Beginning Kayakers Take to the River

  • Venture Outdoors beginning kayak participants learning how paddle under Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente Bridge. Photo: Kara Holsopple

July 13, 2013

I’ve been in a dragonboat with 20 people, a raft with a few others, and a tandem kayak—just once.  But I’ve never kayaked solo.  Just me.  By myself.  Can you hear my hesitation? 

Steve Stagnitta is a volunteer with Venture Outdoors for the beginners' course I am about to take.  He is very reassuring.

"We get people out on the river who have not had the opportunity to do this before.  So that they learn how to handle the boats, they learn how to feel comfortable in the boats, and when you’re out on the river, it’s a very different view of downtown than when you are walking across the bridge.  And it’s really incredible," Stagnitta says.

Under the 6th Street Bridge, we beginners suit up in red life jackets and pick out our paddles from the Kayak Pittsburgh storage lockers.

Bonnie DePew, from Butler, Pennsylvania, says she's a river newbie.

"We’ve done kayaking in lakes before, but never on the river, so we thought maybe a beginner course might be a good idea the first time out," DePew says.

Her daughter Ashley isn’t too worried about navigating the river itself, just the sticks along the way.

"It’s just a little dirty at points—you can see all the stuff along the sides, but it's okay," she says.

Victoria Yu is also there for the class.  She's only been kayaking once, but never had instruction.  And she’d like to go more often.

"I’m trying to get outdoors more often this summer and enjoy the weather," she says.  

Yu says general laziness keeps her from getting outside more.  And forgetting the sun is outside. 

"When you get used to being inside all winter, you kind of forget sometimes," she adds.

Our trip leader Joel Johnston is going to get us all used to our kayaks before we get on the water.  He says a kayak really is a technical piece of equipment, so it's a good idea to figure out how to master it.

Johnston says, "You wouldn’t get on a bike your first time without ever getting in one and go, 'Wow, let’s just do this.'  You know?"

He leads us to a grassy place along the Allegheny River where we learn about everything from getting our flotation devices to fit to how to address—or hold—the paddle.

Before we graduate to practicing on the river, Mike Adams, a supervisor at Kayak Pittsburgh, gives me one last piece of advice—don’t lean to the side, or to the front. Adams puts me in my boat, and away I go—backwards, as you do, into the Allegheny.  I manage to remember how to turn myself around—forward stroke on one side, backwards stroke on the other.  And I surprise myself, by keeping up with the group—to the Seventh Street Bridge—almost to Washington’s Landing, 2 miles away.  I can’t even see the boat launch anymore when we hear the thunder.  Single file, we paddle back—fast.  I’m getting sloppy, and tired, so more water is coming into my kayak.  I need a moment.  That’s when I look up and see that view of the city that Steve Stagnitta was talking about before. 

“This is my city,” I think to myself.  My river.  He’s right.  I never saw it that way before.

A lightning bolt or two motivates me to pick up my paddle, and pick up the pace.  We all make it to the launch in good time—before the rain.  Back at Kayak Pittsburgh, Victoria Yu says the lightning made for a dramatic finish.

"I did make me paddle faster.   I was paddling as fast as I could.  It was a lot of fun though, and it was worth it," she says.

I have to agree.