By Deborah Weisberg
Pittsburgh — Brandi Baros got into kayaking a decade ago when, as a board member of the Shenango River Watchers, she was helping to coordinate the conservation group’s annual float trip.
Although she had never paddled before, she decided to give it a try when someone offered to lend her an extra boat. “It was fantastic,” Baros recalled of her first foray on the Shenango River in Mercer County. She soon was hooked.
“What’s not to like?” mused Baros, who is now Shenango River Watchers president. “You get views of nature you just don’t see anywhere else. I’m a biologist, so I nerd out on stuff like this anyway, but to be able to quietly float a river while birds are catching fish around you and turtles are crawling up the bank gives you so much to observe.”
“And it’s never boring,” she said. “Changing conditions on the water make every trip different than the last.”
Jeff Little, an avid angler who lives in New Windsor, Maryland, but often fishes in Pennsylvania, traded his canoe for a kayak in 1998 when he struggled to paddle a big aluminum boat downriver on a windy day.
“Having a smaller, one-person boat became more attractive to me,” said Little, who now owns a variety of kayaks. “It’s become the ‘funnest’ thing in my life to throw one of these little plastic boats over my shoulder and head to the water and go exploring.”
Little and Baros are among 11 million kayakers in the U.S., according to a 2019 report by The Outdoors Foundation, which found that recreational kayaking is the most popular of all paddle sports, having gained 1.5 million participants since 2013.
The greatest growth has been among 25- to 34-year-olds, and among women, who now represent 49 percent of kayakers.
Consistent with the foundation’s findings, Baros is drawn to kayaking as a fun way to exercise and socialize at the same time, although she points out that paddling also can be enjoyed alone “because you don’t have to be hard-core or in super shape to do it .”
“During the pandemic, when I didn’t have my usual friends with me, I’d go to Shenango Reservoir to paddle by myself,” said Baros, who uses a lift-assist to hoist her 40-pound boat onto the roof of her vehicle.
In Pennsylvania, participation in kayaking and other unpowered boating has increased by 500% in the past decade and grew even more when the pandemic caused a surge in outdoors recreation, said Ryan Walt, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s boating and watercraft safety manager.
“We were already trending upward, and then last year, boat registration and launch permit sales rose 34 percent.”
Outfitters also reported a record boom in business.
“Everything was shut down, so a lot more people were spending time on the water,” observed Brian Swingle, owner of Five Mountain Outfitters, a tackle and paddling shop on the Susquehanna River in Luzerne County.
His kayak rentals more than doubled from the usual 300 outings to 700, and kayak sales rose by 40%, with demand for boats exceeding supply.
“I usually sell 60 kayaks a year – and the ones I carry aren’t cheap,” Swingle said. “Last year, I sold 100 and if I’d been able to get 200 into the shop, I would have sold all of them.”
Fishing kayaks were his hottest item. “Anglers like them because they can get onto water that’s 3 inches deep, and into nooks and crannies and behind islands,” Swingle said. “They’re cost effective and easy to store.”
Swingle sells “sit-in” as well as “sit-on” kayaks that appeal to aging anglers, and he is experimenting with the sale of hybrid paddleboards this year.
“A friend in the Carolinas convinced me to try them because he likes their totally open floor plan with no sides,” Swingle said. “They’re perfect for fly-fishing because you can stand up on them and there’s nothing to get snagged on when you cast.”
Swingle bolstered his kayak inventory for this year because he expects kayaking to continue on its upward trajectory and thinks most of last year’s first-time paddlers will stick with the sport.
“I think it’s going to be a 70-30 split,” he said. “Seventy percent will say ‘this was really awesome,’ and the other 30% will go back to Disney or whatever they were doing before the pandemic.”
Other outfitters also expect recruitment and retention to remain strong.
Chuck Cooper has ordered 40 more kayaks for his business, Edge of the Woods, which outfits kayakers, canoeists, and rafters floating the Delaware River Water Gap National Recreation Area in Monroe County.
“We’re always full to capacity on weekends, but the big thing we saw last year was weekday rentals,” said Cooper, whose customers include folks from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. He opened in 2007 as a backpack and bike rental service, and purchased an existing canoe livery in 2010.
“We’ve gained new market share and seen an increase every year since then,” he said.
Municipalities are scrambling to keep up with the need for more public launch sites, as evidenced by the number of applications to the commission’s boating facilities grant program, which provides matching funds to local governments and watershed groups to build or improve access.
“The demand is great,” said program coordinator Scott Bollinger. “When the program started in 2005, the emphasis was on motorized boats but, over time, has definitely shifted to the paddlers. That, in and of itself, shows the increased need and demand for additional access. The pandemic took it to a whole new level.”
Of the 12 applications submitted in 2020, 11 were for access for unpowered boats.