When you board Metro Transit Route 46 wearing a life jacket and carrying fold-up kayak paddles, you are bound to get looks of concern. Is the bus being hijacked for some type of “Speed”-like water adventure? Will there be a water landing?

Not to worry. It’s just the latest sign of the burgeoning popularity of kayaking, not only in far-flung lakes and rivers, but in a city neighborhood near you. I was riding the bus back to where I had dropped my kayak near Minnehaha Creek in Minneapolis, embarking on an exciting six-mile run down the frothing stream.

Earlier, in the whitewater of Minnehaha, I was swiftly headed for the 50th Street underpass. The opening was so narrow that my mind was racing. Would I collide with the bridge deck and capsize? Yards away, I was left with but one option: I lay back flat on my kayak and hoped for the best. As I glided under the bridge, I stared upward into the darkness, struggling to stay straight. After several anxious moments, I saw blue sky and popped up, paddling frantically to safety between two boulders in my path.

I was unscathed, yet exhilarated. I had entered and conquered Minnesota’s kayaking mainstream, and couldn’t wait to do it again soon.

Mississippi Paddle Share

A kayaking revolution is underway in the state, with a torrent of new options to easily and cheaply access kayaks and get on the water. Mississippi River Paddle Share — a new effort from the National Park Service, Mississippi Park Connection and private donors such as REI — has expanded its self-service kayak network to seven riverside stations in Hennepin County and St. Paul. Rates are as little as $20 for a single kayak or $40 for a family-friendly tandem for three hours. Using online reservations, the stations are self-service and as easy to use as renting a bike. They’re also paired with Nice Ride kiosks to make it convenient to drop off your kayak and bike back upstream to where you started.

Paddle Share “is designed for people who have some experience or do not own a kayak,” said Susan Overson, Paddle Share project manager with the National Park Service. The program generated 2,300 kayakers last year. “The use and enthusiasm for this first-of-a-kind kayak share program generated many happy customers,” she said.

While Paddle Share recommends that users possess kayaking experience, there is excitement about the planned Pickerel Lake station in St. Paul’s Lilydale Regional Park. Contingent on federal funds, the calm setting will provide an excellent venue for beginners to hone their paddling skills. The Lilydale location would also include adaptive paddling equipment for people with disabilities.

The paddlesports boom is not just limited to the metro area. From Duluth to St. Cloud, from Taylors Falls to Welch, we discovered convenient, affordable outfitters ready to launch you into Minnesota’s next great pastime.

Cannon River

The Cannon River runs more than 100 miles across southern Minnesota, ultimately spilling into the Mississippi River at Red Wing. Bounded by rolling hills, sheer rock bluffs, an occasional waterfall and woods, the river delivers an entertaining rendezvous with nature. The Cannon offers two convenient access points, near Cannon Falls and Welch.

Welch Mill Canoeing (welchmill.com) and Cannon Falls Canoe & Bike Rental (cannonfallscanoeandbike.com) provide kayaks, canoes, equipment and shuttle service for short or long trips. More important, both stretches of the Cannon River hold no more than Class I rapids, perfect for families or novices. Take advantage of the Department of Natural Resources’ River Levels site (dnr.state.mn.us/river_levels/index.html) to ensure the rippling action is right for your skill level. A level of 1,500 cfs (cubic feet per second) or higher will ensure a swift and thrilling ride down the Cannon.

Duluth

It may seem crazy to paddle right out into the main shipping channel in Duluth and straight for the Lift Bridge, but The Duluth Experience (theduluthexperience.com) makes it possible, and fun. The company provides a certified kayaking instructor to chart a course that matches your ability. The Sunset Paddling Series is a unique adventure leading to unbelievable vistas of the harbor and Lift Bridge — and the opportunity to nestle in close to mammoth ore ships. The tour launches from Fitger’s, timed to capture the sunset. $60 per person; includes instruction and equipment.

Rum River

The Rum River is a favorite for paddlers of all skill levels, flowing from Lake Mille Lacs to Anoka. Country Camping (country-camping.com) in Isanti is a great choice. The Rum meanders to and fro there, revealing great scenery and just enough bubbling current. Convenience is the key. The company offers kayaks, canoes and paddleboards aligned with regular shuttles upstream. Rates are $12 for one hour, or $25 single/$35 tandem for three- to four-hour trips. If you’d like to make a weekend of it, Country Camping also features sites for RVs or tents.

St. Croix River

When the seasons are changing, there are few places as spectacular as the St. Croix River watershed. This expansive, crystal-clear river is surrounded by sheer rock bluffs and sandy beaches. A convenient entry point is Taylors Falls, where the well-regarded Taylors Falls Canoe and Kayak Rental (taylorsfallscanoe.com) is nestled inside Interstate State Park (park permit required). Kayaks and equipment run $36 per person while canoes are priced at $23. On the seven-mile run to Osceola, Wis., be sure to stop on the left side of the bridge at the shuttle pickup point. Then follow the footpath to catch stunning views of Cascade Falls.

Breezy Point

Sheltered by a peninsula on Pelican Lake north of Brainerd, the Breezy Point Resort marina (breezypointresort.com) delivers a tranquil bay for paddling beginners. When you land at the sandy beach, you are steps away from the comforts of the scenic Breezy Dockside Lounge or the upscale Marina II dining room. It is not hard to imagine why Hollywood legends Clark Gable and Carole Lombard made themselves at home here. When you’re exhausted, let someone else do the work with a sunset cruise on the massive Breezy Belle paddlewheel boat.