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Kayaking: Everybody's doing it

The number of kayakers in the U.S. has more than doubled over the last decade, from about 6 million in 2006 to more than 15 million in 2016.

Jill Post participates in a group outing sponsored by L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools at Nockamixon State Park near Quakertown.
Jill Post participates in a group outing sponsored by L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools at Nockamixon State Park near Quakertown.Read moreCHARLES FOX

Roy Fowler was watching a late-spring sunset from his kayak on Lake Nockamixon in Bucks County, sharing the view with eight others.

It's not unusual: These days, Fowler sees fellow kayakers just about everywhere he goes.

In fact, the number of kayakers in the United States has more than doubled over the last decade, from about 6 million in 2006 to more than 15 million in 2016, according to Statista, an online statistics portal. The reasons, users say, include a sport that's easy to learn; equipment that's affordable and environmentally friendly; and waterways that are abundant, accessible, and free to use. (Plus, kayaks equal coolness on social media.)

Not that growth is driven by social-media types. Baby boomers, more than any other demographic,  are the largest customer group at the five-year-old Kayak Fishing Store in North Wildwood, driven in part by the recent increase in lightweight kayaks for sale.

"We have several waterfront communities where customers float around the back waterways watching the sunset," said one of its owners, Chris Parson, "trading the rod holders for cup holders for cocktail hour."

Fowler, 65, of Berks County, whose daughter turned him on to the sport about 10 years ago, kayaks several times each week between April and October, mostly to fish but also for exercise. He especially likes that he can get to places he can't in a fishing boat or canoe.

"Everybody can get involved," said Sami Spiezio, president of the American Kayaking Association in Ohio. You don't have to be an athlete, and there are many ways to enjoy the sport, he said.

Those include a relatively calm flat-water experience, as on a lake, to whitewater kayaking, which requires more skill but has more thrills. In the last four years, fishing from kayaks has exploded, Spiezio said.

Spiezio started to see the growth in kayaking in 2012, when manufacturers introduced more affordable equipment, selling for as low as $150. Lighter kayaks also made the sport more accessible to women.

"I can't put a 100-pound kayak on top of my car, but something 50 pounds is doable," said Amy Angelopoulos, 43, of Virginia Beach, Va., who discovered kayaking three years ago and who now hits the water to fish three or four times a week, weather permitting.

Her most memorable moment was discovering an osprey with a clamshell stuck on its talon. "It was so heavy, the bird couldn't take off from the water," she said. "I scooped the osprey up with my paddle, put him on the bow of my kayak, and paddled to shore." With the help of others, they removed the shell and the osprey flew away. "It would have drowned," she said.

Of the hundreds of kayaks Parson sells each year, 70 percent are bought by customers new to the activity. His kayaks range in price from about $500 to more than $3,000 for those looking to pedal, sail, or add an electric motor.

Kayaking alongside whales was a moment Kyle Levocz, 26, will never forget. "It was two years ago, and a friend and I were out on the water at sunrise with nobody else around," said Levocz, of  Northeast Philadelphia. "We saw a whale breach way out in the distance, so we paddled over, and next thing you know, they were 50 yards from us. For two hours, it was just two guys in a kayak and whales."

Other excursions have been less relaxing. One cold December day, wearing a dry suit intended to keep water out, "there were five of us and we … got into some breakers, and we all flipped out of our kayaks," he said. "We were in 48-degree water for about 45 minutes before we made it out."

With more people trying kayaking, Spiezio's group hopes to educate kayakers about wearing safety devices and avoiding alcohol on the water. "And, in the case of capsize, they need to know what to do," he said. "That's why most people drown."

L.L. Bean offers a four-hour, $25 course to help new kayakers learn basic techniques, including safety tips, said Steve Johnson, field operations manager of Outdoor Discovery Schools  for Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "Our instruction demystifies the sport. People realize there's no impact, my kids can do it, my grandmother can do it, it's easy. I taught one family that had five generations."

When the Schuylkill River Development Corp., in partnership with Hidden River Outfitters, began offering kayaking tours on the Schuylkill Banks in 2006, it drew about 220 "people from the neighborhood who had little or no experience but were interested in doing outdoor things," said Joseph Syrnick, corporation president. It was an equal mix of men and women, most in their 20s and 30s.

For the last several years, roughly 400 people, mostly millennials, have signed up annually for tours offered about seven times each month from June through September. Its hour-long, 2-mile round-trip to the Water Works for $40 is projected to attract 460 people for the 2017 season.

Tours today are popular with local college clubs from the city and surrounding suburbs. Couples enjoy the Moonlight Kayak Tour: "It leaves at twilight but comes back at pitch dark," said Syrnick, "scheduled around the full moon."

Since the Delaware Valley Kayakers formed in 2009, its membership has swelled to about 1,000 people, with a few more women than men, and an age range of 30 to seventysomething, said its lead organizer, Scott Edwards. It now offers about five meet-up events a month, mostly recreational day trips to manageable places, up from the one or two it ran five years ago. More people just want to connect with nature and disconnect from their phones, Edwards said.

For some veterans, kayaking can serve as a way to help with PTSD, said Charlie Hackman, a 64-year-old volunteer guide for the last five years with Heroes on the Water, a national organization with two chapters in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey.

"We get them out to get away from the everyday grind," said Hackman, of Deptford. "I love the serenity, being able to get out on the water and fish. It doesn't mean catching," he joked.

"That's a bonus."