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Our State Knows Best: Paddling

In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.


From calm saltwater marshes on the coast to wide, flowing rivers in the Piedmont to the iconic whitewater rapids in our mountains, North Carolina is filled with dreamy spots to set out with a paddle. And whether you’re kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding, getting out on the water opens the doors not only to thrilling, unforgettable experiences, but also to beautiful sights that are only visible down river or on an island’s shore.

“There are two things I love most about paddling,” says Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff, owner of Endless River Adventures in Bryson City. “No. 1 is the community: Everybody starts from the same place, and most kayakers remember that, so when it’s time to help a new boater, people typically are really generous about helping them get into the sport. And No. 2: I just like being on the river. It’s a very spiritual thing, and it’s very special.”

We talked to Kastorff and two other experts — Joe Jacob Jr., owner of The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co. in Saxapahaw, and Chris Tryon, owner of Hook, Line & Paddle in Wilmington — to find out their best tips for beginners, how to stay safe on the water, and their favorite spots to paddle in North Carolina.

Our experts

 

Joe Jacob Jr.
Owner of The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co. in Saxapahaw
Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff
Owner of Endless River Adventures in Bryson City
Chris Tryon
Owner of Hook, Line & Paddle in Wilmington

How did you first get into paddling?

Joe Jacob Jr.: I was about 10 years old. I lived just about four blocks from the Mississippi River, and I was feeling really lonely because my girlfriend, Wilhelmina Williams, and her family moved to the other side of the river. I crossed over the levee and was standing there, and floating in the water was a telephone pole. So I decided I was going to find Wilhelmina Williams, and I got on the telephone pole. I don’t know how many miles I got swept downriver. I called my folks, and by that Saturday my father had enrolled me in a canoe class. He figured if I was going to do that kind of stuff, I needed to know what I was doing.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: I got a group of my friends together and went on a rafting trip on the Gauley River in West Virginia. Going down the river, there were some kayakers, and I turned to my guide and said, “I think that’s what I want to do,” and he said, “Well, you should go and learn.” I went to REI and bought the only kayak that they had and went and wobbled around on the Potomac River trying to figure things out.

Chris Tryon: I grew up in New England and started out canoeing. Then the Marine Corps brought me to Camp Lejeune, and I decided not to move back to New England. Canoeing on the coast is a struggle because it gets windy, and so my next option was kayaks.

What do you love most about the sport?

Joe Jacob Jr.: Just being in nature, feeling connected with the rhythms of the earth.

Chris Tryon: Getting out in the marsh. I do a lot of fishing in the kayak, too. It’s just quiet and peaceful. My daughter has really embraced it, like I did as a kid, so it’s fun watching her grow and get better at it.

Where is your favorite place in the state to hit the water?

Joe Jacob Jr.: If it’s sea kayaking, probably Shackleford Banks. If it’s canoeing, I’d have to say it would be the Black River. In terms of whitewater, of course, I love the Haw River. I always have loved the Haw.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: Western North Carolina is such a treasure chest of rivers. Obviously, you have the Nantahala, which in itself is a really special river. For a lot of people, it’s where they really learn how to be a kayaker. The Nantahala epitomizes everything wonderful about whitewater. [Outside of North Carolina,] I would say the Ocoee River is probably my favorite river to paddle.

Chris Tryon: Coastally, I would say going over to Masonboro. You can make a day of it. You can paddle around through the marshes, and there are plenty of places to pull up on the island — in summertime you can walk over to the oceanfront and go for a swim.

We’re officially jealous of your job. What’s your favorite part of the workday?

Joe Jacob Jr.: What I love so much is that we get people out in nature to connect [with it] like I did as a kid.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: The thing that I love the most is getting kids into boating. Hands down, that’s probably the most rewarding part of my job.

Chris Tryon: Getting people on the water. Walking into a store, a lot of people are wanting to do it, are driven to do it, but have no idea how.

OK, we’re ready to start paddling! What advice do you have for beginners?

Joe Jacob Jr.: Don’t start off on a telephone pole. If you know someone who’s an avid paddler, ask them to show you. If you can find a company that teaches classes, go ahead and take one.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: The biggest piece of advice I have is take instruction. Kayaking is a technique-based sport where you develop a lot of muscle memory. It also starts out as a very counterintuitive sport. Getting good quality instruction can really help your learning, make it safer, and make it a lot more fun.

Chris Tryon: Go to a specialty shop! We live and breathe kayaking and paddleboards. That’s where you’re going to get good information, because a lot of us who own shops like this turned our hobby and our passion into a job, so we’re going to steer you in the right direction.

Do you have any advice on how to find the right vessel for you?

Joe Jacob Jr.: Don’t go just by looks. A lot of companies have what they call “demo days” where they invite you to come and try out their boats. Go try them out! It’s all about how comfortable you feel physically, as well as how comfortable you feel in terms of safety.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: It’s two-fold: If you can take instruction before you buy a boat, do so. And when you ask other kayakers what boat you should paddle, a lot of times kayakers reference their favorite boat, not the boat that’s best for you.

Got our kayaks loaded up! Where do you recommend a beginner get started?

Joe Jacob Jr.: Flat water. Don’t just jump in a boat on the coast; it might be flat water when you jump in, but an hour later you have three-foot swells and wind coming out of nowhere. It really depends on where you are. If you go with an experienced paddler, they will be a good judge of the water.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: What makes western North Carolina truly the epicenter of learning how to kayak is the fact that rivers range from Class I to Class VI. It gives boaters the ability to improve their skills without pushing their comfort too far.

Chris Tryon: If you’re inland, lakes and easy-moving rivers would be great. The Intracoastal is a very safe place to paddle. I recommend public accesses. Check the wind; know where the tide is going.

Life jacket, check! What other safety precautions should a paddler taker before getting in the water?

Joe Jacob Jr.: Check your ego at the door. The river is always going to be more powerful and stronger than you are. Know that you’re probably going to get addicted, but there are worse things to get addicted to in life.

Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff: You need to be comfortable with wet exits. No matter how good your balance is, in a kayak you are going to get upside down. Another important thing is having people to paddle with. You should never go kayaking by yourself. Find a community of people, whether it’s through commercial instruction or through paddling clubs.

Chris Tryon: Definitely wear your life jacket — that’s my soap box. Try a bunch on, have someone get you fitted properly. You do need a noise-making device like a yellow or orange safety whistle. On the coast, we have a lot of oysters, so [wear] good water shoes. Flip-flops won’t cut it if you step out of your kayak and realize you’re on an oyster bed.

What is the biggest challenge when learning to paddle?

Juliet: Accepting that kayaking is unique in that you are working with the strongest force of nature — water — and you can’t fight it. You have to learn to relax and work with the water, and that takes time. Have a sense of humor and a sense of patience if it doesn’t come as fast as you thought it was going to.

Chris Tryon: Properly fitting yourself with a kayak, getting your back rest right, your seat pin right, adjusting your foot pegs. If you’re fitted in the boat properly, you’re going to apply a ton of power in your paddle stroke.

We’re determined to succeed! What are your best tips for paddling like an expert?

Joe Jacob Jr.: Learn as much as you can, do as much as you can, and have fun doing it.

Chris Tryon: Always wear your life jacket, check your weather conditions, and practice. Know that it is a sport; it’s athletic. The more you go, the stronger you’ll get, and the further you’ll go.

This story was published on Feb 17, 2021

Rylee Parsons

Rylee is a spring 2021 editorial intern at Our State.