Simple Strokes for Paddling Folks

by Tim Kitslaar,
Communications & Marketing

Eight enthusiastic paddlers gathered near the boat landing at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve to learn basics of kayaking on a recent July evening, and I joined them for a behind-the-scenes look at this fun outdoor program. Some in the group had very little experience kayaking while others — including Ranger Nate Hambel leading the instruction — had extensive experience and knowledge about activities on the water.

We gathered near the landing with our kayaks and paddles before launching and went over the basic parts of the kayak, such as the deck, foot braces, grab handles, bulkhead, and spray skirt. We also covered the kayak’s bow and stern for front and back, and port and starboard for left and right. We then briefly went over how to hold the paddle and the different strokes we would learn in the water. We didn’t dawdle long on land, because we were anxious to launch our kayaks and learn best by practice.

We “rafted up” on the water, pulling up close and holding onto one another’s kayaks to receive instruction on the forward stroke. We went over the best angles and movements and body posture, which is one of the most important factors for long-term kayaking endurance. We then took turns practicing and receiving feedback before moving on to finer points, like “feathering” the paddle to keep it from catching the wind like a sail.

Once we had a good grasp on the basic stroke, we moved onto the sweep stroke for turning. This stroke involves reaching far up towards the bow of the kayak to leverage our paddles and make a sweep around back to the stern, which turns the kayak in the opposite direction of the paddle stroke.

We then moved onto avoidance maneuvers. These maneuvers combined the forward and sweep strokes with preventative measures for avoiding head-on kayak collisions. One maneuver involved shouting “right” or “left” as you headed towards each other to communicate which way you would be turning. Many program participants were hesitant to demonstrate this maneuver, so I volunteered thinking it certainly couldn’t be that hard. Ranger Hambel lined up on one end of the practice area, and I on the other. We both started to paddle swiftly towards one another and at about 20 feet out we both shouted “right” to signal our intentions as we neared one another.

I anticipated a relatively easy maneuver as the two kayaks fast approached one another, leaning on my sailing and boating experience that told me to steer to the starboard to avoid the collision. But all too soon I learned differently: The same rules do not apply to kayaking! As I attempted to turn right, I smashed my kayak into the front right side of Ranger Hambel’s kayak. I learned that when a kayaker shouts “right” it means the kayaker performs a right sweep stroke, turning the kayak to his left. Now clear on how to properly avoid one another, we lined up and tried again, this time gliding past one another clean off our right sides.

Our last stroke of the day was a simple stop stroke — or reverse forward stroke — to allow the kayaker to stop the boat quickly when necessary and even reverse it. We lined up with partners and paddled towards each other, much like the previous drill, but used the stop stroke to prevent crashing into the other.

We practiced our new skills for a little while longer before paddling back to shore and dry land. Many of us were soaked and tired but satisfied with all the new skills we learned that day, and all of us were eager to get back out to paddle the great variety of lakes, streams and rivers in DuPage forest preserves.

Want to learn more about kayaking? Then join a District ranger in a program or even for a guided paddle.

Paddling: Kayaking Basics  
Aug 5 10 a.m. – noonWood Dale Grove
Aug 7, 21 6 – 8 p.m.     Herrick Lake
Sep 105 – 7 p.m.Hidden Lake

Paddle With a Ranger
Aug 8, 27 9 – 11:30 a.m.Fullersburg Woods
Sep 279 – 11:30 a.m.     Fullersburg Woods

Kayakers receive basic instruction before hitting the water.
Kayakers "raft up" to learn their first simple stroke.
Ranger Nate Hambel picks up speed while providing instruction.
A kayaker practices his paddle form while taking in an instructional program at Herrick Lake.
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