Story and photos by John Hummer
Exponent staff writer
You’ve been pondering buying your own kayak for quite some time. It’s a quick and easy way to get on the water and enjoy some relaxation time, or maybe have a date on the water with your spouse or significant other. Uh, be careful if it’s the latter. (Read on!)
You finally decide to take the plunge (hopefully not literally) and get that kayak of your dreams. But what exactly should you be looking for? There are quite a few different types on the market. We spoke with Tom Knutson of Knutson’s Sporting Goods in Brooklyn and Kat Kulchinski of Quiet World Sports in Vandercook Lake for helpful tips on purchasing your kayak.
The kayak market has virtually exploded over the past five years, according to Kulchinski.
“The reason the market is expanding is they’re able to build them with plastic and a different type of molding,” Knutson said. “You can get into a very basic kayak starting with as little as $150. You can get into something very, very inexpensively just to get on the water. Most people in this area are just wanting something to go out on the lake and cruise around a couple times a week; maybe a couple times a summer — without having a big investment. If you’re just out for a leisurely stroll, just a basic kayak will work. If you’re going to do big water or heavy-duty rapids, then you need to get up into a high-end kayak which can cost thousands of dollars.”
“Before you decide what kind of boat to buy, you need to decide what kind of paddling you’re going to be doing.
Are you going to be exclusively on our small lakes and flat rivers here in mid-Michigan or do you want to venture out to rivers that move a little faster or the Great Lakes?
“There’s really not much in southern Michigan you’re going to have a problem with,” Knutson said.
“If you pretty much want to stay local then you are basically what I call a “floater” – and that’s not a derogatory term,” Kulchinski said. “There’s a lot of relaxation to be had in kayaking.
“If you basically want to go out on the lake and enjoy the scenery and just relax, then one of the inexpensive boats that are being sold in the big box stores is not a bad way to go,” she said. “But if you’re looking into doing any actual paddling and you want your boat to perform in any particular manner – like go straight or turn when you want it to – then you’re going to have to look at a little higher end boat that’s built to move and function.”
If you’re focusing on what we have available to paddle on within a two-hour range from here, any kayak in the 10 to 14-foot range is going to be a nice boat for you, Kulchinski said. The longer they are, the straighter they go; the shorter they are, the easier they steer and turn.
“If you’re going to be doing narrow, twisty rivers like the headwaters of the Grand, Raisin, or Kalamazoo – where they’re tight, narrow, and shallow – a smaller boat is going to benefit you,” she said. “If you get a 14-footer, then on a super calm, easy day you can actually take it out on the Great Lakes. If you’re going out on the Great Lakes often, then you’ll really want a sea kayak that starts at about 16 feet or longer.”
If fishing is your thing and you want to enjoy the peacefulness of a kayak, you’re in luck.
“Fishing is blowing up in kayaks,” Kulchinski said. They’re some incredible kayaks out there designed for fishermen. They’re very stable and you can stand up on them. Some have peddles so they can peddle with their feet and steer and leave their hands free. Just amazing boats you can get for fishing. And you can get into places that other types of boats can’t get into.”
“There’s bass tournaments only for kayaks now,” Knutson said. “If you go on YouTube, you’ll find 10,000 different ways to outfit those kayaks – very efficient, inexpensive ways with outriggers and rod holders. It’s very fun to watch and see what people can create with just a basic kayak.”
Both Knutson and Kulchinski stressed safety above all else.
“It’s a really good idea to get some instruction,” Kulchinski said. There’s a lot about kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding, and being on the water in general that people don’t know – and they put themselves in harm’s way all the time. It’s the old Dunning-Kruger effect: You don’t know what you don’t know. That’s why there’s so many drownings every year. People don’t wear their life jackets because they think they can swim and that’s going to save them, but that doesn’t necessarily save anybody. Always wear your life jacket. People aren’t aware how quickly cold water can sap your energy and make you incapable of functioning. Water is very powerful – very scary.”
You want to buy a boat that’s designed to float. Bulkheads (a wall between the cockpit and the back and/or front of the boat) with hatch covers in the front and in the back have air pockets so the boat does not fill up completely and does not become submerged. You can get back into your boat if you’ve fallen out of it. Recreational kayaks sold at the big box stores aren’t built like that. By law they have to not sink, but that doesn’t mean they’re not going to fill up with water all the way.
However, don’t plan to take much with you out on the water.
“They can’t really store a whole lot,” Knutson said. “Most people will take a towel, a change of clothes, and some beverages but there’s not a lot of space, you’re pretty limited on what you can do with the storage compartment.”
Aside from length and purpose, kayak shoppers need to decide if they want a sit-in or a sit-on kayak.
“That’s personal preference,” said Kulchinski. “A lot of people with flexibility problems like in their hips and knees like the sit-ons because they can float them into knee-deep or so water and just sit on top of it and not have to climb in, the sit-ins have their own issues with being able to get in and get out. Kulchinski said there really isn’t a price differential when considering sit-in versus sit-on kayaks.
“Bigger and taller people tend to do better in sit-ons,” added Knutson. “But some people like to be in the compartment of a sit-in where you get a little less water on you. Durability – they’re equal.”
Another consideration is a one-person versus a two-person kayak.
“It’s going to be a super good test of how well you get along,” said Kulchinski of a two-person kayak. “They’re called ‘divorce boats’ for a reason. If you really want to find out what kind of a relationship you’re going to have, definitely take somebody out in a tandem kayak. If you’ve got good communication skills, they’re wonderful.
“We sell very little two-person kayaks,” Knutson said. “It’s a very individual sport. Going out in a two-person is almost like using a canoe. Most people want their own freedom to zig and zag and do whatever they want to do.”
Canoe sales have dropped drastically since kayaks hit the market, Knutson said.
“Kayaks are a lot more stable than canoes,” he said. They’re a lot more user-friendly.”
And don’t forget your paddle. They’re important, too.
“The paddles that most people pick up are inexpensive and heavy,” Kulchinski said. “You can spend easily up to $800 or more if you want to get something really lightweight, aerodynamic, and efficient. But you can get a decent paddle in the $200 range. Most people pick up a $45 or $50 paddle and they weigh a ton. If you’re going to go out all day, that really can wear on you.
There are many different styles of paddles to choose from. There’s Euro, Greenland, touring, racing, whitewater, flatwater, and fishing paddles.
“You name it,” said Kulchinski. “You can spend all kinds of money if you want to.”
“The higher end the paddle, the more propulsion you’re going to get per stroke,” Knutson said. “They’re lighter and more durable with more adjustability.”
Getting your new kayak on your vehicle to transport it is another thing you’ll have to think about.
“That’s the hardest part,” said Knutson. “To and from is tough unless you have a pickup truck. Finding a good rooftop carrier is difficult. Nobody’s made a perfect one yet. They do make different racks that are very good.”
“You’ve got so many options,” added Kulchinski. “Little foam pads on the roof of your car with tie-down straps, to full hydraulic rigs that lift your boat up and tip it up on top of the car for you, to trailers. Sometimes you can spend more on your rack system or trailer system than you do on your kayak itself.”
But you don’t have to spend all kinds of money when you go kayaking.
“What I really like about paddling compared to say golf or skiing with greens fees and lift tickets, once you buy your equipment, you can paddle for free,” Kulchinski said. “But it’s kind of like an addiction, once you buy your first kayak, you might want more.”
So where can you shop locally for your kayak?
Knutson’s carries all sizes and types of Sun Dolphin brand kayaks that are made right here in Muskegon, Mich.
Krupa Marine on Francis Street about a mile north of Vandercook Lake is another good option. They’ve got a nice selection of entry-level boats to intermediate style boats as well as all kayaking accessories.
Another place to shop for your kayak is Michigan Extreme Outdoor in Somerset Center. They carry a full line of kayaks, as well as all accessories.
Quiet World Sports, owned by Kulchinski, rents kayaks of all kinds as well as stand-up paddleboards. Kulchinski gives lessons in kayaking and paddleboarding as well.