At 5 p.m. on a warm April evening, the sun sparkles off the water at the Daniels Area of Patapsco State Park. Bright green, blue, orange and red kayaks are scattered across the small sandy beach.
People mill around, some in shorts, some in wetsuits, chatting with people they already know or introducing themselves to newcomers. When cars arrive, the people on the beach walk over to help the drivers take the kayaks off the roofs and walk them down to the water's edge. A few people are already in their kayaks in the nearly still Patapsco River, paddling slowly back and forth or tipping their boats over so they can work on righting themselves.
It's the first Wednesday-evening gathering this year of Chesapeake Kayak Adventures, a group formed about four years ago as the Wednesday Night Paddlers. The group, with more than 200 members, meets for non-whitewater excursions on local rivers, in the Chesapeake Bay and in lakes and reservoirs. All abilities are welcomed, and there are even a few kayaks to rent for the members who haven't yet purchased their own.
Tom LeFevere of Clarksville was one of the first ones in the water, bobbing in his red kayak. "I'm recently retired, so this is the thing to do," said LeFevere, who said he is also in a hiking group and added kayaking about six months ago.
The group's leader is Glenelg resident Chuck McMillin, who has been paddling for about 20 years and worked as a kayak instructor at the L.L. Bean store in Columbia. "The real purpose of the group was to give people the ability to paddle in the safety and camaraderie of a group," said McMillin, wearing a straw hat and a sleeveless wetsuit known as a "farmer john."
The group grew to about 80 members, and in November it changed names when it moved from being a Yahoo group to becoming part of MeetUp.com, a site where people find groups and activities that interest them. It now has more than 200 members, and maybe 10 percent showed up for that first paddle of the year.
Becky Martin lives in North Springfield, Va., and drove an hour and a half to take part in the Wednesday-night paddle. "It's a great group," she said. She's been kayaking since last summer, first renting boats and then purchasing one.
One enthusiastic participant is Kim Eubanks, a Columbia resident and teacher at Cradlerock Elementary School. She's been canoeing and kayaking since she was a teenager, she said, and joined the group about a year ago, after meeting McMillin while he was working at the L.L. Bean store in Columbia.
Before joining the group, she said, "I was going out by myself," but she much prefers exploring the local waterways with others, both because it is safer and because it is more fun.
Though the kayakers stick to relatively safe venues, there are dangers inherent in the sport, and members say they like knowing the highly skilled McMillin is keeping an eye on them. Though McMillin is not acting as instructor for the group, "he seems to know a lot about all the places we go," said Eubanks.
Wetsuits are recommended for the months the water is still cold, though paddlers don't always wear them, particularly in slow-moving water or when the air temperature is warm.
McMillin can't recall a moment when group members faced real danger, though he said the paddlers have been caught in the rain plenty of times. And he remembered one paddle in the Susquehanna River, when construction workers were blowing up a bridge with dynamite. The paddlers got well out of the way and enjoyed the show, he said.
While most paddlers sit on low seats, with their legs stretched in front of them in the body of the boat, Eubanks has a kayak with a higher seat, more typically used for ocean paddling. "I just grew up with this," she said of her boat, called a sit-on-top kayak.
The group is a mix of abilities, she said. "It's very laid back. It's not like we're rushing to get someplace." Her favorite memories are of summer evenings, when the group finds a bend in the river and stops for a swim and a snack.
Yeni Collins of Catonsville started kayaking in the fall and was venturing out with the group for the first time. "I liked canoeing first, then I tried kayaking and I liked it," she said. Kayaks tend to be lighter and sit lower in the water. It's good exercise, she said, and a nice way to get outdoors and look for wildlife. She recently purchased a kayak with her tax refund, she said.
Robert Baker of Towson stands next to a boat of cedar and mahogany, which he made from a kit. The classic lines of the boat make it look as if it belongs in an earlier era, especially in contrast to the brightly colored plastic vessels around it. "I always wanted to build a boat," he said. Baker said he's been paddling for several years. He often goes out with his wife, but he joined the group so he would have additional opportunities to get out on the water.
Ben Mayock of Ellicott City carries a narrow wooden paddle called a Greenland Paddle, which he made. "It's designed for efficient paddling," he said, adding, "It takes a little getting used to."
Mayock said he used to live in upstate New York, and he rowed canoes before switching to kayaks. He now has four kayaks, he said, and has been with the paddling group about a year.
While making boats and paddles is impressive, it is not a requirement for group membership. In fact, said Eubanks, there are just two requirements: "You have to have an interest in trying, and you have to be willing to get wet."