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Paddlers reconnect with nature on kayaks (video)

By Melissa Crowe
Aug. 25, 2012 at 3:25 a.m.
Updated Aug. 26, 2012 at 3:26 a.m.

Cheryl Johnson, left, and Ryanne Hawes wait on the banks of the boat launch at Riverside Park for the participants of Saturday's kayak clinic hosted by the Victoria Parks and Recreation Department to depart down the Guadalupe River. Participants learned kayaking basics at the Gary T. Moses Municipal Pool in the morning and then took a guided tour down the river in the afternoon.

Guadalupe River Wildlife

Birding: Sightings include bald eagles, osprey, egrets, herons, kingfishers, hawks, sandpipers, phoebes and turkeys

Trees: Native cypress, oak, and pecan trees, as well as many non-native tree and plant species

Common wildlife: Deer, armadillos and squirrels

Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

In the western reaches of Victoria city limits, between historic neighborhoods and undeveloped wetlands, a bearded boater pushes his paddle against the river and floats on.

Ancient with knowledge, the Guadalupe became familiar with the motion from its time as a lifeline to colonialists, soldiers and missionaries. Today, it's a lifeline to local paddling clubs, tourists and outdoor enthusiasts, by surrendering a quiet escape from the fast-paced living it helped create.

Scotty Kocian, 29, of Austin, returns to his roots in Victoria for an evening trek down the Guadalupe through Riverside Park.

For people like him, lucky enough to have access to paddling equipment, the river offers a rare experience to let go of the world, even for just a little while.

"It's so peaceful and relaxing," Kocian said. "The river is a great resource people should take advantage of."



A lifted weight

Before the city built a south access point at Riverside Park, Jim Waller said the closest point was the swinging bridge at DuPont.

Waller, a Victoria resident who joined three others in spearheading the effort to develop paddling trails in Victoria, shuttled a group of about 20 kayakers and canoers, including Kocian, across Riverside Park on Thursday.

The multi-generational club, Coastal Bend Paddlers, includes experts and novices, even a few first-timers looking for a new hobby.

"It's a lot of people who like time to themselves," he said.

He compares getting away from the noise and into the wild to a weight being lifted from one's body.

"The idea is to make the whole river accessible," he said.

He wants it to grow.

While area clubs largely use their own resources and volunteers to promote and host events along their trails, he said there is potential for partnerships.

"We just need someone to take the ball and do it," he said.

A Victoria restaurateur tossed around the idea of opening a livery, and Councilman Tom Halepaska, who played an integral role in Victoria's trail receiving state designation, also attempted to get one started, he said.



Reconnected

Texas Parks and Wildlife, area towns and paddling groups in Cuero, Gonzales and Goliad are hoping to entice new users to the rivers.

Wilfred Korth, chief ranger at Coleto Creek Park & Reservoir, was involved in helping Goliad's paddle trail attain state designation.

The Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority helped Victoria get designated in 2007, and later assisted Cuero and Gonzales in building their paddling trails.

"The intent is to get people reconnected to the river - actually getting on the river and using it," Korth said.

He encourages families with children and young adults to get on the water and see the rivers from a new perspective.

"My personal goal is to have people take ownership of nature again," Korth said. "If people don't experience it, they don't value it."

He said interest has grown over the past three years in the Crossroads, but access to rentals and shuttles remains a hurdle.

The big question is what should come first: bring in a livery to build interest, or build interest to attract one?

Victoria's Parks and Recreation Director Doug Cochran subscribes to the theory that there has to be interest first. However, Victoria has that covered.

Cochran said there has been an increase of people kayaking and canoeing - even tubing - on the river.

With gas futures in mind and growing popularity of staycations, the Guadalupe River can be an inexpensive escape.

"For this to become a viable option, we need someone to come in with a business," he said. "We can work with them as far as contracts to open up additional recreation options."

Cochran said the only hang up is finding a willing person, with enough capital to invest.



Matter of quality of life

The city is investing in infrastructure along the paddling trail with hopes to spur eco-tourism and potential business opportunities.

Last week, with the help of the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, it installed a new $16,000 access point at the south end of Riverside Park.

Improving river access and being designated as a Texas Paddling Trail is a start, he said.

"It's a gorgeous river," Cochran said. Through kayaking and canoeing, "people can see it from a new perspective than just by driving through the park."

Andrea Blomberg, the parks department's assistant director, said the access points and infrastructure at the park will bring more visitors.

"Our mission is to make Victoria a better place to live, work and play," she said. "You'll see growth in this because people will start demanding it."

Cochran said it all hinges on quality of life.

"It's not always about roads and drainage," he said. "People are looking for things to do."



Open for business

A Victoria teenager is taking the plunge to ensure paddling sports in Victoria don't sit stagnant.

About two weeks ago, David Pruett, an 18-year-old instrumentation student at Victoria College, tasked himself with providing a livery service for area kayaking enthusiasts who might not have access to the sport.

"The river is away from the city and noise, so there's a better chance of seeing wildlife," he said. "And it's a good place to relax. You don't have to worry about anything."

He said his goal is to get more people interested in the activity, if it turns into a full-time business that he can balance with school, that's just a bonus.

"I wouldn't say it's a very popular sport, at least not around here," Pruett said, compared to a summer trip to Colorado, where he saw a kayak rack on nearly every vehicle.

"It will eventually pick up here," he said. "A lot of people don't know about it, so they can't enjoy it."

For people who have trouble finding hobbies in Victoria, Pruett said kayaking is a good option for easy outdoor fun. His rentals give people an opportunity to try the sport before investing hundreds into equipment.

"Most of my friends don't kayak, but a lot said they'd go if they had one," Pruett said.

He said he wishes he had come up with the idea earlier than August, but recent renovations to the park's south access point might make this a perfect time.



If you build it

The state's objective is to use the paddling trail system as a means to increase public access to all bodies of water.

The project partners with local communities to enhance or create entry and get-out spots so individuals, families and groups can more easily use the rivers.

"We're packaging these trips into half-day trips," said Shelly Plante, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's nature tourism manager. "A lot of reason people don't participate is because they don't understand how to do it, or it's too mysterious."

All the Texas Paddling Trails are four to 12 miles long.

"Some rural towns who are getting a lot of interest may be missing out on tourism because they don't have a livery," Plante said.

At the same time, "if it's something you really love, buying a kayak is within reach for a couple hundred dollars," she said.

Companies such as Recreational Equipment Inc. - located in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio - rent kayaks, canoes, and roof racks, so people can explore any river.

However, Plante said a local livery company can help the success of a community's paddling program.

When the Texas Paddling Trail program began about 10 years ago, it only partnered with communities that had local liveries available.

"Now, if you build it, we hope they will come," Plante said. "We see it as a market opportunity for an entrepreneur."

She said the trails can be a "win-win" for the state, communities and the economy.

Plante said Victoria is looking to launch some new trails in the next year or two that tie into the trail through Riverside Park.

"The sport is huge nationally," Plante said. "It's that ease of access ... we don't have really raging rapids, so most trails are family-friendly and don't require a lot of training."

So far, the program has 58 trails and is working on about two dozen more.

Luling was the first to join.

"Victoria is in a really good place because it's close to other trails," Plante said.

She encouraged the city to partner with others in marketing efforts. The result could be a boost in tourism traffic and overnight stays.

"Texas has gotten more and more urban over time," Plante said. "But we still have that drive to reconnect with nature."

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