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'Chlorine Lagoon' keeps Alaska kayakers sane during winter

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- They arrive in their bunny boots and parkas, lugging snow-covered kayaks into Hamme Pool.

Rather than the roar of whitewater, they are greeted by the smell of chlorine.

''I call it The Chlorine Lagoon,'' said Brad Snow, president of Fairbanks Paddlers, a collection of hardcore kayakers and canoeists.

But everyone in attendance at The Chlorine Lagoon agrees on one thing.

''It's better than nothing,'' said 17-year-old Blaque Reily-Orth.

In Fairbanks, where winter outlasts spring, summer and fall combined and rivers are frozen longer than they are running, kayakers either must go cold turkey for seven months or revert to paddling in a swimming pool.

''There's no such thing as dry-land kayak rolling,'' Don Kiely said after hosing the snow off his purple, nine-foot Prijon kayak. ''At least this way you get to be in a kayak, even if it's in a pool with chlorine.''

With that, Keily climbed into his boat, slipped the spray skirt over the hole and pushed himself into the pool, like a beaver sliding down a riverbank into the water. His mission this night was to practice his weak side roll.

''I can roll pretty good on one side,'' he said. ''I want to learn on the other side now.''

The pool is reserved for kayakers and canoeists each Monday from 7-9 p.m. from January through May. Paddlers pay the same $3.50 use fee swimmers do.

On a recent Monday night, 16 kayaks of all shapes and sizes, as well as a pair of canoes, were darting about the pool. Like a giant family of beavers working in a pond, the paddlers glided around the pool, rolling and turning, disappearing under the water for a second before popping back up dripping wet.

''This is where I got started,'' said Kiely, 43, a software developer who took up kayaking a year ago.

Actually, most kayakers in Alaska start in a pool because of the long winters and cold water. The pool provides a perfect place to learn the basics of kayaking, the biggest of which is how to roll.

''For beginners it's important to learn how to roll and even in a pond around here that's difficult to do,'' said Bruce Campbell, 48, a geologist and longtime Alaska paddler. ''It's cold and dark. There's something about darkness that makes it hard to be upside down.''

As Reily-Orth put it, ''It's a lot easier to learn in a pool than a river.''

Most beginners can learn how to roll in the course of a few months in a pool, allowing them to start paddling when the water starts running in the spring.

''The first half of learning how to kayak is to educate your butt how to be in the boat,'' Snow said. ''How to keep your weight centered. How to hold the paddle. How to brace yourself. All that can be learned in a pool.''

''Next to rolling, bracing is the most important thing to learn in a kayak,'' he said ''That prevents you from having to roll.''

While beginners mainly work on learning how to roll, more experienced kayakers work on specific strokes, weak side rolls or hand rolls (no paddle).

''You might be out on the river and see somebody doing cartwheels in an eddy line and the same strokes that allows that person to do cartwheels can be practiced in a pool,'' Campbell said.

Kayaker Peter Finoff, 47, was there with his son, 28-year-old Peter, practicing strokes and rolls in their new ''rodeo boats,'' small kayaks built specifically for acrobatics.

''You can practice a lot of things that set you up for moves on the river,'' the older Finoff said.

Fairbanks Paddlers' Snow said the pool provides even casual canoeists a chance to rehearse safety techniques, too.

''Bring the kids to get an idea what it's like to tip over in a boat,'' Snow suggested, ''so they know they're not going to die if that happens.''

The Monday night sessions also serve as a sort of weekly counseling session for paddlers suffering from cabin fever.

''What's great about the pool is the camaraderie,'' Finoff said. ''This is the way a lot of us stay in touch and start planning trips for the summer.''

When Paul Snarski and his brother, Mark, took up kayaking a few years ago they didn't know about the Monday night pool sessions. Instead, they bought kayaks in the spring and spent the summer teaching themselves how to roll.

''We did a lot of swimming,'' Snarski said.

Now, he said, the Monday night sessions are a way to battle the boredom of winter while having a little fun.

''I come to BS and show off,'' said the 30-year-old Snarski, who spends the winter painting cars at Seekins Ford.

But he admits practice in the pool helps keep a paddler in better shape than watching TV all winter.

''If you do 500 rolls on each side you're that much ahead when you get in the water,'' Snarski said. ''It gets so it's natural.''

While Hamme Pool doesn't offer the raging whitewater and adrenalin rushes a paddler gets from running the Nenana River canyon, it does have one thing going for it that Alaska's rivers don't.

''I'd like to have a river that's this temperature,'' Snarski said.

Besides, there's something about loading a kayak onto the top of a car in January that helps make the winter go by a little quicker.

''There's nothing more cool, than driving through Fairbanks when it's below zero with a kayak on top of your car,'' Kiely said.

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)



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