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7 Top Beginner Kayaking Tips from a First-Time North Dakota Kayaker
Kayaking is a great way to exercise, enjoy the great outdoors, and explore new places. In this blog post, I’ll share some of my best kayaking tips and a life lesson I learned while kayaking down the Missouri River in North Dakota. Come along on my adventure!
Table of Contents
Kayaking Tip #1 – How to Get into Different Types of Kayaks
If you are using a sit-in kayak:
- Stand in the water next to your kayak and swing your butt over to above so it’s hovering above the seat.
- Sit down in the seat and put your feet in front of you.
- Special Note: This is not a graceful maneuver. Don’t worry. We’ve all done it. The “sit down” is often more of a “plopping” move. You’ll be fine if you don’t have a camera crew on hand.
If you are using a sit-on-top Kayak:
- Stand next to your kayak.
- Put your butt into the kayak seat as if sitting on a bench.
- Swing your legs onto the front of the kayak and place your feet on the pedals.
- Note that getting in and out of sit-on-top kayaks is easier than sit-in Kayaks, but a sit-in kayak is more stable and less prone to tipping. Tough choice, eh?
The Adventure Begins
One by one, our group of travel writers from around the Midwest piled out of what someone in our group had comically nicknamed the Red Rocket. We had been using the bright red State Van to travel around Bismarck, but after a few days, we realized that the name was a bit… unfortunate. Apparently, not everyone knows the hidden and rather icky meaning behind the term “red rocket.”
After several eye rolls and giggles, we decided to rename the bus. We tossed around a few ideas but eventually settled on the Red Rover. It was a bit more subtle, but it still had a bit of a cheeky edge to it. And most importantly, it didn’t make us think of dogs wagging their tails (or something else) with excitement.
We had a mixed relationship with this large van. Many of us had stumbled, tripped, and nearly fallen out of the van at previous stops. But by the time we arrived at our kayaking adventure, we were in a routine. Two of the travel-writing husbands, Steve of Postcard Jar and Dusty of Dining Dusters, dutifully stood next to the step spotting each of the rest of us as we made our way out of the high van, down the makeshift steps and onto the ground below.
The writers filled out the waivers removing the rental company from all liability in case of accident or injury. We all laughed at the silliness of such trivial things. We were all experienced travelers and were not in danger of a major accident.
After brief instructions about the route we were taking along our trek down the river, we climbed into three different vehicles and headed upriver about five miles to our launch point.
As we drove along, we shared stories about our past kayaking experiences. Anne of Postcard Jar, and her husband, Steve, accompanied me in the car with our driver, Nyk. Anne shared that it has been her goal to try kayaking, and today she was among the bravest of first-time kayakers! I told her about my first kayaking trip a short year ago, how much I enjoyed it, and how easy and fun it was. I assured her that after today she would certainly be able to call herself an official “kayaker” and no longer a first-time adventurer but now an experienced kayaker!
Kayaking Tip #2 – How to Launch the Kayak
- If someone is pushing you out into the water, be sure they are pushing you straight and not pushing down on either side of the kayak.
- If available, use a kayak launch. A kayak launch lets you pull yourself into the water using your paddle. I like being in control, so I’m much happier launching myself.
- If you are on a sandy beach area, use your body to “scooch” forward bit by bit until you’re floating.
How NOT to Launch the Kayak
We arrived at the launch destination at the end of our 10-15 minute drive. We all piled out of our vehicles and watched husband and wife owners Ryan and Nicci, along with Nyk, from Missouri River Kayak Company, unload the kayaks from the trailer and set them up in neat rows near the dock where we would launch.
As we were laughing and sharing stories about our kayaking adventures, along came the reporter for WKFYR TV, who would be covering a news story about the Midwest travel writers’ visit to Bismarck-Mandan, North Dakota.
A petite blonde woman bearing a camera hurried over to us and asked if we were about to get in. “I only have a few minutes, but I came here to get some B roll footage for tonight’s news special,” she said. “Is anybody willing to get into the kayak so I can get some footage and head out?”
Now, Dannelle of The Traveling Cheesehead, is always ready and willing to take an opportunity to flash her beautiful face on a TV screen, so she happily obliged, donned her life jacket, and made her way over to the kayak launch area.
The remainder of the travel writers gathered around and continued sharing stories. Meanwhile, out of the corner of my eye, I watched as Dannelle climbed into the kayak with help from Ryan and Nicci, who were preparing her to launch. The camera woman was close at hand, capturing it all.
Once Dannelle plopped her bum into the seat. Since this was all new for Anne, I thought she should be watching to see how easy this process was. So, I cheerfully called out, “Hey, Anne! Are you watching? Dannelle will show you how easy it is!”
Do you ever have one of those slow-motion moments? You know, the kind where something happens very quickly, but since you are powerless to stop it, it appears to occur in slow motion? Well, that’s exactly what happened here.
Anne turned her attention to the activity at the dock just as Ryan began to push Danelle gently away from the dock and into the water. In very slow motion, the bright orange kayak began to tip slightly to the left… and then a little more, and slowly, powerless to help herself, Dannelle tipped right over into the ankle-depth water. A gentle splash sounded as she gracefully landed.
A burst of laughter-filled gasps erupted from our small group of watchers as Dannelle triumphantly arose, stood soaking wet in the ankle-deep water, and raised her hands high above her, smiling brightly to show she was fine.
The look of horror that crossed Anne’s face was one I would never forget. Here we were trying to comfort her and demonstrate how easy this process was, and instead, we accidentally showed her how easy it is to tip over immediately after launch. Oops.
Always ready to enjoy each other’s successes and failures, the group erupted with requests for copies of the video from the reporter. Of course, several people checked in with Dannelle to see if she was okay, especially after noticing a small bloody area on her leg where she scraped the kayak. She assured us that she was doing fine, the scrape was tiny but looked much worse because of the water, and she was enjoying her moment in the spotlight.
As Dannelle sat on the edge of the dock drip-drying, the remainder of us donned our life jackets one by one. We carefully plopped into our kayaks and slowly paddled to the holding area just outside the current, where we would gather before launching.
Kayaking Tip #3 – How to Get Comfortable in the Kayak
- Ensure your feet are flat on the footrests and your knees are bent comfortably. If you are using a rental kayak, you may need to adjust the footrests to a comfortable foot position. The goal is to be able to press your knees along the sides of your kayak’s opening to tip the kayak left and right. Just don’t tip too hard and fast or…
- Adjust your seat so that your back is straight and your shoulders are relaxed. May I suggest the best way to adjust your seat is to do it before getting into the kayak?
How the Hip Grandma Gets Comfortable
Dear reader, you might know that as much as I love pink, I dislike green equally. It’s just not my color. Y’all just go ahead and adore green walls, houses, bathrooms, cars, and even clothes, but I will stick to my pink and purple, thank you. So, I firmly blame the rest of the kayaking experience on being assigned the emerald green kayak. Blech. As a general rule, I avoid green things.
I was assigned the newest vessel, an emerald green kayak with an adjustable seat. As you may remember from Is Kayaking Hard? A Hip Grandma Story and What You Need To Know, I am not the most graceful person to enter a kayak. But considering I wasn’t being filmed for TV, form was less important than function. With Nyk’s help, I made it into the kayak with my dignity intact. “Whew! What a relief,” I thought, “Getting in is the hardest part!”
Alas, I thought too soon. Nyk asked me if my seat needed adjusting. As it turns out, it was not adjusted at all. I leaned back to discover I was lying so far back it was as if I was trying to catch the sun’s rays. This position may be great for a day on the beach, but it’s not so great for paddling a kayak. After many minutes of working to adjust the kayak seat with me still in it, Nyk declared it would be easier to adjust if I stepped out. Sigh.
So yes, the person with the least natural ability to climb in and out of a seated kayak climbed out of the seated kayak. A few quick adjustments later, the seat sat perfectly erect, and I was ready for another try.
I climbed back in, took hold of my paddle, listened to a few brief instructions, and quickly paddled off to the holding area out of the current to wait for the rest of the writers to be ready. We launched a few minutes later and entered the current for our five-mile trip downstream on the Missouri River.
Kayaking Tip #4 – What to Bring with You When Kayaking
- Lifejacket: This is the most important thing to carry while kayaking. It’s a lifesaver, literally. But if you’re unlucky, your personal flotation device might keep you alive long enough to see the sharks circling. And you’ll be glad you have it if the water temperature is cold. It will keep you upright while you catch your breath!
- Dry Sack or Dry Bag: This waterproof bag can be used to store your valuables. Keeping your phone, wallet, and keys in a dry bag is a good idea if you capsize or decide to swim with your phone in your pocket. I like to use a large dry bag for items like my camera or an extra sweatshirt.
- Water bottle: You must stay hydrated, especially on hot days. Bring a water bottle to stay refreshed or have something to throw at the seagulls trying to steal your snacks. Oh! And don’t forget the snacks.
- Sunscreen: The sun’s rays can be strong on the water on sunny days. Protect your skin with sunscreen, or you’ll look like a lobster. Or a cooked hot dog. And if you rock a pink ‘do like me, check out this SPF spray for your hair and scalp!
- Sunglasses: The sun’s glare can be blinding on the water. Protect your eyes with sunglasses, or you’ll squint so hard that your face will get stuck that way.
- First Aid Kit. In case of emergency, or in case you get a paper cut, of course.
And What Not to Bring
I had decided not to bring my big camera on this outing because I didn’t want to fuss with it, but as I got ready to launch, I had some serious regrets. The beautiful scenery lay before me, and I knew I was going to miss my chance to photograph some beautiful sites along the Mighty Missouri River. But alas, it was too late to worry about it, so I clamped my cell phone on the front of my lifejacket and decided I would have to manage without the big camera.
Kayaking Tip #5 – How to Hold the Paddle and Paddling Technique
- Grip the single paddle with your hands just over shoulder-width apart. Your grip should be firm but not too tight. You should also keep your elbows slightly bent.
- Be sure that the curves of the paddle blade are facing toward the back of the boat. This slight curve helps scoop the water in the right direction.
- The long edge of the paddle blade should be at the top and the shorter edge toward the water.
- When paddling, use a long stroke beginning at the front and pulling backward.
- Use a forward stroke on alternate sides of the kayak unless you wish to make a circle, which sometimes comes in handy.
- When you want to stop, paddle backward.
- When you want to turn, paddle backward on one side. You’ll turn the other way.
- Remember to keep your core engaged and your body relaxed (unless something or someone is chasing you. Then you can tense up all you want).
Paddle Your Way to Adventure
I had been looking forward to this trip, and the sky overhead was beautifully blue and filled with billowy white clouds. It was the perfect day for a leisurely trip down the river. I was ready with my paddle in the correct position and knew this would be a great afternoon in the sun, enjoying the experience in a new state!
Kayaking Tip # 6 – Set a Comfortable Pace
- Plan ahead to know the water conditions and the weather conditions when you’re going out. Check the weather forecast before you go out, or you might end up kayaking in a hurricane.
- There’s no shame in being a slow paddler. In fact, it’s kind of charming. Just let your more experienced friends know that you won’t be setting any speed records. And if they give you a hard time, remind them they’re not as funny as they think.
- Plan plenty of time to paddle leisurely unless you’re up for a whitewater kayaking experience. Just plan plenty of time so you don’t have to rush. And if you start to get bored, start yelling “Shark!” and watch things get exciting!
Until now, I have only kayaked in calm waters, such as a small lake or a small pond. Today would be the first opportunity to kayak in actual moving water. We were paddling with the flow of the current, so I anticipated a very leisurely trip with almost no effort. Of course, if you know me, you know that what I anticipate doesn’t always work out the way I expect.
Before I knew it, my fellow kayakers had taken off and paddled out into the current and were headed down the river. Fortunately, it was not a strong current, so we were in one of the best places on the Missouri River for first-time paddlers.
Somehow, I landed in the back of the pack, but no worries. Since this was a leisurely trek, I didn’t mind. If you have any kayaking experience, you know that kayaking too close together only leads to trouble anyway, so I was not worried about being at the back of the pack. Two of our friends from the Bismarck Convention and Visitor’s Bureau were near me at the back, so I knew I was in good hands.
It didn’t take long before I noticed those in front of me paddling further and further away. I couldn’t even see the people at the front of our group. “No worries,” I thought. “I’m having a lovely day, and the sun is shining down. The sky is blue. The clouds are white and puffy, and I have no cares.”
After a few minutes of leisurely trekking along, Kim, kayaking with us representing the North Dakota Dept of Commerce, turned her kayak around and kindly asked, “How are you coming?”
“I’m coming along quite nicely. Thank you. What a lovely day!”
“Yes, it is!” she said. “We don’t want to lose the rest of the group. I’ll stay with you, and let’s try to catch up a little bit.”
“No problem,” I thought. “I will paddle a little harder for a minute or two. We’ll catch up with the rest and continue with the group.” So, I paddled harder, stroked a little faster, and gained some ground. A few minutes later, Kim asked again, “How are you doing?”
Again, I replied. “Doing great! I’m just enjoying myself. I’m not sure why we’re in such a hurry, though.” I was a little annoyed at the others, who were ahead of me and paddling like mad. Don’t these people want to enjoy the beauty of nature, too?
A few minutes more passed. I noticed homes and cottages along the river’s edge to our left. To the right, I saw tall, wild grasses and the sound of birds and other wildlife.
A few minutes later, Kim asked for the third time, “How are we doing back there?” At this point, I became a little cranky. The entire group was way too far ahead of me. I didn’t understand why we were in such a rush. We had been told this would be a leisurely three-hour trek. Why are we in such a hurry? And also – I was a little embarrassed that I was so far behind the rest and having a hard time keeping up.
So I replied in my best cranky voice, “Why are we in such a hurry?” Kim calmly asked me to take a look behind me.
So I did.
…and Dark Clouds
Imagine my surprise when a simple head turn revealed an ominous dark gray storm cloud. Right on cue, the storm cloud burbled out a low rumble of thunder, warning me to speed it up. Now, one might wonder how this had escaped my notice. It’s simple. When looking straightforward, all I saw were blue skies and puffy clouds. The sun shone on me, and I hoped I had applied the proper amount of sunscreen.
Kim smiled knowingly and said, “We’re trying to beat that storm cloud.” Suddenly I had renewed interest in paddling harder and faster. I put it in high gear and began paddling with all my might. Unfortunately, I am not a fast paddler, nor am I a strong paddler. And because my kayak carries a bit more drag than some of the tiny people paddling ahead of me, catching up to the rest was an almost fruitless effort.
Soon my shoulders were hunched, and the skin was peeling from the insides of my thumbs because I was gripping that paddle so hard with nervous energy. I paddled hard. I paddled fast. I skipped the urge to stop paddling long enough to sip from my water bottle. I did my best. I tried to focus on the positive. I didn’t have my large camera weighing me down, and it wouldn’t have mattered if I did because I would not have had time to use it.
I never caught up with the rest of the group, but as I turned the corner at the exit ramp, the rest of my traveling friends appeared, standing on a rise to the left. They were cheering and shouting for me and capturing my victory on camera!
This old, overweight, and Hip Grandma is sometimes unknowingly an inspiration for those around me. They were happy that I made it and cheered me on as I finished the last short distance to the dock, where we could climb out and back into the Red Rover. As I pulled up to the dock, Steve and Nyk met me with their hands open, ready to help me out of the kayak.
Kayaking Tip #7 – How to Get Out of the Kayak
- Line your kayak up parallel to the shore where you’ll be exiting.
- Swing your legs awkwardly over the side of your kayak.
- Have your helpers stand by so they can assist you in hoisting yourself to a standing position. It helps me to have them hold my hands and pull.
- Try not to tip over into the shallow water as you stand. If you do, don’t worry. You are near land and can dry off and change into extra clothes.
- If you’re exiting on your own, pray for a kayak launch. Exiting the kayak is much easier when it is stable.
As I removed my life jacket, I could feel the first drops of cold rain landing on my skin. Before the downpour began, we gathered for our victory photo, including Anne, who met her goal on this crazy day. While walking back to the van, I assured her that kayaking is not always this intense or hardcore. I look forward to paddling with her again on another day to enjoy nature’s leisurely sights and sounds.
Bonus Tip: Don’t Look Back. You’re Not Going That Way
I’ve been accused of being optimistic, and I think that’s an excellent thing! When you’re looking forward and enjoying life, it’s easy to miss the ugliness that often lies behind you. There is a lesson here. Don’t look back; you’re not going that way. My therapist has a little plaque in her office that says this, and I love it. This story is the perfect illustration. Keep your focus up front.
However, if you have an opportunity to peek behind you, and all you can see are ugly storm clouds of your past chasing you, know this. Those storm clouds, maybe full of regrets and mistakes, won’t catch you if you continue to move forward. Focus on what’s ahead of you while letting what’s behind you motivate you to keep moving!
There are a couple of small details to this story that I didn’t share above. As we traveled down the river with the storm cloud in hot pursuit, Nicci, Ryan, and Nyk followed us closely in vehicles on land. We did not see them, but they monitored the storm as we traveled and were ready to swoop in and pluck us from the river if we needed help! They knew the weather was questionable, so they were prepared to rescue us if needed.
Know that you have a support crew ready to catch you if needed and cheer you to success when you reach your goal!
And finally, the standard time for this trip is around three hours. We made it in slightly less than one hour. When I reflect on that detail, I remember Nyk telling us in the car on the way over that if he’s paddling ‘super hard,’ he can make this trek in about 45 minutes. Take note that this old hip grandma with very little strength or stamina made the same trip almost as quickly as an expert paddler. That’s something to be proud of. Never underestimate your own strength or stamina. As it is said, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
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Wrapping it All Up
Every time I go kayaking, I learn something new about myself and the world around me. I am not an expert, and my skill level is still ranked at beginner, but I have a good time! I hope you will try it so you can learn something new about yourself and expand your horizons. And if you are heading for North Dakota any time soon, which I recommend, call Nicci and Ryan at Missouri River Kayak Company. They will take great care of you, I promise!!!
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