Something From Nothing
By Justin Ramos
Nestled between the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River, Anne Arundel County in Maryland revolves around the water. From crabbing and fishing to sailing to Annapolis—the heart of the county and home to the Naval Academy—the community thrives on water activity. Naturally, one would assume the county’s parks and recreation department offers a multitude of areas for the public to launch their personal watercraft. This is true in some capacity. There are about 16 sites labeled as accessible to water for car-top boat launch—a boat a person can carry to the water. They are accessible, but may require some hauling the watercraft by hand farther than some would feel comfortable. This was where the need for a kayaking program came into being.
Starting From Scratch
A few years ago, the community approached the county about offering ease of access to waterways. The Recreational Kayaking Program was also introduced at that time. I was approached by the administration to help set up the forthcoming spring/summer season. I had nothing—no boats, no instructors, and no plan. As an avid outdoorsman, kayaking was already on my resume, but only recreationally. The department members proposed a plan to certify five additional county employees in kayaking instruction and safety, so no problem there. But boats … transport … equipment? How could we obtain these items with a minimal budget? Once we knew the size of the program to be offered, we turned to local businesses for help. Living in a water-based community, we had our pick of local companies, and that really helped our cause. We were able to obtain all of the equipment for well below retail, securing enough gear to take two instructors and 10 participants on every trip.
Pairing Equipment And Participants
Early on, we had a mix of equipment, including single sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks, and double kayaks. Since we did not require participants to register in pairs, the double kayaks were a hard sell.
When planning, make sure either to require participants to sign up in pairs and use all double kayaks, or to let participants sign up individually and go with all single kayaks. I would not recommend having a mix as it creates a logistics nightmare. Another item to consider is age/weight recommendations. The department requires that kayakers ages 13 to 16 be accompanied by a participating adult. Initially, children ages 9 and above were allowed, which would have been fine if the child could be paired with a participating adult in a double kayak. However, once the double kayaks were out, we no longer had this option. The size difference in children is astonishing, and because we are using equipment geared mainly towards adults (with minimal smaller items), we have run into the problem of children not being able to kayak properly. In one instance, a child was very petite and was unable to meet the standards for using the equipment. I actually had to tow this person during the entire trip. One of the ways around this would have been the use of a double kayak or an extra boat specifically designed for children. All in all, the predicament of weight/age restriction is a tough one, so always use your best judgment and do not feel bad if someone signs up and your organization does not have the proper equipment. Just be sure to be as inclusive as possible. We have not had any issues with inclusion to date and have brought back all of our trip registrants safely, having provided the best service possible.
After we obtained the equipment and gathered interested personnel, they needed certification. The certification process was intense. We used the American Canoe Association (ACA), as this group was able to do what we needed in a short amount of time, but many other organizations are out there. Again, we started planning in the winter in hopes of launching in the following spring. In order to be properly trained in kayak and canoe safety and instruction, on-the-water training is required, which is tough when it’s below 30 degrees. Still, we had everyone trained and ready to go with just under a month before the launch.
Launching The Program
After the certification process, we devised launch sites, float plans, and means of equipment transport. In the first year, we provided eight trips with 10 participants per excursion with at least two instructors. We also wanted to be affordable, so only charged $10 per participant for a full day on the water. We do not provide lunch or snacks, but always have extra water for everyone. Every trip was completely full with a long waiting list. Recreational kayaking has become a staple program in the department. We have been well-received by the community, and people seem to really enjoy the trips, looking forward to them every year. As the program has progressed, we have found that if we list trips with the level of ability needed, the participants are more responsive to what we offer. For example, in scheduling trips where we are out in the Chesapeake Bay, we list those as a more advanced endeavor that requires longer paddling experience. Again, we do not turn any registrant away, but just let that person know that due to the nature of the trip, it may be more difficult for some. We have scheduled most of the trips for “all-around” kayakers, and the level of instruction we provide is well-received.
Since we are using ACA standards for the trips, we can give completion cards to the participants. Some of the instructors have even helped scout troops obtain certification for specific badge requirements. As most of the instructors are either park rangers or naturalists, we provide a full historical and nature-based education program with every trip. Information, with a sight and sound program, has been provided about old Civil War sites on the Patuxent River, views of where the “Star-Spangled Banner” was written and old fort ruins, bird sightings and identification, plant identification, and more. If participants can see or hear it, they will probably want to know about it. Become extremely familiar with the trips. Be confident in the information you are providing and lastly, have fun. If you are thinking of starting a similar program, you are probably already interested in kayaking and nature, so build upon those interests and your program will be great!
Becoming River Outfitters
These trips have given the department a venue to teach in a non-traditional way. If the participants take anything away from the trips (aside from feeling comfortable in a kayak), then it is a success. We went from having absolutely no program to becoming full-fledged river outfitters in less than 6 months. It was a whirlwind, but has also been very rewarding.
We have a philosophy of providing an opportunity to our citizens that they might not be able to gain on their own. The price has increased in the past few years, but we are still well below the market rate for rental facilities, private guides, and tours. If your department is looking to create a kayaking program, start now! Everything fell together very rapidly for us, and it has been a positive part of the department ever since.
Justin Ramos is a Park Ranger for Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks in Maryland. Reach him at Rpramo77@aacounty.org.