours use a tandem kayak, and that requires some coordination. If you’re in the rear cockpit, which usually controls steering with a foot-pedaled rudder, match your cadence to the front paddler’s rhythm so you stay in time. Whether you’re going forward or paddling backward, the same need for coordination applies.

6 Know how to exit a capsized kayak. Really, the riskiest part of sea kayaking is capsizing and the dangers of being in the ice-cold waters for too long. If your kayak capsizes, grab the spray skirt loop and yank it up so you can get out of your seat and swim to the surface next to your kayak.

7 Don’t go it alone. If you’re new to sea kayaking, a guided tour is the safest, easiest way to go. The key to sea kayaking safety is being able to re-enter a capsized kayak, and an experienced guide can help you do it quickly when you’re treading frigid water.

(Courtesy of Alaska Sea Kayakers)

BEST PLACES FOR SEA KAYAKING IN ALASKA

Looking for the top spots for sea kayaking in Alaska? Here are Denmark’s suggestions:

WHITTIER AND SEWARD: These are arguably two of the best destinations for sea kayaking in the state. Whittier serves as the gateway to Prince William Sound, and Seward is the access harbor to the majestic Kenai Fjords National Park. Both areas give paddlers inspired views of glaciers, waterfalls, fjords, and wildlife galore.

HOMER: Situated near the heart of Kachemak Bay State Park at the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, Homer boasts a variety of kayaking routes. It’s also one of the best places for bird watching, especially at Gull Island, home to kittiwakes, murres, gulls, cormorants, puffins, and guillemots. Birds have nested in this area for more than 4,000 years. Across Kachemak Bay is China Poot Bay, famous for its incredible estuaries teeming with sockeye salmon.

KETCHIKAN: Alaska’s Inside Passage offers remarkable kayaking, too. In Ketchikan, you can paddle through Ketchikan Creek to see the historic town from the water. From there, head to Pennock Island and Snow’s Cove to watch harbor seals, salmon, and bald eagles.


Deborah Kearns is a Denver-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Associated Press, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and other national publications.