It seems I’m not the only one with a passion for paddling, since the popularity of kayaking more than doubled between 2006 and 2013, according to Statistica, with more than 13 million paddlers hitting their favorite rivers regularly across the U.S. today.
What makes a river great for kayakers? Here are three of my favorite heartland experiences.
Urban Kayaking in Indiana
The St. Mary’s (also known as St. Marys) River in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a tributary of the Maumee River. In fact, the fort that grew into Indiana’s second largest city was built at the confluence of three rivers: St. Mary’s, Maumee and St. Joseph in 1794.
Today, the River Greenway, a paved asphalt and cement walking, biking and roller blading trail, runs through the city alongside St. Mary’s River for 8 miles. The tree canopy of alder, ash, cottonwood, elm, hawthorne and hickory provides pedestrians and paddlers alike with a natural barrier from the hectic pace and sounds of the city.
I visited Fort Wayne as one of the first stops on the 30-day fall foliage tour my husband and I took for our 40th wedding anniversary. It was his first introduction to paddling, so I had scouted around to find an experience with specific features: convenient access, scenic shores and easy paddling.
Luckily, I found the perfect package at Don Hall’s Guesthouse Hotel. Conveniently located right off the Interstate, the guesthouse included everything we needed to relax after our first few days of driving. Its adventure package included either two kayaks or two bicycles, along with dinner on our arrival and breakfast, plus its shuttle dropped us off at the Fort Wayne Outfitter’s on the river and picked us up after we finished our exploration of the downtown.
While it felt strange to find a put-in in the sprawling and historic cityscape, the buildings and traffic soon became a separate world beyond the shimmering river. All we could hear was our paddles swooshing through the water. As Johnson said in her poem, “Soft is the song my paddle sings.”
Etowah River Water Trail
Kayakers of all ages and experience levels can plan trips several days long to take advantage of the Etowah River Water Trail — 163 miles of diverse paddling and scenery, with many facilities along the way. While I kayaked through some of the Class I water outside of Rome, Georgia, in its upper reaches on the Hightower and Etowah Falls sections, there are challenges aplenty for dedicated paddlers with up to Class IV rapids.
Planning a trip is no fuss on this waterway, thanks to the interactive map you can access online at the Etowah Water Trail website. It includes mile marker and GPS coordinates, as well as easy-to-find take-outs so you can stretch your legs and explore. While the trail isn’t planned for overnighting, there are camping facilities in the Chattahoochee National Forest, Dawson Forest, and along with McGraw Ford and Allatoona Wildlife Management Areas.
My paddle started with a preliminary introduction to the ecology of the area at the Rome-Floyd Eco Center in historic downtown Rome. There, I met Ben Winkleman, City of Rome environmentalist, who told me a lot about the local rivers, the Etowah and Oostanaula, which join to form the Coosa River. One of the most amazing facts I discovered was that the Etowah is one of the most biologically diverse rivers of its size, with at least 76 native species of fish.
From the center it was on to get in some amazing miles of paddling, as Johnson would say, “plying my way ahead.”
A National Scenic Riverway
Wisconsin’s Namekagon River has been my biggest kayaking adventure — one akin to the excitement I’d sensed in Johnson’s poem back in my schoolgirl days. Here, I did indeed feel the river run swifter and watch the eddies whirl and swirl, daring me to cross their path.
The Namekagon is 101 miles long, flowing out of the lake by the same name, through the Wisconsin North Woods. With more than 60 group and individual sites maintained by the National Park Service along the route, it’s a popular multi-day destination for paddlers, whether kayaking or canoeing. It’s also part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a group of Wisconsin rivers being returned to their original state by removing buildings and footbridges along their paths.
My adventure began with outfitters, Bear Country Sporting Goods in Cable, putting in at Phillipi Landing on the Namekagon (which turned out to be very near Drumming Woods Bed & Breakfast, where I had a comfortable stay). Water levels, as with most rivers, vary from year to year, although this point is generally higher than the first stretch from Namekagon Dam to Cable Wayside, which was where we were headed.
The current was swift, with small rapids over rocky patches, so I soon had new challenges to master. While straight paddling is relaxing, actually navigating a river provides for a lot more excitement. From drifting into overhanging branches and learning how to push off counter-clockwise to get back onto the river, to getting hung up in sandbars in shallow water and figuring out how to use my paddle to push off, my skill level soon reached new heights.
Indeed, I left the Namekagon with a sense of satisfaction at having mastered a river, rather than just relaxing on its slow moving waters. Rather than crossing kayaking off my bucket list, though, these experiences have just made me want to sample more of the heartland’s rivers.
Author: Linda Aksomits is a contributor to HeartLand Boating
Don Hall’s Guesthouse Hotel
1313 West Washington Center Road
Fort Wayne, IN 46825
Fort Wayne Outfitters
1004 Cass Street
Fort Wayne, IN 46808
Etowah River Water Trail Info and Interactive Map
Rome-Floyd Eco Center
393 Riverside Pkwy NE
Rome, GA 30161
Bear Country Sporting Goods
52150 Wisconsin Ave.
Drummond, WI 54832
Drumming Woods B &B
14791 McNaught Road
Cable, WI 54821