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'Being able to paddle your own path': Kayak sales are booming across Minnesota

The number of kayaks registered by the DNR License Bureau in Minnesota has nearly doubled over the past decade.

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Three kayakers paddle down the Zumbro River, downriver of Zumbro Falls, last summer. The one-person crafts are increasingly popular and most crafts on local rivers are kayaks, with fewer canoes.
Contributed / John Weiss
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A decade or two ago, I began to notice one-person kayaks on the Root and Zumbro rivers in the region as well as in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northeast Minnesota.

There were just a few here and there, kind of a novelty, a cute little craft amid the larger, more ponderous canoes. But I noticed how easy they were to maneuver with the long double-bladed paddles. In the BWCA, one blew past us as we slowly paddled canoes.

Last summer, while taking pictures on the Zumbro, downriver of Zumbro Falls, the situation was dramatically different: maybe 20 kayaks with only a handful of canoes.

We’re not alone down here.

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources statistics say that in 2006, the state registered 146,256 canoes and 29,756 kayaks. The next year,  much the same — 155,605 canoes and 33,758 kayaks. That means canoes were about five times more popular than kayaks.

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Two years ago, the DNR License Bureau registered 118,059 canoes and 64,590 kayaks, while the following year, 117,749 canoes and 66,232 kayaks.

Interestingly, the number of canoes shorter than 16 feet was small compared with longer ones, while it was reversed with kayaks. In 2021, the DNR registered 7,012 longer kayaks but 58,870 shorter than 16 feet.

Robb Welch wouldn’t have been surprised.

He and his wife Kristin Welch own Tyrol Ski & Sports in west Rochester and sell both canoes and kayaks.

“I would say we probably sell five kayaks for every canoe,” he said. “I’ve seen it from our sales number and my personal experiences being on the river. I’ve seen it for the last 15 years.”

Having a solo craft hasn’t just shifted people from canoe to kayak but has added more people overall to the paddling sports, he said. “It’s hard to put a number on it,” he said.

Kayaks are booming because they are easier to learn to paddle and often easier to maneuver, he said. “I think it’s the independence of being able to paddle your own path, at your own speed,” he said. 

If one person in a canoe wants to dawdle to look at the beautiful cardinal flowers on shore while the other wants to push on, there will be a problem. With kayaks, you can dawdle or push on as you wish. Kayaks are more instinctive to steer while canoeing takes longer to learn because both paddlers must learn how to coordinate.

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Welch said sales of kayaks began a few months ago when those who knew they wanted one came it to buy one or more, he said. And now that the true paddling season is here, he will see more, he said.

There are actually three basic kayak styles, he said.

First, those where you sit higher on top, which is great for fishing because the angler has access to to gear and fish, as well as to fish.

Second, more recreational kayaks with an open cockpit with the paddler sitting low, but the fore and aft are enclosed. Gear can be stored in hatches covered to keep out water.

Third, full-blown sea kayaks that are much longer and often have rain skirts around the paddler to keep out water. They are often tandem and not nearly as popular as the shorter recreation crafts, Welch said.

People often say they want a two-person craft but in nine times out of 10, they will go solo. He is not taking sides. “I like them both, I do them both,” he said.

In the last 20 years, “the design of the kayaks and the comfort of the sessions have improved,” he said. 

About 10 years ago, another solo-paddled craft started to become very popular — paddleboards, Welch said. That has died down. They are harder to maneuver in the wind and it’s hard to sit down or kneel, he said.

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Another person not surprised by the solo-paddling boom, especially with kayaks, is Brian Sullivan who runs the campground along the Zumbro, in Zumbro Falls, and also works at the Zumbro Falls Canoe Rental.

He began noticing more 10 to 15 years ago but they “started popping up … it has picked up a lot in the last few years,” he said.

“There are probably more kayaks with people launching their own than canoes,” he said. The rental has about 60 canoes and about 30 kayaks, with more people wanting to rent canoes, he said. But he also sees many people who launch at the public landing just upriver of the rental and most of them are now paddling kayaks, he said.    

Kayakers can maneuver more easily, he said. It’s a real pain if you swamp one because the river has high, steep banks in many places. But then, canoes aren’t exactly a joy to swamp either, he said.

Most of his kayak rentals are 14-footers with room inside for gear or it can be stowed behind the seat, Sullivan said.

The fishing industry has taken notice of one-person crafts, too. 

Some one-person kayaks are almost palatial with a place for a trolling motor (or you can paddle with your feet). The angler sits on a seat like a chair and they are wide enough to be able to stand up to cast big plugs or Texas-rig 10-inch plastic worms. There is even a national group called Bass Kayak Fishing that has tournaments throughout the year and Minnesota has at least two kayak fishing groups.

John Weiss has written and reported about Outdoors topics for the Post Bulletin for more than 45 years. He is the author of the book "Backroads: The Best of the Best by Post-Bulletin Columnist John Weiss”

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