McCANDLESS, Pa. - Moving up the smooth Allegheny River in the morning air, Laura Vayansky absorbed her surroundings: the lush vegetation, fish jumping in the river, a crane.
Then she turned her kayak around for a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh.
"I like the peace of the water," Vayansky, 33, of Ingram, said of her Wednesday morning kayak trips. "Whenever I do that, the whole day, there's nothing that can shake me. Nothing goes wrong after a morning on the water."
While kayaking is often associated with shooting rapids on churning creeks, Vayansky is among a growing number of people taking to calmer waters for leisure, recreation and exercise right in their own city and neighborhoods.
Nationally, participation in kayaking has risen consistently in the last several years, said Martin Bartels, executive director of the Virginia-based American Canoe Association, founded in 1880 and one of the oldest outdoor-recreation nonprofit groups in the country.
"I think people are finding more and more this is an activity that just about anyone can do pretty much within an hour's drive of their home," Bartels said.
In the Pittsburgh area, the nonprofit Venture Outdoors says the number of hours its kayaks were rented on the North Shore more than doubled from 2,300 hours in 2005 to more than 5,000 in 2007.
Just as the recent return of mayflies signaled area rivers' improving conditions, people started going back to the Allegheny for recreation, said Jon Lucadamo, a program director for Venture Outdoors.
"Historically, people have not associated the Allegheny River with recreation. It's always what people have seen as a working river," he said.
Pauline Taylor-Raif, 47, of West View, took up kayaking three years ago, paddling on the Allegheny River and the Clarion River at Cook Forest. She has witnessed the increase in interest.
"It's something people have probably been doing outside the city. Now they're realizing you can do this close to home. You can go to North Park, you can go down to the river, you can go to Moraine State Park," she said. "There's more of an awareness that these things are possible close to home. It's not something you have to travel a long distance for."
Unlike kayaks made for white water, flat-water kayaks have open cockpits with comfortable seats that can accommodate a wider variety of body sizes. The basic equipment is a paddle and a life jacket.
"It's really accessible. It's as strenuous or as easy as you want it to be," Vayansky said. "You can take it easy and glide slowly or really push hard and get some exercise. The trickiest part is learning to keep straight, but that takes practice."
A kayak can cost between $250 and $600, depending on materials and features. But in her seventh year of kayaking since moving here from San Francisco, Vayansky still doesn't own one, preferring to rent them.
"Why haul it and store it when I can use a shared one?" she said.