He’s all alone, paddling a sleek kayak by a huge blue glacier on his way to an island just visible up the fjord…

Wait a minute, that’s a commercial. But they’re not just selling travel fantasies; they’re also selling the idea that kayaking is an elite endeavor. Get over it; next time you see a place renting kayaks, go for it. No, we’re not talking about running whitewater, but exploring coasts, bays and broad rivers.

Cheap Thrills

It’s one of the least expensive adventures you’ll ever discover. Outfitters rent boats for 10 bucks an hour or around 30 bucks a day on bodies of water everywhere. Most rent sit-atop boats that eliminate the difficulties inherent in traditional kayaks.

“All we deal with is sit-atops,” says Jack Kuhn, of Harbor Dive Center, in Sausalito, California. “They’re designed to get in and out of; anyone can do it.” Sit-atops are exactly what the name says–you don’t get into them, you get on them. They’re wide, stable and generally unsinkable.

Intelligence Gathering

First, ask guys at the rental shop about local conditions. They’ll know if the wind picks up in the afternoon, or when the tide is going to rip. When possible, paddle against winds or currents on the way out so you have an easy trip coming back.
Before heading out, you’ll have some gear choices to make. They’ll make you take a life preserver; wear it. If you’re offered a wet suit of some sort, consider it depending on temps. You’ll also probably be offered one of two paddle types–symmetrical and feathered, with off-set blades. Stick with the symmetrical variety.

The Way to Go

Now the hard part–getting into the boat. If you’re leaving from a beach, point the nose into the water, drag the boat out just far enough so the stern’s still grounded; then straddle the boat, and sit your butt down. With your paddle, push off from the sand. If you’re departing from a dock, pull the craft alongside, and sit next to it on the dock. Put your feet in, and then, with one hand on the boat and the other on the dock, slide on down.
Once in the boat, hold the paddle with your hands shoulder width apart. The stroke is easy; paddle on one side, then the other. Don’t try to over-muscle it, either, especially on the last third of the stroke.

Turning Points

Steering is simple: To go one direction, paddle harder on the opposite side or back-paddle on the same side.

Before you get out into big water, try rocking back and forth in your boat a few times. You’ll get a feel of how far over you can lean, before disaster strikes.

Practice all this stuff within swimming distance of shore. You’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll get a feel for the boat. Now you’re ready to explore the fjords, or at least the end of the pier.

Paddling Points

 

From a kayak, a city’s skyline, coastline or even skanky old waterfront can be transformed. Nothing is more liberating than watching commuters cursing in their cars while you play hooky in the nearest body of water. Following are some of the urban kayaking spots where you can get away from it all without getting too far from a decent cup of coffee.

San Francisco

The San Francisco Bay offers stunning–and challenging–forays that start in Sausalito. Sea Trek (415-488-1000) rents a variety of boats, $15 for the first hour, $10 after that. You’ll actually be putting in at Richardson Bay, and you can head out to the San Francisco Bay proper or explore the Marin shore. Depending on conditions and your skill level, you can paddle under the Golden Gate, out to Angel Island, or over to Alcatraz.

For a more urban experience, California Canoe and Kayak (510-893-7833) rents boats in the Oakland Estuary, and south of San Francisco in Half Moon Bay. If you have a couple hours and a car, you can check out the sea otters off Monterey or head north to the rugged coasts of Sonoma and the Mendocino counties.

Seattle

Seattle has some of the most impressive kayaking anywhere. The 200 coastal miles of the Puget Sound are really too vast to talk about at any length, but there are a couple of good places to start.

Lake Union is a great place to paddle without leaving town. Northwest Outdoor Center (206-281-9694) rents touring boats for $10 an hour for a single, $15 for a double. Explore Lake Union for a protected paddle or check out the islands in adjacent Lake Washington.

They also let you have boats to go. You can take the ferry to Vashon Island and explore Quartermaster Harbor, or drive up to the San Juan Islands for an incredible day, week, or month tour of one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

New York

The best spot for kayaking in New York City is the excellent Downtown Boathouse (212-385-8169), on Pier 26 in Tribeca. It’s free! Starting in mid-May, this volunteer-staffed facility is open weekends and holidays. They put hundreds of first-time kayakers onto their sit-atop boats for short cruises. They also lead longer trips to the Statue of Liberty.

Los Angeles

Marina Del Rey is one of the biggest boat harbors in the world. You can rent a sit-atop at Marina Boat Rental (310-574-2822) and check out the yachts, in 10 huge boat basins. When you get tired of that, head out to the Pacific, check out Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier.

Boston

Around Boston, you can tap into great tours of the Essex River (978-768-3722). As in the rest of New England, fall is the best time of year. Tours range from three to six hours, and you can explore Plum Island Crane Beach.