Getting fit for free at the Inner Harbor

Get fit for free at the Inner Harbor.

Steven Bruneau figured a kayak could not be much different from a canoe, which he had paddled many times — until he toppled into the Inner Harbor, his boat upside down next to him.

Laughter pierced the quiet morning from a few kayaks away as Sam Lebanon roared over his friend's amateur mistake before they had even left the dock.

Earlier, people spread yoga mats in a grassy area between the visitors' center and the Maryland Science Center. They wore shorts or leggings with tank tops, the sun beaming down as they moved slowly from position to position at the direction of their instructor.

It has become a typical scene along the Inner Harbor as people take advantage of a growing number of free fitness activities this summer giving residents more opportunities than ever to get healthy while enjoying the water.

Aside from the kayak and canoe tours sponsored by Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks, the Waterfront Partnership offers free classes in yoga, fitness dancing, boot camps and parkour, a form of movement focused on overcoming obstacles.

The city's Inner Harbor boat trips draw 20 to 25 people every Sunday and will likely draw three times as many as when they started in 2013. Launched in 2011, the partnership's Waterfront Wellness series has grown from a single weekly yoga class that attracted 20 to 25 people to seven classes four days a week that bring more than 200 people to the harbor.

The aim of the classes is to encourage healthy lifestyles and fitness and to entice people to use the city's waterfront parks, especially residents who might take them for granted, said Sarah St. Clair, director of marketing for the Waterfront Partnership, a group that oversees maintenance, improvements and programming at the Inner Harbor.

"Tourists come out to the harbor all the time and we want to find more opportunities to engage our locals in the parks as well," St. Clair said.

The weight-loss company Medifast Inc. is sponsoring the partnership's programming this year, which enabled the group to offer more options, St. Clair said. Medifast also offers nutritional advice at the sessions, and one of its dietitians was on hand Sunday to talk about healthy lunch options.

Plus, St. Clair added, you can't beat the price.

"It is an opportunity for people who couldn't normally afford a gym membership to get out and get fit along the waterfront, which is a beautiful backdrop," she said.

While it can be picturesque, the harbor — along with the rivers and streams feeding it — remains badly polluted by sewage leaks, stormwater runoff and trash. The Waterfront Partnership, which works to help clean up the harbor, and the advocacy group Blue Water Baltimore gave the watershed a failing grade in their third annual Healthy Harbor Report Card released in June.

Their goal is making the harbor and its tributaries swimmable and fishable by 2020, but the report card found that excessive bacteria makes the water unsafe to touch, much less swim, in places.

But people get to see the city from a different perspective when on the water. And they are exposed to new activities that they might not otherwise try. Some, such as Bruneau, have to learn the hard way.

"There's always one that thinks he knows what he is doing," joked Peter Childs, the canoe and kayak program director for the Recreation and Parks Department who leads the kayak tours.

The city's parks department began offering the Inner Harbor kayaking instruction as a spinoff of a program it runs on the Patapsco River's Middle Branch near the Cherry Hill neighborhood.

"Who knew that many people wanted to be on the water?" asked Molly Gallant, outdoor recreation programmer for the parks department, who leads some of the kayak tours.

The city initially planned just one monthly kayak tour from the Living Classrooms dock when it launched the pilot program in 2013. Every trip was booked. This summer, the tour runs every Sunday.

Each trip begins with a brief lesson on paddling and safety. Don't get in the path of a water taxi or private boat. You will get wet. You might tip over, and if you do, stay with your kayak. Don't grab someone else's kayak and pull them in as well.

On a recent tour led by Childs, kayakers paddled next to ships docked in the harbor, beside the trash wheel that whisks debris out of the harbor and just a feet from the new headquarters for Constellation Energy, which is under construction in Harbor Point.

Childs said he likes teaching people about the history of waterfront development and keeping the harbor clean and healthy as much as promoting recreation.

"My goal is stewardship," Childs said.

Some get the hang of kayaking more easily. Some have a hard time grasping paddling techniques and bump into bulkheads or fellow kayakers. Instructors help them get on track.

"It was hard work and not as relaxing as canoeing," Bruneau said. "But I'd do it again."

Neali Hamilton, 42, loved to kayak when she lived in Miami and missed it after moving to Baltimore. She was excited when she heard the city offered it at the Inner Harbor.

"I couldn't wait to start," she said.

Rionna Graves had tried for weeks to get in on the kayak tour, but it always filled up. Graves, who had kayaked just once, in Puerto Rico, finally made the list Sunday. She zoomed easily across the water with strong strokes. She has taken other classes at the Inner Harbor and said they have helped motivate her as she tries to get in better shape.

"The variety of classes is great," said Graves, who works in finance. "And it's nice to be able to get out and enjoy the outdoors."

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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