Kayaking in Plymouth

Plymouth resident Lisa Thomas shares her paddling prowess to take you from novice to know-it-all on the water.
Writer Caitlin Hill gets outside of her comfort zone and into the "paddlers box."

I would consider myself an adventurous soul.

Whether it’s backpacking through Europe or hiking through the Cascade Mountains, I’ve been known to put reality on hold to enjoy a slice of the great outdoors. With a laundry list of adventures-to-experience handy at all times, the word “kayaking” was patiently waiting to be crossed off.

However, I have a confession; though it stands in the shadows of some of the other more prominent (and, dare I say, scary) adventures on the list, somehow kayaking always has made me a bit nervous—I think it’s the whole intentionally tipping over thing. Still, when I heard about Plymouth resident and kayaker extraordinaire Lisa Thomas, I threw caution to the wind in pursuit of some healthy instruction. I submit to you here a step-by-step tutorial chronicling my experiences—and how you can share them, too!

Step 1: Get Your Feet Wet

“We have so many beautiful lakes in Plymouth. A lot of people are scared of kayaking, but any of the parks have sit-on-top kayaks,” says Thomas, who volunteers with Three Rivers Parks as a kayaking assistant. Sit-on-top kayaks are simply a flat surface to sit on versus other kayaks that have the participant sit inside. Turns out kayaks are more stable than canoes, which made me feel a whole lot better as I stepped in for the first time.

Thomas chose French Regional Park for our kayaking excursion, which rents kayaks for a reasonable $4 per half hour. Located on picturesque Medicine Lake, there’s no scarcity of channels and shoreline to explore.

Thomas herself started kayaking through a Three Rivers Parks women’s kayaking class three years ago and she’s proud to say she’s been doing it ever since.

One of the most important things Thomas shared with me was what she calls the “paddler’s box.” In order to paddle correctly, you need to hold your arms up close to shoulder height with each elbow at a 90-degree angle when paddling. Lots of people paddle down by their knees, Thomas explains, which wastes energy and isn’t as effective a propellant. Once you have your form figured out, put the paddle into the water towards your feet, and pull the water back toward your thigh.

This feels awkward at first, but once you do it enough times, you will absolutely get the hang of it. Whew!—what a workout.

Step 2: Find Your Rhythm

Once you’ve figured out the basic how-tos of kayaking, you’re really in for a treat. Even though I was lagging behind Thomas for the majority of our trip, I felt triumphant and peaceful at the same time. Gliding atop the water—so close you can see the fish swimming underneath you—makes every second of tediously practicing your paddling technique worth it.

Thomas recommends Medicine Lake for a nice spring kayak outing. “It’s nice because you can go through some of the back channels and see the plant-growth,” she says.

Fish Lake is good for a quiet secluded area to paddle through, Thomas adds. Or the nearby Parkers Lake is one she frequents as well, as (due to its smaller size) she can paddle around the perimeter while watching her son fish off the dock.

Step 3: Paddle On

That’s it; lesson complete.

Thomas has used her kayaking skills for both pleasure and purpose since picking up a paddle for the first time. She tries to get out on the lake at least a couple of times a week during the spring, summer and fall.

Once you feel comfortable in your kayak, perhaps its time to consider the next step—competitive kayaking. Last July posed presented a new challenge for Thomas, as she took part in the Mississippi River Challenge for the first time. This two-day, 44-mile paddling event raises money for a cleaner, healthier Mississippi River. Each paddler older than 18 is required to raise a minimum of $250 in pledges to participate. After hearing about the oil spill in the gulf last year, Thomas knew this was her chance to start helping locally.

Knowing she had never paddled this far before—the most she had ever paddled was 10 miles down the Mississippi—Thomas prepared by kayaking three times a week with the Inland Sea Kayakers in the Twin Cities, and paddling up and back on Medicine and Fish lakes in Plymouth (a distance of about 2 miles straight across).

Throughout the event, Thomas found herself paddling through three locks, and stretches of pristine wilderness, all while building friendships with fellow kayakers.

What did Thomas find most challenging? “Getting back up early on Sunday morning after already paddling 22 miles, knowing I had to do 22 more miles,” she says. “But after my Grande, two-pump hazelnut soy latte, I was good to go.”

Thomas encourages even newbies to get involved in this year’s event. If you haven’t paddled a lot, she recommends going for just one day. “The MRC loves newcomers and tries to always help them out,” she says. “They will take good care of you on the water.”



Want to start a Plymouth kayak group? E-mail Lisa Thomas. This year’s MRC Challenge takes place on July 30 & 31. 


Kayaking for Beginners

  • Be safe! Always wear a personal flotation device.
  • Go kayaking with someone else; don’t go alone.
  • Wear sunscreen, and drink lots of water. As the sun reflects off the water, it’s important to stay hydrated.
  • Relax and paddle at your own speed—you will have a blast!

See what kayaking is all about at these upcoming classes at French Park.

May 15: KidSplash: Kayaking for Kids- ages 9-13; $20; 1 p.m.-3 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.

May 21: Flatwater Kayaking Essentials- $50; 9 a.m.-noon; Flatwater Kayaking Essentials for Women- $50; 1-4 p.m.