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So You Want to Learn to Paddle?

On a crisp Muskoka morning, out on the water before the heat of the day has fully set in, I often find myself holding my breath. The lake is so flawlessly glassy, the trees so still, the birds just waking—it’s as if the simple act of breathing might crack the perfection of the moment. Sitting comfortably in a kayak, low to the waterline, I’m not just watching the morning unfold—I’m hidden inside it, a part of nature.

Purists, of course, will argue that the canoe, not the kayak, is the proper vessel for communing with Ontario’s nature. Historically, that’s true (this continent was largely founded on the strength of birch bark), and the canoe will always be king. But there are reasons for the recent surge in the popularity of kayaking. Technically, the two-bladed paddle means you don’t need a correction stroke to move in a straight line. But it’s the seating position that makes it a crowd favourite: comfortable (you have a back rest!), stable and close to the water. If I felt any more natural, I’d quack.

YOUR MAIDEN VOYAGE
Getting started is easy. “Someone who’s never canoed or kayaked would have more success in a kayak,” insists Gordon Baker, assistant general manager of Algonquin Outfitters. “It’s intuitive, and you have more control [with the two-bladed paddle].”

The boats are safe, too, says Bill Swift Jr., president of Swift Canoes, a local boat manufacturer. “Recreational kayaks these days are so stable, you really have to try to capsize.”

Various outfitters and rental shops in the area offer quick intro sessions or beginner lessons. You’ll learn how to get in and out of your kayak (this is often the trickiest part of the day), and be introduced to forward, reverse and turning strokes. Intended for the complete novice, these sessions last about two hours. In other words, take a class in the morning and, by afternoon, you’ll be off to explore the spectacular scenery.WHERE TO GET GEAR
If you’re staying at a hotel or B&B, ask your concierge or host for the closest reputable outfitter, or see the Outfitters/Sporting Goods in the Great Outdoors guide.

The largest and most famous in the region is Algonquin Outfitters (705-635-2243, www.algonquinoutfitters.com), which features several locations. At its Oxtongue Lake shop outside Huntsville and its Lake Opeongo base in Algonquin Park, you can walk in the front door and paddle out from the back, making day tripping a snap.

Same goes at Muskoka Outfitters (705-646-0492, www.muskokaoutfitters.com) in Bracebridge: you’ll find it at the junction of the North and South branches of the Muskoka River, which allows for three distinct outings, ranging from an easy paddle through town to Bracebridge Falls, to a five-hour trek to a bird sanctuary at Lake Muskoka and back.

Three Swift Canoe locations (main office: 705-687-3710, www.swiftcanoe.com) offer distinct drive-up/paddle-out options: check out the coves and island of Georgian Bay from the Waubaushene store (south of Port Severn); explore Algonquin Park from the Oxtongue spot; or cruise the South River from the location north of Huntsville.

From any of these outfitters, as well as their own satellite locations and other outfitters in the area, you can also load up your car and head off to a destination of your choosing.

COST AND NOTICE
A basic rental (boat, paddle, life jacket) tends to come in at $25 to $35 a day. Some outfitters offer guided day tours in the $50 range, including rental. For outfitting for an overnight trip (basic gear plus tents, sleeping bags, cookstoves, food and more), expect to pay around $80 per day. Guides for such a trip start at about $200 a day. For an ambitious weeklong paddling adventure, check out Black Feather’s (705-746-1372, www.blackfeather.com) fully outfitted and guided Georgian Bay Islands trip ($1,050 per person).

Day rentals can generally be accommodated on short notice. For lessons, longer rentals and outfitting, a week or two’s notice is advised.

A PADDLER’S PARADISE
“No matter what your style is, it’s all here,” says Peter deMos, owner of Muskoka Outfitters. “You can choose from river trips, open water paddling on Georgian Bay, all the lakes of Algonquin Park. I’ve paddled all over the world and never found this kind of variety anywhere else.”TOP DAY TRIPS
From those who know the area best, here are some favourite destinations for day trips with minimal hassle.

Gordon Baker, Assistant General Manager, Algonquin Outfitters
Ragged Falls: A half-day excursion from Algonquin Outfitter’s Oxtongue Lake store (near Dwight), up the Oxtongue River to Ragged Falls, a beautiful 30-metre drop. Hiking trails lead to the top of the falls for photo ops or picnic lunches.
Lake Opeongo, Algonquin Park: “The lake has lovely campsites, and it’s big enough that if you’re doing a multi-day trip, you can move around to different campsites each night, all on the same lake.”
Rock Lake, Algonquin Park: “It’s more sheltered and less ambitious than Lake Opeongo. It has big cliffs, beautiful island campsites and hiking trails.”

Peter deMos, Owner, Muskoka Outfitters
South Falls: From Muskoka Outfitters’ Bracebridge store, head up the south branch of the Muskoka River to South Falls, a picturesque two-tier waterfall that offers deep swimming holes carved out of the rocks, and cliff jumps ranging from two to 30 metres.
Marshlands: For bird-watching, drive to the marshlands above the upper South Branch of the Muskoka River.

Bill Swift, President, Swift Canoes
Georgian Bay, Honey Harbour to Massasauga Provincial Park: “All that area is gorgeous. The water is so clear, and the topography is what you see in Group of Seven paintings, with the beautiful rock islands and pine trees blown by the wind.”
12-Mile Bay: This bay south of Parry Sound is “extremely beautiful, a national park with protected islands.”—Robert Maurin is the editor-in-chief of Maximum Fitness magazine. He’s an avid paddler who loves Algonquin Park and is working on his quack.

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