Story and photo by Alison Brownlee
Gliding over lakes of glass and down meandering rivers can be one of the best ways to explore the beautiful waters and fall colours of Muskoka.
And the best part is you don’t need a boat operator card to do it, says Randy Mitson, marketing director for outdoor activities retailer Algonquin Outfitters.
“We’ve had a lot of people come into the store asking if we rent jet skis,” says Mitson one evening while standing on the dock behind the business’s Huntsville store. “I used to tell them no and try to point them toward someone who did, but now I just ask if they have a boat operator card.”
One of the best things about non-motorized water transportation, like canoeing or kayaking, is that it doesn’t require any specialized licensing, he says.
On Wednesday nights, Mitson leads a leisurely, two-and-a-half hour kayaking trip up the Muskoka River for groups that include experienced paddlers or first timers.
For $15, each tripper gets a kayak, a double-ended paddle and a five-kilometre guided tour of the river from the downtown swing bridge to the mouth of Lake Vernon. What’s more, two-thirds of the profits are donated to the local animal shelter while the rest goes toward paying the staff that supervises the trip.
“It’s just about getting people out on the water and having fun,” says Mitson, who has been leading tours with the store, both in Huntsville and Algonquin Park, for six years. “And charging over $100 for something like this, which I’ve seen happen, would really limit the number of people that would come out and experience being on the water.”
Scenery along the black-water river ranges from meticulously landscaped gardens to rugged shorelines, peppered with rolling wooded hills, lily pads, floating ducks and even a blue heron.
Ryan Crawford, 13, and his stepfather Mark Ritchie travelled the short distance from Port Sydney one night to try the tour. Ritchie says it took them two years to finally get around to it, but he’s happy they did.
After the trek, the avid canoeist says switching to a double-paddle is fairly easy.
“I can see why people do it,” he says with a grin. “Especially on water like this.”
Crawford spent most of his time cruising up and down the river with ease, and chatting with Ritchie at times when the two travelled side-by-side.
That’s one of the best things about kayaking, says Bill Swift, owner of Swift Canoe and Kayak.
“In terms of kayaking, something that we find is really big with it is that it’s something you can do by yourself, so you can go whenever you want to, but you can also go with a group of friends,” says Swift, whose business is based in Gravenhurst.
He says he goes kayaking at his cottage in Algonquin Park with his spouse, and people from other cottages will just join in, making it a community activity.
Another draw to kayaking is how quickly people can learn the sport, says Swift.
“In an hour- to two-hour lesson, people can learn 80 per cent of what they need to know,” he says. “With one lesson, it’s certainly enough for someone to go out and enjoy the sport recreationally.”
And what better place to learn than in Muskoka, where many of the rivers are lazy and the lakes are often mirror-still.
Huntsville resident Robert Seymour, who has volunteered with the Wednesday night kayaking group for six years, says learning to kayak got him back out onto the lakes he grew up with.
“For the longest time I didn’t care for water,” says Seymour, who exhausted his interest in water-based activities as a youth by spending so much time on it. “This brought back my love of it.”
He says he’s been to Fairy, Vernon and Penn lakes, and hopes to visit Mary Lake, too.
But enjoying your time can really depend on the equipment you use, and that’s not always a sales pitch.
Swift says beginners don’t need top-of-the-line equipment, though choosing the right length of both boat and paddle is important.
“Usually I recommend people start with a 12-foot kayak. With 12-feet, you can get a kayak that responds nicely to your strokes,” he says. “And paddles are just as important. We recommend people get something light and adjustable.”
He says adjustable blades could make for more comfortable strokes. “Originally, in the old days, blades were set to turn 90 degrees, so when you feather your blade back up into the wind, you’re not pushing wind, but now it just revolves around the ergonomics of how you like to turn your wrists.”
Prices of kayaks depend on brand, style, length, material and quality. Swift says the boats generally start at $399, though quality ones can go for $600 and up.
After kayaking in Muskoka for over 30 years, Swift was a little apprehensive about giving away his favourite water-based haunts, but he says anywhere in the region can be spectacular.
“The water is just so beautiful and clean,” he says. “There are so many other places in North America where the water is soapy or just not as clean.”
And he was adamant people visit Algonquin Park.
“You need to go to Algonquin to go kayaking. There’s a good chance of seeing wildlife and powerboats aren’t whizzing around you,” says Swift.
Although there are often more powerboats than canoes or kayaks on the river in downtown Huntsville, Algonquin Outfitter’s Mitson says motorboat operators in the region are generally considerate to paddlers.
“Most of the motorized boaters tend to be canoers as well, so they understand what it’s like,” says Mitson. “Often times they’ll slow down when they pass us, or give us a lot of space.”
He also says kayaking has grown in popularity over the past 20 years for several reasons. “Canoes, except for being about 20 lbs. lighter, haven’t really changed. But with kayaks, they have new technology, new designs – they’re changing,” he says.
“And this year we’re seeing more people out because the weather is great – and there aren’t any bugs.”