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By Scott Scanlon Refresh editor

It was tough to fill up all the boats when Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper started its kayak tours on the Buffalo waterfront four years ago.

Not anymore.

This summer, the organization’s 30 vessels are booked to capacity for many of the trips planned through September, and those on the tours are hitting the water with a growing number of other enthusiasts who are renting canoes and kayaks from local businesses.

“The last couple of summers, our paddle sports and tour opportunities have just exploded in terms of interest and availability,” Riverkeeper Executive Director Jill Jedlicka said last weekend, before slipping into a kayak and pushing away from Mutual Riverfront Park in the Old First Ward. “It’s a perfect time in Western New York to learn how to paddle. We are a Great Lakes city and sometimes we forget that.”

Here’s a quick guide for those who want to dive in:

1. Give it a shot: If you’ve never kayaked or canoed before, the next several weeks are a great time to try. Riverkeeper offers tours of city waterways and lends kayaks to those who don’t have one. Several outfitters across the region also provide the vessels for rent.

“It’s not like you have to be in super shape to paddle,” says Jedlicka, who often goes out with her husband, Bill, and their sons, Alex, 8, and Owen, 10. “You want to be hydrated and you want to have sunscreen,” she advises.

Certified instructors lead the Riverkeeper tours – and most others in the region – and share navigation information that can keep you safe and comfortable.

“It’s all an upper body workout, and if you learn the correct way to use the paddle, it’s not as much of a demand on the rest of your body,” Jedlicka says. “That’s why we recommend, especially when people are new to kayaking, to learn the correct way to hold the paddle and position their body.”

2. Think safety: State law requires kayakers and canoeists to wear a personal flotation device while on the water from Nov. 1 through April 30, but top paddlers in the region wouldn’t think of heading out anytime without one. There are generally 100 to 120 paddling deaths across the country each year. Roughly 70 percent of those who die were not wearing a life vest and many of the others were involved in riskier white water paddling, says Jeff Liebel, an American Canoe Association (ACA) instructor certified to train other instructors.

Safety courses are taught across the region, including by Liebel and his wife, Laura, a Williamsville couple who teach “body, boat, blade” principles that help paddlers be prepared for risks, including how to recover after capsizing.

“I’ve told people, ‘If you haven’t capsized yet then you don’t paddle enough,’ ” says Bob Van Hise, a leader with the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) Niagara Frontier Chapter. “You’ve gotta know mentally that it’s OK to capsize, that you’re going to survive and get back up and into the boat.”

3. The more, the merrier: “When we first started paddling 15 or 20 years ago, the resources were basically books and other people you would know, so we learned a lot of stuff early on through reading and talking with people,” Jeff Liebel says. “Nowadays, there’s people online, there’s paddle safety courses that hook you up with the Coast Guard or the ACA,” so help is more plentiful.

“If you go on a trip with ADK, you’re going to go on a trip with experienced paddlers who coach you,” says Laura Liebel.

Vanessa Wazny, a state Department of Transportation worker who lives in Lake View, has run a message board on Yahoo chat (groups.yahoo.com/group/WNY_Paddlers) for several years, letting folks know where she and other enthusiasts will be paddling. “It’s a very informal group,” she says. “It’s not a club. If people come with us, we’re kind of strict on safety.”

Van Hise runs a Facebook page, Buffalo Paddles, and tells followers where he plans to head out as well as what special canoe and kayak events are coming up across the region, and sometimes beyond.

4. Canoe or kayak?: Before you buy, you’ll want to consider whether a kayak or canoe will fit your needs, and how long and wide either should be. You also want to decide how intense you’ll want your paddling experience.

“Kayaks are instant gratification,” Wazny says. They have paddles with double-blades, so they’re easier to maneuver and generally can go faster. They are wide, flat and stable.

“A canoe is going to feel a little bit more tippy, but it can also hold your dogs, your kids, your beer cooler, your tent,” says Laura Liebel. Canoe paddles have one blade, so you’re switching sides to paddle if you have a solo canoe. Tandem canoes allow pairs to paddle on opposite sides.

5. When to buy: The paddling options make it all the more important to talk with enthusiasts and go out on a few trips before you buy your own boat and equipment. “What are you going to be doing, where are you going to be going and who are you going to do it with?” These are the questions that should frame a paddle sport purchase, Jeff Liebel says. One key tip: Late in the season, once you’re comfortable with the specific kind of vessel you want, is a great time to buy, including in paddling hot spots like the Adirondacks where a greater volume of vessels will be available.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Inside: Hit the water with help from these resources. Page 10.