Kayaking Pennsylvania: Small Kayaks Tackle a Great Lake

My grandkids know I’ve never paddled a kayak, particularly in the sometimes treacherous lake. But that doesn’t keep me from signing up for the Lake Erie Sojourn, Pennsylvania’s first open water event.
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Kayakers on lake

I picture registration to be filled with 20-something jocks, periodically dropping down for 100 pushups – à la Muscle Beach. But the group I see registering for the sojourn at the campground could be my family, a mix of young and middle-aged and even other seniors.

And not one is snapping a towel.

While I wait, one good-hearted woman shows me her kayak and the doohickeys – er, equipment – she uses. She demonstrates how to remove water from a boat with the bilge pump, and I try air paddling. Tomorrow, it’s the real deal in the lake. But on this first evening, I savor the catered dinner  – the first of many – and the night sounds peppered with
quiet conversation by the campfire.

Elk Creek to Barracks Beach

Day 1: Today’s 14-mile-long paddle is for experienced paddlers only. I’m surrounded by a blaze of color as the kayakers suit up. All their clothing and equipment, from dry bags and personal flotation devices to sponges and spray skirts, are the colors of spring – bright green, blue, red and yellow.

The professional guides gather everyone for the safety talk. “You’ve all made a wet escape, right?” the guide asks. I shudder, picturing myself stuck in a kayak, hanging upside down in the water. “Remember, if you roll, don’t try to muscle it out. It’s all in the finesse.”

Finesse. Gotta remember that.

I watch the long kayaks slip into the lake, then by car I follow the flagman to his first checkpoint. We speed past cornfields and fruit stands, then down a bumpy back road to the lake. Tom (the flagman) climbs on a rock and holds his flag aloft, sentinel-like. The amazingly swift armada comes into view and quickly passes, and we’re off to the next checkpoint.

We track the paddlers as they skim past the high cliffs and small, rocky beaches, then park at a popular fishing area where they’ll come in for lunch. Thirty feet out in the lake, a dozen hip-booted, steel-head anglers form a line parallel to the shore. Suddenly the kayaks appear, passing single file in front of the fishermen – what a photo-op!

The kayakers’ last destination is Presque Isle Beach. The kayaks glide in on the surf and the exhilarated paddlers clamber out. I note their delight, and resolve to take my grandchildren kayaking sometime soon. 

I brush off my sandy feet and head to Beach 11 where the sojourn has special permission to camp.

Through its Pennsylvania River Sojourns program, Pennsylvania offers more sojourns than any other state, connecting people to their water resources through “fun on the water” experiences while educating participants about the environment.

We pitch multi-colored tents and string a few clotheslines between trees, and then explore Erie’s new environmental center taking a break to devour vegetarian lasagna in its café. Back at the beach illuminated by a full moon and a blazing bonfire, I consider taking up beaching it full-time – until I remember winter.

Barracks Beach to Erie’s Bayfront

Day 2: This day offers tantalizing activities: advanced rescue techniques, a GPS-identified tour and an eco-paddle through Presque Isle’s lagoons. “Be realistic,” I say to myself, and join the Beginners’ Techniques workshop instead. There we practice entering a kayak with finesse, then pivoting in place and paddling sideways. After lunch, the experienced kayakers paddle around Presque Isle and across the channel entrance to a marina/campground. I decide to take a nap.

Afterwards I gear up for dinner and a concert at the all-day Erie’s Heritage Festival on the bay. Dusk falls, and the orchestra struts its stuff with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever in the finale. Live cannons and fireworks explode over the water and I cheer with the crowd. It feels like New Year’s Eve.

Erie Bayfront to (almost) Shades Beach Park, Harborcreek

Day 3: Come the next morning the lake displays her might. The experienced kayakers leave the chilly, overcast marina and head straight into the wind, with gusts hitting 25 mph. Battling the three- to five-foot waves must feel like bull riding.

At the three-mile checkpoint, Tom and I watch as some of the paddlers come out – they don’t have the strength to continue. The surf practically throws their kayaks onto the beach. The rest struggle on for another hour before the guides evaluate the lack of progress and call it a day.

We share our final picnic. Then the motley crew, friends after three days of great fun, food and achievement, pose for a group picture and – you guessed it – make plans to do it again.

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