Editor’s note: Niagara Gazette reporter Kevin Purdy braved the Niagara River on Saturday to compete in Paddles Up Niagara. Here is his story:

If you ever want to know how large Grand Island really is, try jumping in a kayak and paddling its south-to-north length along the Niagara River.

At the end of my own voyage Saturday from Beaver Island State Park to the Eagles Outlook near the island’s northern tip, I felt how grand that island really is in my bones.

I also felt it in my forearms, my neck, my lower back and the parts of my hands where the fingers meet the palms.

To be fair, nobody at Paddles Up Niagara — the event that the Niagara River Greenway Commission hopes to build into yearly tradition — was demanding that I complete the entire 7.8 mile course. But I honestly thought those periodic stopping points were limited to emergencies.

And when you’re used to traversing Grand Island on the Thruway and having it roll by in about five minutes, you end up tricking yourself into thinking you’re moving faster on that river than you really are. And that the end of the course is always just around that next dock.

I’d been in a kayak a handful of times before Saturday, but just for quick trips on a mostly calm lake. So before I launched with roughly 140 other people

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in about 100 boats, I decided to ask the boaters who looked a bit more experienced — namely, everybody — for some tips.

“Stay within your means,” was the quick response of Diane Kozlowski, who traveled from Lancaster with her kayak after hearing about Paddles Up through a chain of e-mails. “What that means is, make sure you’re paddling in the right water for your skill level.”

“Know which way the currents are going,” said Sue Magro, who with her husband, Rick, made up of a number of canoe-paddling duos. “Other than that, I guess you should know the bow from the stern.”

My prospects seemed pretty good after those talks. Kayaks are built to face only one way, and from what I knew about the Niagara River, everything moves toward the falls, whether it wants to or not.

Before the first wave of launches, Neil Patterson of the Tuscarora Nation conducted a blessing of the boats in his native language. He explained that he moved his words from the boats themselves to the people inside them, and then to the skies to ask for a safe journey for us all.

I didn’t think I needed those blessings, at least at first. After shoving my loaner into the water, I was swinging one paddle over the other and passing people I knew had launched at least three minutes before me.

During the crowded first few hundred feet, I felt the bump of another kayak a handful of times. “Boy,” I thought to myself, “it shouldn’t be that hard to stay off my stern.”

Two miles down the river, I was using my left paddle almost exclusively, watching a father and his pre-teen daughter pass me by, and wondering if I could remember enough of those blessings to try and call down a little help.

Even with the advice of more than one sympathetic passing paddler, I could never figure out why every stroke or two was tilting me significantly to the left and away from shore. I tried shortening my grip on one side, intentionally weak-handing my right strokes and shifting my weight around, but nothing worked.

I was tempted to close my eyes, try to paddle “straight” and see if I ended up going in a circle, but I didn’t want to cause problems or bring the Erie County Sheriff’s boat over. On more than one occasion, I became so frustrated that I balanced my paddles across the hull and stopped.

In those moments, I realized why the Greenway organizers had intentionally included “non-competitive” in their promotions.

There were people miles behind me who looked like they were on vacation instead of in junior high gym class. And when I stopped for a few minutes to watch the reeds along the shore, the boats across the river and the water move past my hands, I felt miles away from anything resembling stress.

And when I finally heard that satisfying sound of plastic shell hitting wet ground, I felt a real sense of accomplishment — heightened only by getting to retrace my route with my eyes from the window of a shuttle bus, on the way back to my car.

Rob Belue, administrative coordinator for the Greenway commission, said the idea of Saturday’s event was to give people a taste of the kind of resources the area already has for both Western New York residents and visitors, which could be enhanced with a cohesive trail and river use plan.

Judging from the conversation on the shuttle bus, he’s given at least a few dozen boaters a yearly event to look forward to. And one reporter who has a really long story to tell anybody who asks about his sunburn.

Contact Kevin Purdy at 282-2311, Ext. 2251

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