Reflections From The Cockpit April 2008
" Where Should I Go Paddling?"

As a kayaker I have my favorite places to paddle.  How did I find these places?  Some were found by word of mouth, some from guidebooks, others were found by joining organized trips and many by just exploring on my own.  When I lived in Santa Barbara I was always able to paddle, because I lived close to the Pacific Ocean.  Even though there were plenty of local places to paddle, I liked to dream about far away places to explore.  Like most kayakers I made a list of the far away places I wanted to see from my kayak.  The list is long and it is always getting longer.  When I did get time off from work I had to choose from my list of trips.  Which one should I do first?  Should I do it on my own or should I sign up for a guided trip? It wasn’t easy picking the trip, because I wanted to maximize my vacation time. Here are some thoughts about deciding where to paddle and how to choose from your list.

I have used guidebooks over the years to find locations to paddle and hike.  I used the guidebooks in a number of ways.  If there were multiple trips in a general area, I used the book to choose the tour that best fit my needs and desires.  I counted on the experience of others who have been there to give an accurate description of the trip and hopefully enough pictures of the area to help me in my decision.  I also relied on the author’s experience to help me save time with respect to trip logistics (trailheads, launch and landing points, camping areas, permit info, maps needed, trip difficulty rating, etc.).  Even though the info was in the book, I still had to check on the accuracy of some of the details, if the book was a few years old. Even though the guidebooks were usually very helpful, I always felt I wanted a little more info then they were giving. Most of the time I wish there were more pictures to help me decide if I really wanted to take a trip there.

In my experience, most people who travel experience increased stress and anxiety even if they are looking forward to the trip.  Whenever we leave the comfort of the familiar, it is common to feel uneasy about the unknown along with the sense of excitement. In short, whenever we go on an adventure we are trying to find that balance of acceptable risk, challenge, excitement and fun.  I don’t believe one can have an adventure if the element of risk is missing. Once there is risk, then anxiety and some degree of nervousness is present.  Keeping this in mind, it is obvious to me that quality information about trip locations is important, because most travelers want to know what to expect. In addition, most people don’t have money to waste, aside from their wasting their time.

As professional trip leader and guide I was fortunate to travel quite a bit in my career. However, when I would finally get some personal vacation time, I wanted to make the most use of that time when I traveled.  I preferred not to waste my precious time, since I didn’t get much personal time off.  To that end I would spend time researching how to pack in all I wanted to do in my allotted time.  Guidebooks were a key resource for me.  As a professional trip leader the participants typically ask me the same questions regarding the trip. They are the same questions I ask when I want to decide upon a trip or plan a trip.  When I lead a trip I always try to give accurate information so the participants know what to expect, since unmet expectations can leave one disappointed.  Since they already knew the price and the length of the tour, the hot topics (in order of importance from the average participant) were: degree of difficulty, meals, accommodations, expected weather and water conditions, gear needed and who else is on the tour.  I have found that setting accurate and reasonable expectations is critical if you want satisfied participants.  If you meet and exceed expectations you have a great trip.  Therefore it is important to set expectations you can meet.  It is more important to know ones expectations.  If you do not know them, then meeting unknown expectations is a crapshoot. Therefore, it is import for you to dig deep inside and write down your expectations of the trip you are planning.  It is just as important to get the true expectations of the others who will be traveling with you; so you can all have a good trip.  See USK article, “What Do You Want From A Trip?”

My preferred style of adventure is going to an area with little information and exploring on my own.  The downside of this style is the time it takes.  I have done this many times in order to find new locations to take others on future trips.  See USK article, “Take A Tour.” In addition, I did it to find secluded areas (just for myself) where I could get away from the commonly used areas. 

On the other side of the coin, I have used the services of other professional guides when I had limited time and I wanted to get the details of the area that one can get only after multiple trips to the area.  I am more than willing to pay the guides for their expertise and experience in their given locations.  In addition, I like taking the role of the client once in a while, to see how the other half lives.  I always learn from other guides when I see them in action. While on those guided trips, you better believe I was picking the guide’s brains the entire time, because I knew I would be coming back to explore the area in more depth in the future.  It is a luxury to have someone else caring for the group, dealing with the logistics, moving the equipment and cooking the food.  A guided trip is well worth the money, especially if it is a trip where you need to fly to the starting point, which means it is difficult to bring your kayak (unless you own a folding kayak) and you kayaking equipment.

When planning vacation-paddling trips, there is usually a lot of information from which to choose.  The Internet is full of information, which is usually more current than printed guidebooks.  Don’t misunderstand me; guidebooks are still a wonderful resource.  There are always articles about touring and trips taken in the popular paddling magazines such as Sea kayaker, Canoe & Kayak, paddler, Atlantic Coastal Kayaker and Wave Length just to name a few. One of the keys to planning your trip is to have your own priorities listed (know those expectations) so you can match those priorities, skill level and your desires to the endless trips that are out there.  Of course the trip must also fit into your time constraints and your budget.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t expound on the potential benefits of paddling clubs.  As a resource for paddlers we have posted, on the USK web site, most of the links to clubs around North America and some around the world.  We hope paddlers use these links to network with other clubs.  If I wanted to take a paddling trip to a location in another state I would contact the closest club to my destination and ask for information and/or advice.  My experience with clubs has ALWAYS been positive.  There are usually a number of the core paddlers in a club more than willing to share information and experiences with others.  Clubs are a great information source for local knowledge.  Ask the clubs if they have recommended retailers and tour operators in the area.

A web search for local kayak retailers and tour operators in the area of your trip is another resource.  Check with the retailers and ask them who they recommend for tours and why they recommend any specific companies.  I have to admit, it is difficult to know from advertising who is a good outfitter.  Word of mouth from those you trust is my first choice.

Over the years Hadley & I have often been asked, “Where are good paddling vacation destinations?”  After we would share some of our favorite places, those asking would then begin asking more detailed questions about the trips. In some cases we recommended existing guidebooks about our chosen locations, but we would still get additional questions even after they read the guidebooks. As a result of these frequent inquiries we realized there could be a need for a new type of guidebook detailing some of our favorite kayaking locations.  As I mentioned above, there were times I found written guidebooks a little lacking for my needs. This spurred the idea for creating video guidebooks for different paddling locations.  We believe that seeing a video of the highlights of a tour will give you a better idea of what paddling in the chosen location is really like. After a long search on the World Wide Web, it appears that USK is the first to create a video guidebook for kayak touring, since our first one entitled “Paddling Hawaii, Kaua’i Day Tours” has just been released.  There are so many places in the world to paddle, so we will have many more of these guidebooks added to our “Paddling Series” in the years to come.  Please visit the USK “Paddle Series” page for more details about our video guidebooks.  In addition to the video guidebooks, we are planning to devote a web page, which gets updated over the years, for each of our guidebooks so you have current information for trip planning.  We will also include recommended tour operators for our featured trips based upon service and reliability.

In closing, I think it is hard to have a bad trip if you end up getting out on the water.  You can have a difficult trip if the conditions are rougher than you like it.  You can have a miserable trip if you are not prepared for the weather conditions.  You can have a suicidal trip if you have a pain in the $%&*# paddler in your group. You may even have a disappointing trip if your expectations were not realistic to the trip.  However, if you maintain a positive attitude, any time on the water can be a good trip.  The key to having a great trip is to match your priorities and skills to the right trip. If you take the time to research your trip wish list and compare it to the resources available, you can make that great trip happen.

Wayne Horodowich


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