Kayaking News

Paddlin' man
WALPOLE %97 The trip to Super Bowl XXIII in Miami was the first time Ken Fink went far afield with his collapsible kayak in a big, black bag on his back. And, if it weren't for Boston's bustling commuter rail traffic back in 1989, it would have gone as smoothly as his 51-pound kayak running through the water on a calm day. "We took the bus from Portland to South Station with our two boats on our back, our luggage in one hand and paddles in the other," said Fink, 65, of he and his son, Ethan. "We had full length paddles then. My son said, 'You took out about eight people with your paddle.' "

Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Ken Fink puts a Feathercraft kayak into the Damariscotta River off his dock in Walpole. When collapsibles first came on the market, they were meant to enable paddlers to take their crafts with them overseas. With improvements in design, says Fink, they are now faster on the water and small paddlers have greater ease using these kayaks in home waters.

View a slide show of photos of Ken Fink and his collapsible kayaks. (5 images)

Fink, who owns Poseiden Kayak Imports in Walpole, has been kayaking in Maine for 30 years, since he first moved beside the Damariscotta River in Lincoln County. Fink has been selling collapsible kayaks out of his home for more than 20 years and while other Maine kayak dealers say there is a bigger market for inflatable kayaks, Fink believes collapsibles, which you assemble, help get people into the sport who might not normally take it up.

Collapsible kayaks have been around for decades and the design is based on the homemade crafts used by the Inuits 4,000 years ago. Modern technology has made them lighter, faster and easy to carry in one piece, or broken down and packed away on your back.

"Those were skin boats the Inuits used. (Historians) know they existed because there are stone carvings or bone carvings showing they used them," said Tom Bergh, owner of Maine Island Kayak Company on Peaks Island. "They didn't have trees in the Arctic. They'd use driftwood, take strips and pieces that pushed ashore, kill a bunch of seals and use bone joints."

Kayaks have come a long way with the technological advances the industry has seen, even in the past 10 years, but the collapsible kayaks made with taut nylon fabric give the same feel on the water as those original kayaks.

Some of the clunkier models of collapsible kayaks on the market 20 years ago offered the opportunity to take apart the kayak and travel easily with one's own craft, enabling a paddler with the penchant to explore the open ocean anywhere. What they offer now is the ease of fast, light-weight enjoyment even if a paddler is right in their own back yard, which, for Fink, happens to be his favorite playground for paddling.

"It's changed the way I paddle. You can take it anywhere," said Fink, a retired oceanographer and professor at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center. "But this is the most beautiful part of Maine."

Fink has seen the kayak industry grow in Maine to where there are about 200-300 sea kayaking guides in the state today, according to Maryann Norton of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Those guides cater to hundreds of first-time paddlers in the summer and fall.

Fink himself gives instruction and lectures on kayaking in Maine and around the country. In a low-key, backyard way, he hawks the latest technology in kayak crafts and paddles, but in many ways Fink is very much old-school. He believes sea kayakers should exercise greater caution, and many first-timers don't, he said.

The relatively undeveloped coastline behind his house that, in early May, is deserted and disturbed only by a few docks is where Fink teaches his customers. They're either hard-core, back-country kayakers, or those willing to spend money on their recreational toys.

"Those who get into sea kayaking tend to be mid-life professionals," Fink said.

There's no question collapsible kayaks - with a price tag between $2,000-$5,000 - are a luxury item. But their purpose is changing, says Fink. When they came on the market, they were meant to enable paddlers to take their crafts with them overseas. With the improvements that have been made in the design of the craft, Fink said, they are now faster on the water, and small paddlers, particularly those who lack in upper body strength, have great ease using these kayaks on their home waters.

Eric Olsen at Coastal Kayaking Tours in Bar Harbor said they don't use them, but every so often the guides there see them on the water. "They're a conversation piece," Olsen said.

At L.L. Bean, where kayaks have been sold for more than 20 years, the light, easy-to-tote-around kayaks sell better in the inflatable models, which go for $299-$699.

"The collapsibles are much higher end," said company spokesman David Teufel. "There is not much of a market for us, but they're very popular. For people who can afford them and need to use them, if they're traveling with a boat, going completely off the beaten path, it's a perfect boat for them."

Fink is happy to take his kayak no further than the Damariscotta River, but he has paddled up and down the coast of Maine and to plenty of exotic locations. He's been kayaking in Labrador, Hudson Bay, to the West Indies and Iceland. But all with his hard shell. He used to have to fly or ship his hard-shell kayaks to the country or state where his paddle adventure would start.

Since he retired from the Darling Center three years ago, Fink has been taking his collapsible kayak with him more and more.

"I used to fly with a hard shell, an 18-foot boat. When I kayaked in Iceland (20 years ago), I sent my boats from New York on a steamship. Round trip for three boats it was $30-$40," Fink said laughing. "Then, not many people were kayaking."

With the kayak business booming, Fink has had an easier time selling the collapsible crafts, but still, as he talks of kayaking in the '70s in front of about a half dozen boats stacked in front of his house, he speaks with the sadness of one who has seen an era of paddling purists pass.

"(In the '70s), if we were driving down on the highway and someone saw us with a sea kayak, they'd stop to see who it is," Fink said of himself and his wife, Joan. "I was in a parking lot in Illinois with my kayak, and someone stopped to see who it was. It was a very exciting time."

The light, durable frame of the Feathercraft brand collapsible kayak Fink sells illustrates how technological innovations have improved the sport in recent years.

Since Feathercraft went from using Cordura to Polytech fabric in recent years, its kayaks have become completely waterproof and abrasion resistant, according to the company. The urethane hull, if treated with the same care given a fiberglass hull, is billed to last up to 30 years.

This is part of what has made Fink a fan.

"I knew a guy paddling in Wyoming along the Snake River. He got a hole in it, pulled it over, sanded it and patched it," Fink said.

What Fink likes the most about the crafts is the freedom they provide. The smallest Feathercraft model out now is 14 feet, 9 inches and weighs just 35 pounds. Even for a person with little upper body strength, it's a more manageable craft than a plastic boat, which can weigh more than 50 pounds.

Fink said 60 percent of his business is from women, and 75 percent is from novice paddlers looking for convenience and comfort in a water craft.

At one of Maine's oldest outdoor companies, Scot qcBalentine of L.L. Bean said the market today is with inflatable or recreational kayaks that are better suited to a cove or large lake than, say, Casco Bay. Balentine, who has kayaked as far away as the Arctic Circle, is a guide as well as the developer of the store's kayak line.

"With the inflatable, the purchase price is right. And with the inflatable, it's five to 10 minutes to blow it up. It's a huge convenience," Balentine said. "We've seen a lot of growth in that segment of the market, in the recreational segment."

Fink collapsed his kayak and packaged it in under 15 minutes. He said it takes the same amount of time to put it together. The parts look much like the poles and cover of a tent. But there's no denying the pricey collapsible is a speciality item.

On the Damariscotta River last week, Fink demonstrated how an osprey on an island could be gotten to quickly in the quiet craft, how the flow of the water underneath the craft could be felt through the skin, how the craft got more of a jolt from the tidal waves than a plastic craft would get as it felt as though someone were actually pushing the boat.

The Eskimos used kayaks made of seal skin, so the experience in a collapsible offers a primitive adventure. It's not unlike the experience one has with a muzzleloader firearm or a bamboo fly rod.

But, even though Fink has been selling kayaks since 1979, he's more of a minister than a salesman, trying to convert landlubbers into the ways of sitting on the water. He'll take a sheer novice and try to talk them into racing, he'll tell stories to suggest that humans, when introduced to a kayak at an early age, will naturally gravitate toward them.

"My grandson, when he comes up to visit, will take the paddle and climb inside. He's 5," Fink said of the child, who paddled with his grandfather as an infant.

Fink, fan that he is, says it's not bad that kayaking - and sea kayaking in particular - attracts the same kind of people. It's why when he sells a kayak, he offers unlimited, free instruction.

"People who sea kayak are 100 percent reliable," Fink booms.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452

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