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Kayak builder, instructor takes hobby to next level

Posted: Thursday, September 06, 2001

KENAI, Alaska (AP) -- At a class on Longmere Lake Wednesday evening, uncoordinated paddling sent colorful kayaks jerking in one direction and then another. It was clear that the kayaker-wannabes had yet to discover the rhythm of the sea. But the echo of laughter rolling across the water left little doubt that the students in Tom Wilkinson's class had found a vehicle to freedom.

Ranging from high school students to retirees, the class listened as Wilkinson gave instructions on how to gracefully enter and exit the kayak without falling into the shallow water along the lakeshore. Once everyone had pushed off from shore, thanks to the help of Wilkinson's assistant, Patti Fuehrer, he gave additional instruction on proper paddling, rudder control and deep-water rescue.

Then the class began a three-mile course around the lake. Wilkinson paddled from kayak to kayak, checking the comfort level of his students, commenting on paddling style and ensuring everyone was having the fun he obviously does when he's skimming the surface of the water.

Owner of Kenai Kayak Company and a critical care nurse at Central Peninsula General Hospital, Wilkinson has been kayaking for 18 of the 20 years he's lived on the Kenai Peninsula.

''When I started kayaking, I was considered a lunatic,'' he said referring to the few kayakers in the area at that time. ''Now it's the thing to do. There are thousands and thousands of people kayaking.''

Several years ago he decided he could design and build a sea kayak for less than it cost to get one shipped up from the Lower 48. The result is a 17-foot fiberglass design that Wilkinson has tested on trips to Prince William Sound and, most recently, on a 17-day, 250-mile Seward to Homer trip with five of his kayaking buddies. He's been selling the kayaks for two years. This season, he and Fuehrer have built 30 kayaks and sold more than half of them.

''I teach the classes so people will do this safely,'' Wilkinson said.

It also provides an opportunity for him to pass along tips that add to the activity's enjoyment.

''Tom does a wonderful job,'' said Julie Bowman. ''He lives for kayaking. It's one of his greatest loves, besides his family. Anyone that wants to learn kayaking would really enjoy learning from him.''

Ask kayakers why they take to the water, and the same two answers are repeated -- a relationship to the ocean and a sense of freedom.

''You're right down close to the water,'' Bowman said. ''It's much more safe and comfortable than a canoe. And I like the quiet. Kayaking is, to me, relaxing. I don't do it for the exercise. It do it because it's really enjoyable.''

Seth McCord, a senior at Montana State University in Bozeman, Mont., traveled with Wilkinson on the Seward to Homer trip.

''The ocean is a commanding presence,'' he said. ''There's no messing with it. I learned so much about it in a situation I'd never been before.''

Jill Skidmore-Erickson, a Soldotna physical therapist and paraplegic, has a kayak built by Wilkinson.

''I like to kayak because I can be totally independent,'' said Skidmore-Erickson. ''Because I don't have the use of my legs, I have to be careful. But still, I'm right there on the water.''

And then there's ''an incredible relationship with the water and the wildlife,'' which Skidmore-Erickson said is an emotional connection to which Wilkinson helped open the door.

Originally from California, Wilkinson enjoyed canoeing before coming to Alaska. He tried to continue that interest after relocating.

''One day the wind started blowing, and it was everything I could do to get to shore,'' he said. ''I told my wife that there must be a better way to enjoy it than in a canoe.''

He found his answer when he attended a sea kayak symposium in Seward in 1983.

Like other enthusiasts, Wilkinson has seen incredible sights and collected a string of adventures -- exploding icebergs in Harriman Fjord, 15-foot swells off infamous Gore Point, orcas longer than his kayak. One particular encounter included a group of sea lions he numbered close to 100.

''One rose up from under my kayak to about four feet above me,'' Wilkinson recalled. ''He took his flipper and dumped 15-pounds of ice cold water right on me. That was an experience of a lifetime.

''That's what you get kayaking. You are an integral part of what's happening. It's exhilarating and invigorating. There's serenity. There's peace. And there's quiet.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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