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The Wettest Trail: Try a Paddling Adventure
If you're looking for a new way to experience the great outdoors, consider a multi-day paddling adventure on one of the nation's many water trails. Imagine gliding through silky blue waters, lulled to relaxation by your own paddling rhythm and the sunny sparkle on the water. If you live in or are traveling to a mild climate, plan your trip for winter or early spring for optimum peacefulness, free of powerboats and pretty much everyone else. Paddling one of the American Canoe Association's recommended warmer climate water trails is an excellent and eco-friendly way to enjoy nature from a duck's eye view.
What is a Water Trail
The American Canoe Association defines a water trail as "a pathway along a river, lake, or coastline that provides boaters with a recreational, scenic, historical or educational opportunity. To be considered a water trail, this pathway must be contiguous or semi-contiguous, must be open to recreational use by paddlers, and must be the subject of a map, guide, signage or a web site that provides information to trail users."
Because they are well-marked and well-mapped, water trails can be a great adventure even for families and entry-level paddlers. Yet there are also water trails that require much more advanced level skill such as coastal trails and those with running whitewater. Like any outdoor adventure, you need to do some careful planning on the water trail, including the skill level needed, when to go, what to bring, area dangers, weather patterns and predictions, and how to be prepared. Doing the research and being prepared will keep your trip safe and fun.
Choosing your water trail
The first step in planning your water trail trip is to choose an ACA-recommended water trail. Their website gives the association's stamp of approval on a select group of water trails as the most accessible to paddlers in terms of available guides, maps, and signage. ACA-recommended trails must have at least one organization supporting them and promoting environmental responsibility on the part of paddlers. The site provides links to the specific water trail organization where you can find contact information and details you need to plan your trip.
Once you've found a few that look good, spend the extra time contacting the organizations. Be honest about your experience level and they can help you plan. Ask them about weather patterns and routes. In most cases they will also be able to help you with logistical questions about overnight accommodations, parking, and shuttle possibilities
Multi-day trips can be fun but resist the temptation to be overly ambitious. Once you get into the rhythm of a paddling trip you'll want to take your time to explore, take breaks, have picnics or paddle up to restaurants, watch birds or just lie back and watch the clouds move. Plus paddling can be hard work if you're not used to it or if the wind picks up. Aim low. Plan for just a few paddling hours each day and make a reservation at a hotel or campsite for the overnights.
Unless you already have your own equipment, you need to find an outfitter that will rent you all the gear you need, including kayak or canoe, paddles, life vests, and wet sacs for dry storage in your boat. Some outfitters offer guides that can accompany you for all or part of your journey and some will help you transport the boats and provide a shuttle when you're finished with your trip and need to get back to the car. Most water trail websites will recommend outfitters for you to contact.
What to wear and bring
Definitely wear layers. Even in cooler temperatures, you'll heat up from paddling, but stop and gawk at the scenery and you might cool right back down. Also consider capilene or some other fabric that holds the warmth in but is moisture-wicking and dries easily. Fleece works pretty well although make sure it has a wind block. Avoid cotton if possible. For more involved trips like whitewater or ocean trails, look into wearing a wetsuit or paddling jacket with tight seams. If your kayaking, theoretically your legs will stay dry because you will have a paddle skirt that you wear like a shirt and then attach to the mouth of your kayak. Theoretically. Especially for the inexperienced it's really easy to continually drip water on your skirt as you're paddling and unwittingly create a leakage problem. For that reason make sure your pants and shoes are fast drying too. Water shoes are a good idea because you may have to step out of your boat into the water as you land or launch.
It's a good idea to wear a hydration system backpack so you don't have to undo your skirt every time you need a drink. In a canoe this is not necessary but still a good idea so you drink more often and avoid dehydration. Don't forget the sunscreen for your face and lips.
Pack a first aid kit so you can treat basic cuts and injuries. Do some research on the flora and fauna in the area so you know if you need special products for poison oak or snakebites. Ask the water trail organization what they recommend.
Also, register a float plan with the water trail organization and also with a friend or family member who is not going on the trip with you and make sure you remember to tell them when you're back safely.
If accommodations are close enough together and there's a good support network of paddler friendly restaurants, hotels, and other services such as on the California side of the Lake Tahoe Water Trail http://www.laketahoewatertrail.com/ then you might be able to bring a change of clothes, your water bottle, and a credit card. For others you may also be packing camping gear and food. If this is your first time on an overnight paddle trip, go easy on yourself and pick an easy route with lots of services.