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Paddles for all: Hundreds of kayakers take part in Paddles Up Niagara

Paddling, especially in kayaks, has grown fast locally in recent years, with affordable plastic craft available even in discount stores.

Saturday, about 400 people gathered at Beaver Island State Park for a celebration of the paddling experience.

The 13th annual Paddles Up Niagara event gave paddlers a chance to cast off from a beach at the Grand Island park and take in some of the area's most impressive natural scenery while taking on the choppy current of the Niagara River.

"This has mushroomed. It's really proliferated a lot," said Alan Ryder of Cheektowaga, who has been taking part in Paddles Up since 2014. "It's double the amount that were here a couple of years ago. It's popular. Everybody's got a kayak."

Most of the turnout was for a midday paddle close to shore that cut through the Beaver Island lagoon, but the more skilled paddlers came for early-morning eco-tours that included runs to Strawberry and Pirates islands.

Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, which sponsored the free event, said 250 to 300 people came to the noontime run, and another 100 or so took part in the eco-tours.

"It's becoming more and more popular," Jedlicka said. She said when Paddles Up began, 100 or fewer kayakers would turn out.

"It's a growing trend, and the average (age) is 45 or older," said Tina Spencer, an environmental educator with State Parks.

The light, inexpensive craft have helped trigger the kayaking boom.

"A lot of them are plastic; some of them are composite. They can be fiberglass. They can be Kevlar. Sometimes you even see an inflatable kayak," Jedlicka said. "You can get beginning kayaks in the $200 range, but some of the vessels you'll see today can be over $2,000."

Kayak rentals were available at Saturday's event, and there were even a couple of traditionalists, with wooden boats.

"It's kind of making a comeback," Spencer said of the wooden craft. "Some people like that authentic look, an old-fashioned look."

Kathy and Robert Fisher of Grand Island headed out on paddleboards, on which the user can stand or sit.

"Last year we brought kayaks. This year we thought we'd try the paddleboards," said Kathy Fisher, who with her husband moved to Grand Island from Florida two years ago. "I got the one you can have your lunch on and not have to worry about falling."

Paddlers got a beautiful day for a scenic ride. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"What's cool about it is, you can stand up and see a lot. You can see the fish," Robert Fisher said. "With a kayak, you've got a low profile. You can't see much."

"These are just people in the community who love our waters and want to recreate on them," Jedlicka said. "We want to connect people to the water but we also want to teach people proper paddling and safe paddling as well."

Waterkeeper and the State Parks staff provided safety paddlers and guides, and all participants were supposed to wear life vests. Spencer said New York law requires a life vest to be aboard the craft, but it doesn't specify that the paddler must wear it.

"A lot of people sit on it," Spencer admitted.

"If you're going to paddle, you need to paddle responsibly, and putting it behind you or underneath you is not responsible," said Denise Gennaro of Clarence Center. "If you tip, you're not going to be able to grab that."

Kayakers also are encouraged to stay close to shore rather than paddling into the navigation channels, Spencer said.

"You should never kayak alone," Spencer said. Paddlers must bring a whistle or horn with them to blow in case of trouble.

Spencer said State Parks offers organized kayaking events on Thursday evenings at Beaver Island and on Saturdays at Beaver Island, Buffalo Harbor and Wilson-Tuscarora State Park on Lake Ontario. State Parks spokeswoman Angela Berti said some kayaks are available to borrow at those events.

Beaver Island and Wilson-Tuscarora also offer roller docks that enable paddlers to slide their kayaks into the water while sitting in them.

"You're less likely to fall out than launching from a beach," Spencer said. "Most people fall out either getting in or getting out of their kayaks, launching or landing."

Gennaro said Saturday was her fifth or sixth time at Paddles Up. She also belongs to a group called Buffalo Paddle People, which draws about 25 paddlers to a different local waterway every Monday evening.

"I think the lower Niagara is good, because you can stop at Strawberry Island, you can stop along the way and swim, or just dock and have a snack," Gennaro said.

Ryder said he favors Beaver Island, Ellicott Creek and Glenwood Lake in Medina.

Berti said Paddles Up began as a promotion for the Niagara River Greenway.

"The Greenway had just gotten off the ground, and (Parks) Commissioner (Bernadette) Castro at the time said, 'Do something to draw attention to yourselves,' so they created this event," Berti said. "It really has grown."

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