Shirley Brown had been in a canoe, but not a kayak, so she jumped at the chance to go kayaking in Drost Lake Park in Maryville.
"I have no clue what the heck I'm doing," said Shirley, 64, of St. Jacob, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel with a life jacket and floppy camouflage hat.
"You want to pick out a boat that you like?" asked Sally Haywood, 48, of St. Louis, who was volunteering at the Maryville Parks and Recreation event.
"A blue one would be nice," Shirley said. "I don't want one of those Cardinal red ones. I'm in the Sweet Adelines, and I'm like the one Cub fan in the entire group of Cardinals fans. It's a running joke."
Another volunteer, Ron Mentel, helped Shirley into a blue, one-person kayak and handed her a paddle with two blades.
He told her to position her knees on either side to stay balanced and alternate with smooth, easy strokes.
"This seems like it's going to be a lot of exercise on my legs," Shirley said.
"It will be exercise on your tummy because you're going to be moving back and forth like this," said Ron, 64, of Belleville, twisting his waist.
Ron gently slid Shirley's kayak down a grassy incline into the calm water. It didn't take long for her and her friend, Deb Wess, 59, of Maryville, to feel comfortable enough to trek across the lake.
Kayaks, generally narrower than canoes, have covered decks. Lengths (5 to 19 feet) depend on whether they're for whitewater, recreation, sea or touring.
"(Kayaking is) way more fun than canoeing," Shirley said back at the dock. "It's a smaller boat, so your center of gravity is lower. It's easier to handle."
Spreading the joy
Shirley was one of about 200 people who showed up June 29 for the Recreation District's second annual kayaking event.
"It's a way to introduce people to a new sport, a new activity, and it shows people what a great park this is," said board chairman Sharon Petty, 66, of Maryville.
The event was the brainchild of Craig Heaton, a control systems project manager and member of the Missouri Whitewater Association and St. Louis Canoe and Kayak Club.
His goal is to get more people into kayaking as a hobby.
"It's just one way to build enthusiasm for the outdoors in the St. Louis region," said Craig, 53, of Collinsville. "I don't think we have enough of that. There are cities out there who are way beyond us."
Co-sponsoring this year's Maryville event was the local chapter of Team River Runner, based at St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks.
The non-profit group helps military personnel and veterans find "health, healing and new challenges" through kayaking and other paddling sports, which are believed therapeutic for those with post-traumatic stress disorder. Adaptive equipment also allows the physically injured to join in the fun.
"I love to see the positive, magical impact boating can have on people who have struggles in their lives," said Sally, chapter volunteer coordinator.
Healing through adventure
Mary Santhuff manned a Team River Runner booth at Drost Park Lake, inviting military personnel and veterans to Tuesday morning kayaking classes at the Veterans Administration hospital pool, as well as outings to lakes and rivers.
Mary is a retired sergeant in the Army National Reserve who served in Iraq, Kosovo and Germany. She got involved with Team River Runner in 2006 after experiencing anxiety and depression associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"They got me out of the house and helped me build social skills," said Mary, 48, of Oakville, Mo., now a college student. "I have more self-confidence. I've been able to prove to myself that I can do things that I didn't think I could do."
Mary pointed to a recent whitewater trip to the Black River in Missouri, where she kept her cool in rapids.
"It was an accomplishment for me to be able to 'read the river' and make it through without wiping out," she said.
Another regular is former Army Specialist David Balicki, 30, an emergency medical technician who lives in Belleville. He initially saw canoeing and kayaking as a way to relax in today's "crazy world."
"I had been on slower, scenic rivers, but I had never been whitewater boating," David said. "That's what I've learned from these guys. Now it's all I ever think about. It's all I want to do. It's like an addiction."
Team River Runner
What: National non-profit organization for injured active-duty military, veterans and their families
Mission: To help them "find health, healing and new challenges through whitewater boating and other paddling sports"
Training: Kayaking classes in the pool at St. Louis Veterans Administration Medical Center at Jefferson Barracks from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays (call before first visit)
Next outing: Members and volunteers will participate in a 200-meter race from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 11 at Simpson Lake in St. Louis County
Information: Visit www.teamriverrunner.org or contact Chapter Coordinator Tim Pfeil at 314-614-5560 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Best spots to kayak:
Current River in Missouri
Black River in Missouri
Meramec River in Missouri
St. Francis River in Missouri
Buffalo River in Arkansas