“Oh no, she’s gonna fall in!” Petrea says. Durbin giggles before stepping off for a dunk in Lake Junaluska.
Standing on the boat put-in with a group of other parents whose children are taking Petrea’s Thursday afternoon paddling class for homeschoolers, Katie’s mom Lara cheers her daughter on.
“The fact that he’s coordinating these things and taking the time to create activities where they can learn, it’s really nice to have that option,” Lara Durbin says.
The six-week class for homeschoolers involves an hour and a half on the water each week, use of the private lake donated by Lake Junaluska. Students learn basic paddling skills — on both kayaks and stand-up paddleboards — as well as self-rescue techniques. They also get to see what it takes to load and unload a kayak or stand up paddleboard, and hopefully, they and their families get comfortable enough with the process to try it on their own sometime.
But the classes also allow for plenty of freedom to explore.
“You get to mostly roam around by yourself,” 11-year-old Caleb Plott says when asked his favorite thing about Thursdays on the water.
“My favorite thing about the program is that it has developed a passion for outdoor sports for my son,” his mother Christy adds. “He looks forward to it from the time his eyes open until he gets here.”
For Petrea, that’s the goal.
“Hopefully they’ll fall in love with it or see it as a viable option in their habits,” he said after the lesson concluded. “That way they don’t just sit around and say, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to do.’”
It’s a goal that extends far beyond just the homeschooling population. Petrea’s been offering plenty of other opportunities to get an orientation to paddling lately, thanks to a collection of kayaks, paddleboards and accessory equipment purchased in August with a $25,000 grant that the parks and rec department received from the Pigeon River Fund.
Created in 1996, the Pigeon River Fund funds water quality projects in the river’s watershed, a way to mitigate the environmental effects of a hydropower dam built by CP&L, the predecessor of Progress Energy. Every year, it gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars to various projects. The Waynesville Parks and Recreation Department was one of the recipients this year and bought 13 single kayaks, five tandem kayaks and 10 standup paddleboards, as well as paddles, flotation devices and other accessories.
“It’s a great outdoor recreation area,” Petrea said of the Waynesville area, “and now we’re able to say, ‘We have this other element for you. We can get you into paddle sports.’”
It didn’t take Petrea long to start putting the new equipment to use. He ran a few outings that month and jumped in with a full schedule for September. Thursday afternoons are for homeschoolers, but the mornings are open to anyone who wants to go. He’s got 14 students aged 6 to 15 signed up for the homeschooling session, and 13 people turned up for the morning session last week, a number he says has been pretty consistent. On a recent Sunday, 24 people showed up for the three sessions he taught that day. A trip to Lake Fontana last weekend gave beginning paddlers a chance to look past Lake Junaluska.
“I’ve paddled more in the last month and a half than I have in the last three years,” Petrea said.
The same holds true for many enrolled in Petrea’s classes.
“Even some of our seniors are kayaking for the first time and loving it and wanting to stay involved,” Petrea said. “They’re asking me, ‘Can we do more stuff in October?’ and ‘When are we going to start in the spring?’”
Halfway into the six-week homeschooling session, 6-year-old Carly McDowell isn’t ready to think about the end of the paddling season.
“I think that it feels like I’m free, kind of,” she says. “I just really like it that I get to do it because it’s really fun.”
She’s been learning a lot during those hours out on the water. Most importantly, how to paddle straight. It’s simple, she explains — “You just paddle on both sides.”
“You get a different perspective of the lake, and you get to see it from a different angle, so that’s really unique,” adds Carly’s mom Alison, who often takes Carly and her 9-year-old brother for scooter rides around the perimeter of the lake. That’s often the physical education component of their school day, but it’s nice to try something new, Alison said.
The one difficulty, Petrea said, is that he’s one person, so it’s hard to give students of different ages the individual attention they need to get the most out of their lessons. But he’s looking to volunteer help to fill that gap and already has a few people pitching in.
“As I build my volunteer base, it will give me more opportunities to reach all age levels,” Petrea said.
Back at the lake, it’s getting close to 3:30 p.m. and time to wrap up this week’s lesson. The students drift back to shore in ones and twos, working together to beach their boats and drag them up to the yellow parks and recreation school bus.
“Next week, everybody takes part in the putting back together process,” Petrea tells the group. “That way you see what goes into it.”
He reminds them of an upcoming trip to Bear Lake and of some disc golf and hiking sessions he’s planning in an effort to give the homeschooling population some choices about how to stay active.
With that, the students pair up with their parents and disperse until next week’s fix of paddling addiction.
“At some point, I’ll have to learn how to do this,” Christy Plott said.
On Tap for October
Thursday morning paddle sessions, 9:30-11:30 a.m. at Lake Junaluska. Oct. 2, 9 and 23. $5 rec center members; $10 non-members.
Paddling at Bear Lake. 12:30 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12. Transportation from the Rec Center provided. $20 members; $25 non-members.
Lake Logan float, 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19. Partnership with Haywood Waterways Association. Free.
All activities require pre-registration at the Waynesville Recreation Center, 828.456.2030.
More ways to paddle Lake J
The Lake Junaluska Conference & Retreat Center has also been working to promote water sports on the lake. A new fishing pier and boat storage area, as well as a ramped-up rental fleet of kayaks, stand up paddle boards and canoes, have boosted participation and given lake users more options to stay fit through outdoor recreation.
“The lake is our greatest asset,” said Stephanie Drum, marketing manager for the lake. "By increasing the variety of options people have to connect with the lake, we invite the local community to become more engaged with Lake Junaluska.”
Boat rentals are available at the Lake Junaluska Soda Shop in the Kern Center.