Kayaking can be an grand adventure or a simple source of peace

It's perfect weather to be out on the water, and avid kayakers are loading up their boats and heading for lakes and rivers every weekend. And good for them, those river warriors with strong arms and good tans.

But for the rest of us, here's a tip: You don't have to be avid to be a kayaker.

Kayaking, which seems so inaccessible to beginners, isn't inaccessible at all. It's not all-or-nothing. You don't have to make it an all-consuming hobby, spend your paycheck on expensive gear or take weeklong trips with a boat tied to your luggage rack.

If you're not afraid to get a little wet, you, too, can kayak. Even if you're not the outdoorsy type. Even if you don't know a paddle from an oar. Even if you don't own (and would never buy) your own kayak.

Now, while the weather's warm, consider this: You can learn. You can rent a kayak. And as soon as this weekend, you can be out on the water, gliding gracefully and wondering why you never did this before. Here's how to get started.

Things to know

Just about anyone can kayak. You don't have to be athletic or outdoorsy, says Adelaide Leavens, executive director of Streams and Valleys, a local nonprofit devoted to the Trinity River. With some basic instruction, most people can catch on quickly and easily. Furthermore, people with disabilities can kayak "very successfully," says Dave Holl, a kayak instructor in Rowlett. There are adaptive paddling programs to teach you how. (For instance: Find out about RISE Adventures in the "Learn How" section accompanying this article.)

You don't need experience to kayak. Even a beginner can get out on the water and paddle through calm waters; you don't have to be trained, certified or licensed.

It does help to learn a few basics. You can take courses that last for weeks, but just a few hours will get you started. The American Canoe Association -- a governing body that oversees kayaking, too -- has designed a three-hour "Quickstart" program for kayak instruction, and kayak rental shops recommend that customers take at least that short crash course in paddling and water safety.

In fact, most of the rental-shop employees we talked to won't rent to a customer who seems to have more bravado than skill. "Especially when it floods, [inexperienced] people think, 'Oh, that river looks great. I'm going to get out on that,'" says Edie Gray of Paddle Bound River Outfitters in Colleyville. "When people say things like that, I won't rent them out."

Edna Terry, owner of Arlington Paddle and Outdoor Rentals, has the same philosophy. "I don't like to put people on the Trinity unless I'm sure they know what they're doing," she says. "I have people who [don't] know the difference between the canoe and kayak. I say no."

Kayaking is not canoeing. In fact, many people say it's easier.

"I find kayaking a lot easier than canoeing," Leavens says, mainly because -- unless you're using a tandem kayak -- you're just one person trying to balance and maneuver. Most kayaks are designed so that you sit inside them, which makes your body (and, therefore, your paddle) much closer to the water.

Kayaks are "much more stable, really," says John Tenery, who rents kayaks from his Fort Worth store, Outdoor Solutions. "It's a much lower center of gravity because you sit with your legs stretched out; you don't bend your knees." It's still possible to tip the thing over -- but it's not a foregone conclusion.

Kayaking doesn't have to mean flying through rough water at breakneck speeds. In fact, if you're a beginner, you don't want to even try that until you've mastered the art of paddling in the calm waters of a pond or lake. Much recreational kayaking is flatwater kayaking, which involves propelling yourself through still (or at least gentle) water. It's less of an adrenaline rush, more about peace and quiet and communing with nature.

Over in Dallas, a $4 million whitewater park for kayakers is scheduled to open this year, giving paddlers a wilder ride with two "standing waves" along Dallas' stretch of the Trinity. It's likely to be finished in November, which means you have plenty of time to train for the rapids by practicing paddling in placid water.

Kayaking can be good for the body and the soul. Even for casual rent-a-boat kayakers, getting out on the water is undeniably a healthy thing.

"It's hard to say how many ways it's good for you," Terry says. "Physically, mentally, spiritually -- just to relax."

In her classes she's had a 12-year-old boy declare that kayaking is "more fun than Six Flags" and a reluctant wife fall in love with being on the water.

Part of the appeal, Terry says, is the way kayaking puts you out in the middle of nature without any distance. "It's more than just going jogging outside," she says. "You're really out in nature because you're dealing with that water ... you're dealing with the wind on the water. You're just out in the middle of it, more so than most other sports."

Leavens talks about the beauty of the view from the Trinity in Fort Worth.

"The city looks just amazing from the river," she says. "It's also really peaceful out there, and you see all sorts of birds and ducks and geese and fish and turtles" -- and you are right there among them.

Holl leads groups along the Trinity in Fort Worth after dark. "The view you get from the river," he says, "is different from any other view of the skyline of the city."

ALYSON WARD, 817-390-7988