Grab a paddle for river fun

Frothing water, the serenity of untouched nature and a marriage of relaxation, escapism and adventure.

Riding a meandering river can offer that and boatloads more. For first-timers, finding a place for kayaking, rafting and canoeing near Atlanta is easy. The Chattahoochee River, with its reputation as a good place to learn, flows in our own backyard. And other reputable rivers are just a short drive away.

But before dipping the proverbial paddle into the drink, experts say neophytes should size up each experience, consider safety first and pick the right fit.

Know your boat

Canoe: It’s how early Native Americans would travel in style. Grab a paddle to propel these narrow, pointed-end boats through the water. Canoes can be made of wood, aluminum or synthetic materials such as fiberglass and Kevlar. Canoes typically accommodate two average-size adults comfortably.

Kayak: Popularized by the Eskimos, these human-powered crafts ride low to the water and usually feature a covered deck and cockpit. Paddles feature a blade on each end. Kayaks come in various designs and materials, but many white-water versions are made of plastic. Most kayaks best suited for river riding hold one or two people.

White-water raft: These inflatable boats are made of heavy-duty rubberized or vinyl fabrics and are designed to take a beating on the rushing rapids. Perfect for a group activity, most rafts hold four to 12 paddlers.

Hard to handle?

Bruce Williams, owner of the White Water Learning Center of Georgia in Buckhead, says paddlers should know how to swim and be in “decent shape,” but they don’t require Hulk-like strength. Flexibility, however, is essential, he says.

The two-bladed kayak paddle allows single riders to alternately paddle on both sides of the kayak with ease.

With more strokes to learn, Williams says canoeing can be more difficult than kayaking. Solo canoeing is challenging because paddlers have to control the boat by paddling on just one side of the canoe. And two-person canoeing involves the paddlers coordinating their strokes.

White-water rafting calls for coordinated paddling, too. But having a guide to call out strokes makes it totally doable for novices.

Guiding light

Many veterans such as Williams agree that newbies should learn paddle sports from an instructor. Look for a school or service that teaches the American Canoe Association curriculum for canoeing and kayaking.

Wannabe white-water rafters can choose an outfitter that provides excursions with experienced guides who teach the basics before the trip. Make sure you learn not only paddling technique, but river awareness and safety. Always paddle with other people and make sure you or someone else has a good knowledge of the river you’re riding.

Be prepared

No matter your swimming skills, it’s a good idea to wear a life jacket. Outfitters and schools usually provide them. Bring a first-aid kit, plenty of water and sunscreen. Wearing a helmet is smart but not critical unless you’re in a situation when you might come out of the boat and smack exposed rocks. On rivers with Class II rapids and higher, helmets are strongly encouraged.

Memorable river systems

(Note: Class I is the least difficult; Class V is the most difficult)

Chattahoochee River (upper): Runs from U.S. Forest Service Road 44 through Robertson White, Habersham and Hall counties, Class II to IV. Or from Robertson to Ga. 115 in White, Habersham and Hall counties, Class I to II. Or from Ga. 115 to Duncan Road in White, Habersham and Hall counties, Class II to III.

Chattooga River: Runs from Ga. 28 to Russels Bridge in Rabun County, Class II. From Earls Ford to U.S. 76 in Rabun County, Class I to V. From U.S. 76 to Tugaloo Lake in Rabun County, Class III to V.

Chestatee River: From U.S. 129 to Lake Lanier in Lumpkin, Class I to III.

Sope Creek: Runs from Roswell to the Chattahoochee River in Cobb County, Class II to III.

Yellow River: Runs from U.S. 78 to Lake Jackson in Gwinnett County, Class II to III.

Outfitters and classes

White Water Learning Center of Georgia: Offers kayak and canoeing classes from March through October. Basic classes take place on the metro Chattahoochee River. Also provides private instruction, trips, and kayak and canoe rental. 3437 Rockhaven Circle N.E., Atlanta. 404-231-0042, www.whitewater georgia.com.

Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club: Practice canoeing or kayaking at the site of the 1996 Olympic kayak and rowing events on Lake Lanier. Guided trips, moonlight paddles and boat rentals are among the highlights. 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville. 770-287-7888, www.lckc.org.

Wildwater Ltd.: Guided white-water rafting trips on the Chattooga, Nantahala, Ocoee, Cheoah and Pigeon rivers. Lodging is available. 1251 Academy Road, Long Creek, S.C. 877-247-5535, www.wildwaterrafting.com /mainpage.html.

Chattahoochee Nature Center: A naturalist leads group canoe trips that serve as both an introduction to canoeing and the ecology of the river. 9135 Willeo Road, Roswell. 770-992-2055, Ext. 237, www.chattnaturecenter.org.

Appalachian Outfitters: Outfitter offers tubing, canoeing and kayaking along Chestatee River, Yahoola Creek, Etowah River and in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area. Moonlight and overnight trips available, too. 2084 S. Chestatee/Ga. 60, Dahlonega. 706-864-7117, www.canoegeorgia.com.