INVERNESS, CALIF. -- It's only 8 on a misty summer morning, but Tomales Bay, a briny finger of the Pacific Ocean about 45 miles north of San Francisco, is dotted with at least a dozen bobbing kayaks. The wind is light at this hour, and paddling a small, light craft is easy work.

Although much of the area's bird life has long since flown to summer quarters, it's not hard to spot great blue herons, snowy egrets, grebes, cormorants and a variety of ducks from your waterborne vantage point.

Kayaking on a scenic body of water, whether it's Tomales Bay in northern California, the Deerfield River in southern New England or even New York Harbor, combines the benefits of exercise, the contemplative beauty of a nature walk and every now and then, an spontaneous swim.

But the unexpected plunge doesn't happen very often. Kayaking is a relatively easy sport to master (at a beginner's level, that is) and requires neither a large investment of money, nor unusual coordination or upper body strength. In fact, this simple but elegant watercraft was used for hunting and locomotion by many ancient Arctic tribes.

My first kayak lesson lasted about 10 or 15 minutes; an instructor taught my companion and I how to hold the paddles and perform the basic strokes. He showed us how to use the rudder (not all kayaks have one, but they are a blessing) and helped us adjust the seats of our two-person kayak.

A quick push and we were off. Sure, we veered from side to side and spun around once or twice. But within 20 minutes or so, we got the hang of it and moved briskly up the bay, pausing now and then to peer at a bird or just enjoy the view.

Blue Waters Kayaking, here in Inverness, rents kayaks, offers classes and organize tours locally and as far away as Alaska and Baja, Mexico.

Renting a kayak makes a lot of sense for the beginner. It's fairly cheap -- at Blue Waters you'll pay $50 for two hours in a two-person kayak or $30 for a single. Although two hours doesn't sound like much time, kayaking, especially when the wind comes up (as it does every afternoon on Tomales Bay), can be tiring.

You'll pay a bit extra for dry suits at some outlets, but unless you enjoy the chilling effects of sopping wet pants and a shirt, you'll be glad you did.

And if you're like me, you'll find that having a decent seat and backrest reduce fatigue dramatically. Generally, seats slide into the kayak and can be adjusted to suit the length of your legs. If it's not comfortable, check with the instructor. It's no fun trying to reconfigure the seat in a bobbing boat while trying hard not to lose your paddle.

Kayaking Hot Spots

With Barry Bonds off his form this season, chances of snagging a home run ball in McCovey Cove are slimmer than usual. But kayaking behind San Francisco's AT&T Park is, well, a blast. The views are stunning, the water is calm, and it's easy to find a guided tour that will take you there safely.

City Kayak is a good resource; the company rents kayaks and organizes outings to McCovey Cove, which include a paddle-by of the Bay Bridge and the South Beach shoreline, as well as longer expeditions to Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

If San Francisco isn't on your travel agenda -- but New York City is -- you might consider kayaking from Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty. The all-volunteer

Downtown Boathouse in Manhattan provides free access to the Hudson River and offers loaner kayaks and instruction to anyone who wants to paddle the New York Harbor from its three locations.

The Boathouse also offers a number of programs; one that really stands out in one of the world's most expensive cities is the free "Walk Up Kayaking."

The group describes it this way: "The only requirement is that you know how to swim. It runs at all of our locations on weekends and holidays from May 15th to October 15th, and on many weekday evenings. You can take one of our kayaks out for a short 20-minute paddle inside the protected embayment in front of the boathouse. We give you a life jacket, a kayak, a paddle and some tips on paddling."

Another good resource for kayaking in the New York area is the

The Kayak and Canoe Club of New York. The KCCNY organizes trips in New York and surrounding states, some of which require prior kayaking experience.

Want to explore New England? Here are a few books (all available online) that will get you out on the river.

"

Quiet Water New Hampshire & Vermont Canoe & Kayak Guide " and "AMC Quiet Water Guide" by John Hayes; "

Paddling Southern New England: 30 Canoe Trips in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut " by Ken Weber; and "

Water Trails of Western Massachusetts: AMC Guide to Paddling Ponds, Lakes and Rivers " by Charles W.G. Smith.

For the Rapid Learner

You may have heard of a maneuver called the Eskimo roll -- it's a way to right a tipping kayak. It's not something you'll need to learn until you graduate to a closed kayak or venture into the open ocean or whitewater rivers. It takes careful instruction and some real practice.

One place you will need that skill is on the fast-flowing rivers of Colorado.

The Colorado Whitewater Association offers classes ranging from beginners and youth through one dedicated to "the roll," and another for mental toughness designed to prepare paddlers for rough water.

Ocean kayaking is another activity that requires time-honed skills, but you'll be amply rewarded for your trouble. Kayaking clubs and outfitters on all U.S. coasts offer instruction and adventurous ocean trips.

Although it may be a bit far afield, kayaking off the coast of British Columbia sounds exciting for the next adventure.

Majestic Ocean Kayaking offers a variety of trips, including some that last from four to six days.

The company is based in Ucluelet, which is on Vancouver Island, north of Victoria, and focuses on

ecotourist excursions.

Don't wait any longer -- get out on the water this weekend, and discover the joy of kayaking for yourself. You'll quickly understand why humans have been doing so for thousands of years.

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