Paddling friends Cindy Williams (foreground) and Darrel Johnson paddle their kayaks Tuesday, May 19, on Sylvan Lake in East Gull Lake near Brainerd. They are members of the Paddle Pushers Kayak Club, which has weekly skills training Wednesday nights on Gull Lake and weekly trips to area lakes Tuesdays. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, kayaking has been an activity people can do to exercise and enjoy the outdoors. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

EAST GULL LAKE, Minn. — As the evening sun beats down on Sylvan Lake Tuesday, May 19, five members of the Paddle Pushers Kayak Club get ready to go on their weekly paddle together.

In a normal world, Paddle Pushers founder Jeff Kidder would expect about 20 members going out on Sylvan Lake. Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, five is a good number.

Even though the pandemic has closed down gyms, residents can get their exercise outdoors and kayaking is one of those options.

The paddlers for Tuesday’s adventure on Sylvan Lake safely socially distanced from each other as they put their kayaks in the water. Once out in the lake, the paddlers enjoyed an evening with friends and family in the Brainerd lakes area.

“We all wear masks when we launch,” Kidder said. “Everyone launches their own boat, although the kayaks are 17 feet long so when you grab each end you are pretty far away from each other. Then once you are out on the water you can take your mask off. It was easy to stay a ways apart.

“If you can find landings that aren’t too crowded, you can launch your boat and it’s probably a pretty good sport to do, especially if you don’t want to come in too close of contact.”

Kidder hasn’t been paddling in 2020 yet. At 71 years old he feels he doesn’t have the strength yet to be comfortable while paddling. He’s been working out a little bit every day to hopefully get out in the middle of the summer.

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Kidder has sold over 100 kayaks and has planned trips all over the country including one to Alaska to see the glaciers. Paddle Pushers, founded by Kidder in 2001, is one of the many clubs in the Brainerd lakes area that provide a chance to learn how to kayak. For people interested in paddling, Kidder’s advice is to take classes before going and buying a kayak.

“In our club everyone has taken an intro to safety class, which for years we offered through community ed and privately,” Kidder said. “Once you completed that you can join the club, but we want people to have that safety first before they paddle with us.”

Cindy Williams is on the board of directors of Paddle Pushers and joined the club in 2012 thanks to Kidder’s teaching. Williams was always interested in trying kayaking and for her 50th birthday asked her husband for one.

Longtime kayak skills instructor and paddler Jeff Kidder talks about founding the Paddle Pushers Kayak Club Tuesday, May 19, at the Sylvan Lake public access. Kidder has taken several groups on trips to Lake Superior and taught numerous paddlers how to handle themselves safely in the boats. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

He scoffed at me,” she said. “Which is probably good. So I met Jeff and he sells kayaks and I bought my first kayak from him, took his class. I was so glad I didn’t just go to Gander Mountain or something and buy a kayak because buying from Jeff and being in a club, I gained a family and I gained knowledge I could not get anywhere else.”

Kayaking has been a lifesaver for Williams, who once the ice melted away started paddling by herself, since she can’t get her normal exercise done at the gym.

“Paddling is my zen,” she said. “For me paddling during the COVID-19 has been helping my body and my mind a lot. It’s been amazing.”

Darrel Johnson, 78, joined Williams as one of the first on the lake Tuesday. Johnson has been paddling since 2003, when a friend suggested he start when he moved back to the Brainerd lakes area.

“I took Jeff’s class and have been kayaking ever since,” Johnson said.

Members of the Paddle Pushers Kayak Club paddle through the sparking water of Sylvan Lake Tuesday, May 19, in East Gull Lake near Brainerd. The group members practice skills every Wednesday at Gull Lake and visit area lakes each Tuesday. Steve Kohls / Forum News Service

For Johnson, the biggest highlight of being a part of the club is the trips. His favorite is the trip to Sand Bay, Wisconsin, near the Apostle Islands.

The 2020 kayaking trips have been put on hold for the time being because of the pandemic.

“It’s great exercise and you are one with the water,” Johnson said. “I’ve always loved the Sand Bay trip.”

Johnson hasn’t been able to go to his yoga class since March but says he walks about 6 miles a day.

Kayaking even has a family element. Laura and Loren Beilke are both Paddle Pushers members and joined Johnson and Williams later on. Laura has been paddling since 2007 and enjoys exploring the many lakes Minnesota has to offer while getting exercise with her husband.

Laura’s advice to any newbie is to try out different boats before buying one.

Another kayaking club in the Brainerd lakes area is the Paddle Folk. Led by David Jeremiason, the Paddle Folk have their local paddles every Thursday.

Paddle Folk usually have bigger groups during their sessions, so Jeremiason pushed back the first outing to June 4, when hopefully more of the coronavirus restrictions have relaxed.

One of the big benefits of kayaking, in Jeremiason’s eyes, is it is therapeutic.

“Any kind of sport that you are doing a rhythmic motion — cycling, running, kayaking — I think there is a mental health component to that,” he said. “And the fact that you are out in nature and doing something that is human powered. Healthwise it is exercise and it’s good for you back, core and shoulders if you have good technique.”

Jeremiason got his start in kayaking in the Apostle Islands in northern Wisconsin, a trip he makes with the Paddle Folk once a year. After moving to the Brainerd lakes area he started Paddle Folk to introduce kayaking to more people.

One of the favorite paddles the Paddle Folk group does is on Bay Lake. The group goes across the lake to a woodfire pizza oven to eat some pizza before heading back.

“It’s much more of a social outing than a kayak outing,” Jeremiason said.

Jeremiason agrees with Kidder that safety should be a priority to those who are starting to kayak.

For those who aren’t looking to join a club, the Paddle Anglers Kayak Fishing and Rentals in Baxter provides one of the many places to rent a kayak in the Brainerd lakes area. Pat and Joleen Zerwas both run the rental business.

Joleen Zerwas said one of the hidden gems to kayak is not on a lake, but on the Mississippi River.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I’m not sure many people have experienced the Mississippi River in town. In the fall time, it’s gorgeous and it’s a different outlook on the town.”

As the five members of the Paddle Pushers kayak into the sunset, the world feels normal for them, because it is.

“It’s a way to get out and see people,” Johnson said.