Kayakers Find Sea Level At 10,000 Feet

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Sea kayaking in a landlocked state requires a measure of imagination. Or desperation. Sometimes both.

“It sounds like an oxymoron: ‘The Rocky Mountain Sea Kayak Club,’” said Matt Lutkus, president of that very club.

Colorado is far better known as a destination for whitewater kayakers, but the state’s lakes, reservoirs and mellower rivers offer plenty of choices for paddlers. And a peaceful lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks is as dramatic a setting for kayaking as the bays and bayous of any saltwater destination.

“The beauty and the serenity, the animals that we see are just breathtaking,” said Colorado Springs sea kayaker Sheila Maio. “I just find it exhilarating.”

First off, some explanation of terms may help wrap your mind around sea kayaking so far from a sea: A sea kayak is a type of kayak. Sea kayaks are long, narrow and fast. They can hold a large amount of gear, like a canoe. And an experienced kayaker can roll upside down and over again, just like an Eskimo kayaker or a whitewater kayaker would – although flipping over in an icy mountain reservoir is something most paddlers strenuously avoid.

It’s a different experience and requires a different mindset from whitewater kayaking, which is more of a rowdy thrill ride than a contemplative outing. Sea kayaking is also less daunting for newcomers, even if experienced sea kayakers can tackle daunting wind and surf conditions.

“Unlike a recreational kayak or canoe, they’re much more seaworthy,” Lutkus said. “If you’ve got the skills, you can go out in water with a heavy chop and wind and be perfectly safe.”

Within that definition, sea kayaks take on many forms. Some are made of plastic, others of fiberglass, or even bullet-proof Kevlar. Colorado Springs sea kayakers Fran and Keith Smith have a folding tandem kayak that collapses into a bag that fits inside their Honda Accord.

“We can throw it in the trunk and away we go,” Keith Smith said. “We take it all over the place.”

Mark Young, another Springs paddler, builds kayaks out of wood and canvas, imitating thousand-year-old designs used by Inuit paddlers.

“I just love being on the water,” Young said. “If you spend enough time on the water, the land starts to feel strange.”

Fran and Keith Smith Kayaking on North Catamount Reservoir on North Slope of Pikes Peak - OutThere Colorado
Fran and Keith Smith use their sea kayak on North Catamount Reservoir on the north slope of Pikes Peak. Courtesy of Fran and Keith Smith

Colorado sea kayakers take advantage of nearly every body of water, natural or man-made, they can find. Summit County’s Lake Dillion is a beautiful setting, as are Turquoise Lake and Twin Lakes near Leadville. Elevenmile Reservoir near Lake George has backcountry campsites along its shores that are best reached by boat. The Smiths often paddle close to home, on Crystal Creek and the Catamount reservoirs on the flanks of Pikes Peak.

“It’s really quiet up on Pikes Peak,” Fran Smith said.

“For being as close as it is, it’s our favorite. The solitude and the quiet, it’s just beautiful.”

Keith proposed to Fran while they were racing across North Catamount to escape a storm, and they held their wedding on the water in nearly the same spot. It’s still one of their favorite paddles.

“When we take our friends out for the first time, they’ll get a big smile on their face,” Fran Smith said.

Sea kayakers also tackle rivers occasionally. The Ruby-Horsethief section of the Colorado River near Grand Junction is a popular overnight trip.

“You put in at Loma and come out at Westwater,” said Maio, who is planning a Colorado River trip in August. “We get to hang out and hike to places where the only way you can get there is by boat.” For serious sea kayakers, though, the call of the sea is too strong to resist. “I’d prefer saltwater myself,” Lutkus said. “My favorite place is Penobscot Bay in Maine.”

Get in the water

The Rocky Mountain Sea Kayak Club offers beginner classes and organizes trips. Visit www.rmskc.org or call 1-720-480-2719 for information.

Marinas at several local lakes and reservoirs offer kayak rentals:

Chatfield State Park
Chatfield Marina, $16/hour, 1-303-791-5555

Cherry Creek State Park
The Marina at Cherry Creek, $12/hour single, $20/hour double, 1-303-779-6144, ext. 17

Elevenmile State Park
11 Mile Sports and Marina, $40/2 hours, 1-719-748-0317

Lake Dillon
Frisco Bay Marina, $30 for two hours single, $40 for two hours double, 1-970-668-4334

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