Chuck Wills. photo by Elizabeth Trybula

Hiking on Water

by Barney Quick

The beauty of kayaking is that it can combine so many of life’s pleasures. From the cockpit of a modestly priced boat one can enjoy nature’s scenic delights, photograph them, fish for a meal, enjoy solitude or the company of friends, and hone one’s skills of navigation and coordination.

“It’s more than fun,” says local kayaking enthusiast Chuck Wills. “There are several components to the experience. It’s not like the Class II whitewater kayaking done in Colorado,” in which one has to focus on the challenges the river is presenting each moment.

Wills adds that the big difference between kayaking and canoeing is that kayaking is “faster. You feel like you’re getting somewhere.” He describes it as more of a gliding feeling and note’s a kayak’s ability to get into tighter backwaters.

Brown County kayaking

photo by Chuck Wills

Another Brown County kayaker, Chris Bryan, likens it to hiking on water. “Kayaks are trickier to get into, but more stable once you get the hang of it,” he explains.
Wills’s favorite places in Brown County to kayak are the Salt Creek entry point into Lake Monroe and Yellowwood Lake. “Normally I go to where Elkinsville used to be,” he says, referring to a town that gave up its existence for the creation of Lake Monroe.
Bryan says his favorite time of year to go is the dead of winter. “Nobody else is stupid enough to be out,” he chuckles. He outfits his cockpit with a full spray skirt and dresses appropriately. He also takes safety pegs since it’s quite possible to encounter solid ice that time of year. He notes that after the hunting seasons you can see a lot of wildlife. “I had a doe jump on my boat once, thinking it was a log,” he recalls.

Both Wills and Bryan speak of “reading the water.” While Brown County kayaking is a generally tranquil experience compared to its Class II counterpart, respect for the current is still a must. “You can get sideways,” says Bryan. “If you get up against a log, you’ll feel the water’s power.”

For that reason, Wills says a life jacket is an essential piece of equipment. Bryan, when talking about what he brings along, pulls a brush saw from his cockpit. “Going down Salt Creek, you have to have one of these.” Then he produces a Sham Wow and says, “Yes, folks, that’s the real thing. This works better than any sponge when you’re taking on water.”

There are several area stores where one can get started with the hobby. J.L. Waters and Company in Bloomington, Rusted Moon Outfitters in Broad Ripple, and any Dick’s Sporting Goods outlet sell kayaks, paddles, and accessories. A starter boat costs around $300 and a paddle and life jacket will incur another $350. Most area canoe-rental services also rent kayaks.

Most kayaks are made of either polyethylene or fiberglass, although some models are built from strips of wood. “Those are amazing, but you have to be a real craftsman to build one,” says Wills. Most open-water kayaks range in length from nine feet to fourteen feet, and are wider than Class II kayaks by several inches.

The only real frustration involved with Brown County kayaking, according to Bryan, is trash. Salt Creek in particular is sullied with all manner of refuse. Wills notes that a local group formed to clean it up has found “old cars, and even the town dumpster.”
Bryan occasionally enjoys combining fishing with kayaking. He once reeled in a particularly feisty 2 1/2-pound small-mouth bass that required his buddy to hold on to the back of his boat to keep him out of the brush.

Wills says there’s a unique contentment that kayaking offers: “It’s the peacefulness, the Zen quality. You come away from a day like that feeling pretty good.”