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On course with nature

Beginning kayakers learn paddling basics and then head off from Mad Paddlers Kayak Center in Town 'N Country.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- The parking lot at Mad Paddlers Kayak Center is jammed on this Sunday morning with minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs.

Amid the neon colored boats and gear is a congregation of kayakers with one thing in mind: getting back to nature.

"We've been planning, planning, planning," says Cecilia Wise who lives in Carrollwood. "Today's the day. We're going."

Not so fast. First there's the parking lot warm up, sort of kayak calisthenics.

"You put your paddle in the water," says Eric Theis, one of the store's owners, as he instructs about 20 neophyte kayakers. "You move your whole body, not just your arms."

It takes about 10 minutes for Theis to take our group of about 20 through safety tips and rowing techniques before leading the way through the store and out the back door.

Mad Paddlers Kayak Center, at 8802 Rocky Creek Drive, backs up to a channel that leads into Old Tampa Bay. It's the perfect spot for the "Beginners Paddle," a flotilla that leaves the store around 9 a.m. on the first Sunday of every month. The trip consist of a 45-minute paddle down mangrove-sheltered Rocky Creek and ends on a thin slice of beach on the Courtney Campbell Parkway. There's time for a quick snack before heading back.

The trip costs $35 for a single kayak, $55 for a double, no charge if you bring your own.

"We show people how easy it is to do, how many places there are to go," says Theis, as he gets everybody situated in their kayaks.

"Kayaking is very efficient; you've go two blades on a paddle and can go down very gentle river trips. It's easy to do," Theis says. "You're not stirring up the environment and you're getting close to wildlife, closer than any other way."

Talk about wildlife

The fish are jumping and the living is easy, especially for those of us lucky enough to land in a double kayak with somebody else doing the paddling. And even though there are planes overhead and the occasional wail of a siren, it's quiet on the water as we glide, on the lookout for birds, fish and whatever else might rear its head.

Then as if on cue, near a weathered sign that reads: Rocky Creek Bait and Tackle Under the Bridge and Turn Right, the water begins to ruffle and we get a glimpse of a leathery looking hide just beneath the surface.

It's a manatee, cause for a bottleneck at the bend as everybody stops to get a better look. But as the manatee meanders off in the other direction, we turn our attention back to learning the fine art of kayaking.

For instance, remember to push the paddle instead of pulling it; and put your whole body into the movement, not just your arms.

"It was lots of work but fun," Brian Van Sickle says at the halfway point. The 51-year-old Van Sickle is an Air Force chaplain who lives in Westchase with his son, Aaron.

We even have time for a tutorial from Theis as he glides alongside, warning us not to run aground on the oyster beds cultivated by American Indians centuries ago. Then he explains how the channel is fed by four rivers and how it's one of the best fishing spots around.

Once we pass the protection of the pines and mangroves, the rowing gets harder and the sun gets hotter. And there's the added chop to the water kicked up by passing speed boats. That's when the temptation to glide kicks in -- until we realize you lose momentum if you stop.

We catch sight of land and point our kayaks in that direction. The end's in sight and so are the snacks.

By the time we pull in everyone else is on shore, a thin slice of rocky white sand ripe with the smell of decaying fish. Despite a cooler of cold bottled water, Snickers and Granola bars, we don't stay long.

Since most of us by now have the hang of kayaking, the trip back is less like the bumper car ride we took out.

"It's a good shoulder and back workout," says Ginny Rice of Carrollwood.

Growth swing

Kayaking is catching on. Just ask Theis and his business partners, Kevin Sugar, 29, and Chris Cumm, 29. They're expanding the Town 'N Country store and recently opened a store in Port Richey.

Theis said when they opened in Town 'N Country two years ago, their goal was to sell seven or eight kayaks a month to pay for their own paddling trips.

"Now we're selling 60 or 70 a month," Theis said.

Mad Paddlers has about 1,000 members and hosts at least one trip a month to places like the Hillsborough River, Alafia River, Cockroach Bay and Lido Key in Sarasota.

Tricia Tucker, a neurological technician who lives in Seminole Heights, seems sold on the idea of owning her own kayak as she and her rowing partner compare the length of their boat to another with sleek lines.

"It's a real experience," Tucker says. "I'm getting out and going. Living."

-- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com.

Mad Paddlers has about 1,000 members and hosts at least one trip a month.

Upcoming events:

Aug. 4, Sunset Sangria Margarita paddle, New Port Richey.

Sept. 1, Wekiwa Springs State Park, Sanford.

Oct 13, Rainbow River State Park, Dunnellon.

For information about the Mad Paddlers Kayak Center go online at www.madpaddlers.com.

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