The Fat Girl’s Guide to Kayaking
Kayaking on the Chicago River with my family
For those of us who are out-of-shape, the word “kayaking” often brings to mind images of svelte, athletic bodies, sinewy arms (and tiny butts) in tight, flaw-flaunting sportswear, weaving effortlessly through boulder-freckled whitewater. The kayaker in our minds – probably tan, 25 and able to bounce a quarter off either bicep – does a 360-degree “Eskimo roll,” and we gasp, deciding if that were us… we’d sink to the bottom.
Toss in the nagging worry at the back of your mind that the back of your bod won’t fit into one of those skinny little boats, and you’re probably thinking, “Kayaking isn’t for me.”
Think again. Sea kayaks (also called “touring kayaks”) are broader and more stable than whitewater kayaks, and recreational kayaks are wider still, and there are even inflatable kayaks that are virtually impossible to tip. This means no boulders, helmets or worries over whether you’ll survive a roll in rough waters. Even better: there’s no need to escape to faraway wild places to try kayaking, because outfitters are based everywhere from major cities like Chicago, Seattle, and Pittsburgh to local parks and recreation areas. Anywhere with a river, lake, or reservoir should allow for kayaking on calmer waters.
It gets even better: ditch any concerns about a claustrophobic lack of comfort in a sea kayak. Most outfitters carry a variety of kayak sizes and styles, including recreational kayaks, which feature wider seats and more open space than sea kayaks. (The only down side: recreational kayaks are heavier, so you’ll need to use more elbow grease to propel yourself across the water. I was able to paddle a recreational kayak with a 65-pound 10-year-old in the front seat; while I tended to lag behind the group, I never once felt like I was struggling to move on the water.)
Know before you go. Research outfitters in your area or at your travel destination. Some outdoor-oriented companies like REI and L.L. Bean offer courses on calm lakes or swimming pools to get people comfortable on the water. For my first kayaking trip, I called Dave Olson, owner of Kayak Chicago and all-around great guy. I told him outright about my child-bearing hips and expressed my concerns about whether my size 18 butt would be compatible with a size athlete kayak. He said he gets that question often, and assured me I had nothing to worry about. (This is a sure sign of a good outfitter, so don’t be shy about calling ahead and asking questions).
Getting started. While many outfitters and marinas rent kayaks by the hour, first-timers should do a guided tour on the water until they get their technique down, and everyone should wear a personal flotation device for any water sport. (If they can fit a big, barrel-chested guy, they’ll fit you–again, a good outfitter will have a variety of sizes available. My 42Bs were plenty comfy).
Before heading out, your guide will give a tutorial on how to paddle; pay attention but don’t sweat it. A friend sized similarly to me kayaks regularly and assured me that kayaking is intuitive and I found this to be true. As for getting into the kayak, it was easier than I worried it might be: my guide steadied the kayak against the pier and I sat beside it, then slid inside, one leg at a time.
The biggest surprise for me was how stable I felt while paddling, which put me at ease so I could focus on technique. Another cool thing was being so close to the water I felt like a part of it. I learned that standing up is the main way to capsize a sea kayak (a lesson my six-year-old nearly discovered during our outing). Equally surprising was that I used my hips and core muscles as much as I did my arms and upper back – all without being particularly toned in any of these areas. On the water, everything works in concert, flowing intuitively. I was able to comfortably paddle for three hours along the Chicago River and felt powerful and graceful the entire time. The next day I felt like I’d had a good workout without feeling unreasonably sore.
What to wear and what to bring Wear clothes and shoes you don’t mind getting wet; Tevas, beach Crocs, or Keen water shoes are great options. My backside was soaked (some water drips down the paddles as you go) after our three-hour outing in a recreational tour on the Chicago River, so I was glad I wore pants and panties that dried quickly. A hat with a brim, sunglasses and sunscreen on all exposed areas are other musts. I slathered on SPF 50 everywhere but my shins and suffered a comical capri-pants sunburn line as a result. Finally, Ziploc bags are your kayaking friend. I brought a quart-sized bag to hold my Flip video camera, cell phone, and notebook.
So, that’s the scoop. You’ll hear us ask this question often at FGG: What are you waiting for?
We love hearing from our readers; if you have any photos of yourself kayaking, please add them to our flickr group and we’ll share them here (giving proper credit, of course–we’re cool like that). Questions? Concerns? First-hand tales of your own kayaking adventures? Leave us a comment!