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Placid Paddling

Albuquerque’s Stephen Verchinski often gets the same response from people when he talks about kayaking.

“They say ‘Where are you going?’ ” he said. “They assume you go to a lake.”

But Verchinski, a recreational kayaker and New Mexico State Parks safety officer, doesn’t have to venture far from his Duke City home to indulge his interest in paddle sports. He simply gets himself to the nearby Rio Grande.

If you go
WHAT: Paddlefest, an introduction to paddle water sports
WHEN: 9 a.m. Sunday
WHERE: Off Central Avenue, northwest of the Rio Grande
HOW MUCH: Free, but space is limited and pre-registration is required; call 452-5222

That’s likely a surprise to some locals, said Michael Hayes, who’s been floating in the Rio Grande since relocating here four years ago. Though nobody’s told him he’s nuts, he’s pretty sure they’ve thought it.

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“People were too nice to say (I was crazy), but I could see it in their eyes,” Hayes said, recalling the reaction he received when starting Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures, which offers guided tours on the middle Rio Grande. “I had a couple people say ‘Nobody wants to do that,’ (but) it was, like, OK, whatever.”

Hayes and Verchinski are working to get the word out about local kayaking and canoeing at Sunday’s Paddlefest, a free event off Central, northwest of the Rio Grande.

Offered as part of the City of Albuquerque’s Open Space Summer Series, Paddlefest will cover technique and river safety. Depending on water levels, the limited-capacity event should also give some participants a chance to get onto the water and try paddling for themselves.

It “ought to be fun,” said Hayes, who will bring along both kayaks and canoes. “It ought to give some people an opportunity to play around a little bit.”

Hayes, a Michigan native, moved to Albuquerque in 2007 with two canoes in tow. Once he started floating them down the river, he said he was struck by the serenity of the area and how the bosque shielded the river from the surrounding metropolitan area.

But he was equally shocked by the reaction he received, especially from locals.

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“I’m floating through the Corrales bosque, and I’d run across people hiking or biking on the trails, and they’d look at me like I was from Mars,” Hayes said. “There are some people who think it’s illegal. It’s very weird. I don’t get it. I’m thinking to myself, ‘It’s a river, of course you can do this.’ ”

Water – or a lack thereof – may seem like an impediment to local canoeing and kayaking, but Hayes said that’s not the case.

“We’ve (floated in canoes and kayaks) at ridiculously low water levels,” he said.

At least one reason people don’t use the Rio Grande much, Hayes and Verchinski agree, is access. Getting a boat to shore in the Albuquerque area can be tricky and often requires at least 100 yards of carrying the watercraft from a parking area, Hayes said.

There are currently plans to make getting to the water a little easier. As part of an upcoming, three-year bosque restoration project in Albuquerque and Sandia Pueblo, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make some recreational improvements. On the west side of the river at Alameda – where Corps project manager Alicia Austin Johnson said people are already entering and exiting the river with their watercraft – the plan calls for an improved parking area and a ramp for canoes, kayaks and emergency personnel boats. The project also includes a kayak/canoe launch on the east side of the river near Central.

“We have received a lot of input from the boating community regarding the locations for our improvements, and we’re taking those things into consideration,” Austin Johnson said.

Additional recreational projects could be undertaken if more funding becomes available, she added.

While Paddlefest is scheduled for only a couple hours, Hayes said that’s enough time to address the basics.

“You can certainly cover very fundamental stuff in terms of basic paddle stroke,” he said.

With its two-bladed paddle, kayaking tends to be easier to learn, he said. When it comes to canoeing, people must learn how to use a single-bladed paddle for both propelling action and corrective steering.

Verchinski will also discuss the necessary precautions everyone should take before going out on the water.

Among the most important is to float with the right supplies: life jacket, bailing bucket or hand-operated pump, rope and a whistle or horn.

Hayes said he envisions Paddlefest as a way to deliver an introductory lesson but also to alert people to the river’s recreational potential.

He wants to “make sure people are aware the Rio Grande right here is a tremendous resource for paddle sports,” Hayes said. “It’s amazingly overlooked.”


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