Kayak tour both a workout and a wonder
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Michael Porreca gives a tour of Pittsburgh from a kayak on Thursday evenings through Three Rivers Rowing Association.
Click photo for larger image.
A good way to see Pittsburgh from another vantage point, and to get some exercise doing it, is to take a kayak tour of Pittsburgh. The Three Rivers Rowing Association is offering them on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings through Aug. 31.
The tours, which launch from the TRRA boathouse in Millvale, are free for members, $25 each for nonmembers. Reservations must be made in advance.
If the timing isn't convenient, or you don't want to have to paddle so far to get to Downtown, you can rent a kayak for $12 an hour from Kayak Pittsburgh, through October. The rental facility is on the water near the Sixth Street Bridge on the North Side.
Kayak Pittsburgh also offers a class for beginners on Monday nights through August. The TRRA offers weekend classes for beginners.
I took a tour recently with guide Mike Porreca, 44, a computer technician for Allin Corp. He's been leading kayak tours for the TRRA for five years.
Mr. Porreca, who lives in Wexford, said he got into kayaking because "I was looking for something else to do besides running."
Because a party of eight failed to show up, our group consisted only of Hannah Mazur, 13, from Hudson, Ohio; her great-aunt, Pat Dowling, 57, of Shadyside, and me.
Hannah is an adventurous girl who loves sports. She told me the sport she most likes to play is ice hockey. After spending an evening on the river with her, I believe her.
"Hannah gets me to do things I don't ordinarily do," said Ms. Dowling, who is on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school.
Also along were John Turner, 26, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University who also guides, and Diana Lenzner, 26, a graduate student at Pitt.
Ms. Lenzner is in charge of all boating programs for the Three Rivers Rowing Association. She and Mr. Turner were along to escort the group that didn't show up. The TRRA believes in a high ratio of instructors to students.
We began with a safety briefing. The kayaks the TRRA uses are ocean kayaks, which are longer and more stable than the whitewater kayaks you see flipping over in the sportscasts.
But they're not all that much more stable. Getting in and out of a kayak can be exciting for a novice. On the tours he's led this season, the only people who've fallen into the water did so while getting in or out, Mr. Porreca said.
The proper way to get in, he said, is to sit on the dock next to the kayak, and place the paddle directly behind the seat, so half the paddle is resting on the kayak, and half on the dock. Then with both hands, press down hard on the paddle and lift and scoot your keister into the seat.
Kayak paddles are designed for speed. The blades are canted so that the one that is not in the water will not offer wind resistance. One consequence of this is that kayaks, in effect, have no brakes. This can be an unpleasant surprise for those (like me) whose prior experience was with canoes and rafts.
"Although it's tempting, I wouldn't back paddle," Mr Porreca warned. "It's a good way to flip over."
After a briefing on the rules of the road -- "basically, you've got to get out of the way of every other boat" -- we slid our keisters across the dock and got under way.
Out on the river, the only real excitement comes from the wake generated by power boats. If it's strong enough, it can swamp your kayak. It's best to turn into the wake, or away from it, Mr. Porreca said.
But even though you are most unlikely to tip over, expect to get wet. Water drips from your paddles as you lift them in and out of the river.
"It's not so bad if you keep your paddles low," Mr. Turner said.
It was pleasant gliding along the river, past an old wreck and a flock of ducks, people sitting by the river drinking beer, or fishing (that is, drinking beer with a fishing pole nearby), seeing Downtown from a whole new perspective.
The down side to starting out downstream is you have to paddle against the current to get home. Normally, Mr. Porreca said, it takes about two hours to go from the Millvale docks to PNC Park and back. We did it in an hour and a half.
I take no pride in being part of the lead group (Mike Porreca, Hannah Mazur and me). I was there only because I preferred aching muscles and gasping for breath to the humiliation of admitting to myself that I was getting my butt kicked by a 13-year-old girl.
"That was really fun," said Hannah brightly, looking as if she were ready to do the whole thing again, right then.
I asked Hannah what her next adventure would be.
"The Shadyside arts festival," interjected her great-aunt, Ms. Dowling, before Hannah could suggest something more robust.
First Published August 16, 2006 12:00 am