Gunkholing in a Kayak

The word “gunkholing” means cruising in shallow waters with a wide variety of shallow-draft boats.  Day sailors, dinghies, jon boats, and canoes are some of the popular hulls that can get into the skinniest of waters.  One that has recently appealed to me is the hard chine kayak.  To my mind they are the perfect craft for gunkholing.

The origin of the word kayak is up for debate.  Some paddling historians literally translate the word into “man-small boat.”  It’s a perfectly fitting description, as kayaks were custom-fit to a paddler’s exact dimension.  A more figurative interpretation nudges around the meaning of “clothing for going in the water.”  The boats were made from naturally water-repellant sealskins that were also used as coats.

A lot has changed from the days of waterproof sealskins covering wooden frames.  Modern kayak designs accommodate anyone who can sit upright and paddle.  The reason lies in the chine, which is the edge between a boat’s side and her bottom.  Kayaks traditionally have been multi-chine boats, and their rounded hulls glide effortlessly through the water.  To go out to sea or on a pond or lake in such a vessel means you’ll need to learn the Eskimo Roll so you can right a capsized boat.  But, the new hard-chine kayaks are the answer for anyone who wants to get on the water without mastering new skills.  These boats handle well, are far more stable, carry a ton of gear, and don’t require any special techniques.  Just add water.

There are two types of hard-chine kayaks.  The first features an open-cockpit with either one or two seats.  Water stays out of the boat.  In the event you capsize, there are no worries, simply swim free.  A second option is a sit-atop.  These boats are a lot like a deluxe surfboard.  Your weight keeps you on the boat and the water laps around your legs as you paddle about.  Some folks like to ride the sit-a-tops in the waves, sort of a kayak-surfing experience, but you can paddle just as easily through a marsh in them.  If you work up a sweat, just step out of the boat and dive in the water.  They’re that simple.

Many of the newer recreational kayaks are made from recycled plastic and polyethylene to add stiffness and light weight.  Net net, they’re virtually maintenance free.  A wash down here or there gets the sand and mud out of them.  Portability is king and you’ll never huff and puff to get unstuck.  The kayak’s length determines its weight, but most of them are in the 40-50 pound class, easy to pick off of a car roof or drag down to the water’s edge.  They don’t draw more than a few inches, so paddling is a breeze.

Safety is important, so be sure to include a low-profile life jacket.  There are many that are designed to accommodate the active movement required by a paddler.  A spray skirt keeps the water out of the boat and if you’re paddling in a river that has lots of rocks consider a helmet in the event that you tip over.

Hard-chine kayaks are a phenomenal way to get into shallow reaches.  And when you’re gunkholing this year be sure to bring a waterproof camera.

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Tom Keer

Tom Keer

Tom Keer is an award-winning writer who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  He is a columnist for the Upland Almanac, a Contributing Writer for Covey Rise magazine, a Contributing Editor for both Fly Rod and Reel and Fly Fish America, and a blogger for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s Take Me Fishing program.  Keer writes regularly for over a dozen outdoor magazines on topics related to fishing, hunting, boating, and other outdoor pursuits.  When they are not fishing, Keer and his family hunt upland birds over their three English setters.  His first book, a Fly Fishers Guide to the New England Coast was released in January 2011.  Visit him at or at