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Open Water

After 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, Roland McKinnon was tired of power boats. But he and his wife, Eryne, still wanted the open-water experience. So two years ago they took the plunge into kayaking.

"We started off buying a couple of used ones off Craigslist to see if we were going to like it, and we fell in love with it," says Roland McKinnon, of Medford.

The McKinnons opted for lake kayaking, the fastest growing sub-culture in the kayaking world. Several area lakes either prohibit motor boats or are unpopular with boaters because of a lack of boat ramps. This suits the McKinnons just fine.

"No wakes, and you often find shorelines without a whole lot of cabins built on them so you can paddle close to shore and see the wildlife and birds and nests," says McKinnon. "So it's things you normally wouldn't get access to on the shore necessarily and you wouldn't normally see from a power boat."

The McKinnons have since added two more kayaks to their fleet, Pungo 120s, 12-foot-long, "sit-inside" kayaks made by Wilderness Systems. It's a model that McKinnon says "gives you a feel of sitting inside of a sea kayak but with the openness of being able to get in and out of it."

Built for open water, lake kayaks more closely resemble the longer sea kayaks than the shorter river models.

"River kayaks are eight feet long, shaped like a torpedo, super maneuverable," says Scott Keith, owner of Northwest Outdoor Store in Medford. "But if you go onto a lake and you try to go in a straight line for a mile, every time you put the paddle in the front on this side, the boat is going to go over here (on the same side). It's called yawing — it's when you go back and forth across the lake instead of tracking in a straight line."

The lake models tend to range from 10 to 14 feet in length, according to Keith, and come in two general styles: sit-on-top and sit-inside.

"Sit-insides, your tail end sits lower into the water so you have a lower center of gravity, your shoulders are lower to the water," Keith explains. "When you're paddling, it's a more gentle range of motion "… more stability, easier on the shoulders."

The sit-on-tops, however, are more suitable for start-and-stop excursions, when the journey is less taxing. One of the more popular uses for the sit-on-top models is fishing.

"Kayak angling is less expensive, it's quieter, you can get into shallower bodies of water and you don't scare the fish away because you're just gliding up to the cove or tules without the engine rumbling," says Keith. "You can even troll with kayaks; you can hit trolling speed real easily."

Fishing from a lake kayak provides special access not available to motor boats, whether in lakes or in the ocean.

"A lot of our waters have been hit hard," says Keith. "If you've got a big, beautiful power boat, you don't want to get too close to the rocks at the coast. Your kayak, as long as the sea conditions are calm, you can go right up against the rocks, within feet of them, so you can fish areas that have not been fished out yet, because power boats always stand 20-30 feet away for safety, as they should, but kayaks don't have that limit."

Lake kayaks are made either of polyethylene or, increasingly, of the lighter trilene plastic. Unlike sea kayaks, which are made of fiberglass, lake kayaks bounce off rocks instead of breaking apart.

Some of the newer and more innovative lake kayaks are made by Hobie Cat, a company better known for sailboats. One of their lake kayak models expands into a tri-maran with a sail for windy days. Other models fall into the hands-free variety, with pedals instead of — or in addition to — paddles.

"You have these underwater flippers that you drive with pedals," Keith explains. "They're really good for doing wildlife photography when you don't want to paddle."

Pedal varieties aside, lake kayaks can travel in as shallow as four inches of water, allowing access to shoals and backwaters in river estuaries unavailable to larger boats.

"This weekend we're going over to Bandon, and we're going to paddle the Coquille River from the ocean," says Roland McKinnon. "They also just opened up Beaver Creek last year, which is just below Newport over on the coast."

With all the lakes in Southern Oregon, there's no need to drive that far to find great slow-water kayaking. The McKinnons kayaked 12 new bodies of water last year, all within a three-hour drive of their Medford home.

"Lake of the Woods is a really good lake," McKinnon says. "We'll camp up there, paddle around on the lake. Also Hyatt Lake."

Some of his other favorite getaways include a string of exceptionally clear bodies of water on the Cascade Lakes Highway above Bend, but his favorite is Waldo Lake, in the Willamette National Forest, one of the country's clearest lakes.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

Roland and Eryne McKinnon kayak at Lost Creek Lake Monday. - Jamie Lusch