He's been kayaking for 54 years and canoeing even longer than that. And while Oren Barris has made his passion for the outdoors into his daily business, he still finds great joy and peace in getting out on the water and introducing others to the sport he loves.
"What I love about kayaking is being able to get out and get away," said Barris, who runs Paths, Peaks & Paddles in Tonawanda. "Get away from being in front of a computer that doesn't do what I want it to do. Away from the general book work of the business. I do it to be able to have a little bit of relaxation myself but I also do it to be able to get people off the couch and turn them on to being able to get out and do things and enjoy Mother Nature."
Getting people off the couch and into the outdoors is one of the key elements of the kayak programs offered by Paths, Peaks & Paddles and an ethic shared by many other local outfitters. While Western New York has always had plenty of waterways and launch sites for people who want to take a paddle, area businesses have seen an recent increase in interest in kayaks -- from purchasing to lessons to special events.
An afternoon or evening spent kayaking on a creek, pond or lake has become one of the preferable ways for families to enjoy an inexpensive vacation and has become an innovative way for companies to host wellness days.
"People aren't spending the money to go to Disney World or go on the big trips," said Barris. "People are staying closer to home and doing day trips here and there.
"People will bring their lunch and stop at the park before they come here, many with kids. The families are making it a day adventure for the children," said Christine Baer, who works with Barris. "We also are getting more corporate outings. A lot of companies are downsizing on the amount of money they're going to give departments for picnics and they're coming out here for a few hours on the water instead."
The typical paddle sports use canoes, kayaks and rafts and can be done on flat water or white water. There aren't many white water opportunities in the immediate area, the most popular spot being Zoar Valley, which typically has the best runs in the spring.
But flat water (which can be fast moving, just without rapids) has been growing in popularity not only as a family vacation alternative but as a recreational sport, one that can be as relaxed or as vigorous as one makes it and a sport that is open to all ages and fitness levels.
"Just a few weeks ago there was an 87-year-old who took an intro to kayaking class," said Addie Klingersmith, program director for Evergreen Outfitters in Ashville in Chautauqua. "It really is a sport you can do your entire life. It's a good way to get in shape, but you can make it as relaxed as you want. It's an easy sport to learn. You don't have to have a lot of training to do it recreationally. As long as you get some proper instruction, you can do it well and be safe."
Safety is one of the main concerns of all outfitters. But when it comes to recreational paddling, the key is not to be afraid. That's the advice from Sue Freeman, who wrote the book on paddling in Western New York. When she and her husband, Rich, decided to leave jobs at Kodak in Rochester, they undertook a six-month hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. After writing about hiking in trails in Western New York, they moved on to write "Take A Paddle Western New York: Quiet Water for Canoes & Kayaks," taking months to explore all types of navigable waterways in Western and Central New York.
"People kept asking us when we were going to write a paddling guide book," Freeman said. "We didn't own kayaks at the time, but people kept asking, so we bought two used kayaks and started researching the book.
"The first thing I'd tell people is not be afraid of it. There is all kinds of flat water. People think of kayaks as tippy but there are really stable ones on the market now. It's just something you have to go and try. You don't need a lot of strength, either. A lot of people think you need upper body strength, but kayak paddling is a fluid motion. In fact, women with less strength in their arms but a little more coordination are often better at it than men who try to muscle through it."
Where to start? With gear of course. First, you'll need a kayak. Not all are created equal. Kayaks should be fitted to an individual's body size (height and weight) and selected based on the type of paddling anticipated -- recreational, long-distance or white water. Along with the kayak comes the paddle and, just as important, the personal flotation device. Businesses around Western New York often rent kayaks -- from a few hours to a week -- giving people an opportunity to try the sport and different types of boats before making a purchase.
After gear comes the lesson. While not much skill or strength is required, taking a lesson can be helpful to learn safety issues and proper technique.
"We teach proper paddling techniques," Klingersmith said. "For every stroke you put in the water, you want to be as efficient as possible. That will allow you to go out for a longer period of time and not tire out quickly."
BFLO Harbor Kayak, www.bfloharborkayak.com, 228-9153.
Evergreen Outfitters, www.evergreen-outfitters.com, 4845 Route 474, Ashville, 763-2266.
New York Outdoors Blog: http://newyorkoutdoors.wordpress.com/
Paths, Peaks & Paddles, www.pathspeakspaddles.com, 1000 Ellicott Creek Road, Tonawanda, 213-0350