Paddles Up and Hit the Open Waters
This summer, trade in the horsepower for some human power and hit the open waters
Photo by EvgeniiAnd - stock.adobe.com
Summer in Oklahoma means water sports, thanks to more than 1,400 square miles of lakes and ponds, and an endless network of rivers and streams. Not all of that is navigable, of course, but there are vast recreational opportunities and plenty of uncrowded waters available in public lakes and rivers.
For some, that means motorized sports using power boats but, for others, a quieter approach is in order, one that brings the user close to nature, with the potential for both solitude and a good workout. Chief among these choices are sailing, kayaking and canoeing, and a newer entry, stand up paddle boarding. Each involves an integration of skill, muscle power and awareness with wind and water, a truly immersive experience. And, as if to emphasize the proverb, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” each has ancient origins.
The first sailing boats recognized by historians were those used by Egyptians more than 6,000 years ago. That Oklahoma would excel as a site for the recreational version of this time-honored mode of travel may come as a surprise to some, but with the large number of lakes across the state and many windy days, “You can sail almost uninterrupted all year-round,” says Jerry Lojka, manager of the Lake Thunderbird Boathouse (LTBH) at Lake Thunderbird State Park, east of Norman.
A U.S. Sailing-accredited school, LTBH offers classes for both children and adults. Boating safety is a significant focus and, for volunteer instructors from the Thunderbird Sailing Club like Lojka, the reward of seeing kids as young as 9 years at the end of a three-day class “grinning from ear to ear, having learned a skill few know how to do” is what keeps him coming back.
LTBH is a member of Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC). “OEC has been a good partner for us,” Lojka says, expressing appreciation for the co-op’s installation of a mast-raising pole for the boathouse. Find more information on LTBH at thunderbirdsailingclub.org/learn-to-sail.
Northeastern Oklahoma’s Grand Lake is another prime spot for sailing, according to Debbie Graham, owner of Island Fever Sailing School and a member of Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative.
“Sailing at Grand Lake is fabulous,” Graham says. “I’ve been on Grand Lake for about 25 years and there are still parts of it I’ve not seen.” Island Fever is certified by the American Sailing Association and offers classes for beginners through advanced students, April through November. Find more information at islandfeversailing.com.
Canoeing is another ancient activity, one that many people grow up with and, for residents of eastern Oklahoma, a canoe trip down the Illinois River is almost a rite of passage. A state-designated “scenic river,” the Illinois’ waters are considered Class 1-2 rapids—easy to moderate. The stream is usually mellow but can be a bit more exciting when water levels are high.
Float trip outfitters line Highway 10 north of Tahlequah and offer rafts, kayaks and canoes along with camping facilities and cabins. Austin Spears and his brother, David, own Arrowhead-Thunderbird Resort, a member of Lake Region Electric Cooperative. Austin Spears says rafts and kayaks have overtaken the erstwhile canoe for popularity among river users. “Families and groups of friends enjoy floating together on rafts,” says Spears, whose business offers six-, eight- and 10-person rafts. Find more information at arrowheadresortok.com/.
Like sailing, kayaking and canoeing, stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is an ancient form of transport, but has more recently become popular for recreation. “People have been standing up to paddle on rafts and floating boards as a means of transportation for thousands of years, but it was the 1940s when the modern sport of stand up paddle boarding started to become popular in Hawaii. In the past decade, it’s gained popularity across the U.S.,” Elizabeth Laurent, chief marketing officer for RiversportOKC and SUP, says.
According to Laurent, SUP is growing in popularity because it’s fun, easy and a great workout. With Oklahoma’s countless miles of shoreline, there’s plenty of flat water just waiting to be paddled on. “When you’re on the water in Oklahoma, it’s also about the enormous blue skies we have, and the calm early morning sunrises and sunsets that rival any in the world,” Laurent says. Riversport offers SUP rentals as well as classes. Find more information at riversportokc.org/adventures/sup.
Other Oklahoma lakes offering sailing clubs and classes include Fort Gibson, Oologah and Hefner, and many lakes and state parks offer canoe, kayak and SUP rentals. Check travelok.com for more information.