With seven kayaks in tow, John Pagani drives his truck on winding, hilly Greenwood Lake Turnpike to Monksville Reservoir in West Milford. Passaic County’s fall foliage streaks past on this sunny, 75-degree October day. Conditions look perfect for paddling. Pagani, owner of Kayak East, reaches a bank at the north end of the reservoir, a few miles from the New York State border, and unloads his cargo. Today, he will lead a two-and-a-half-hour tour of the reservoir.
Minutes later, Pagani’s small group of kayakers arrive. They form a circle on the grass where Pagani demonstrates proper paddling technique. Next, he gathers valuable items for safekeeping in a waterproof bag and hands out granola bars to those who forgot snacks. Then, Pagani hauls one boat at a time to the dock, helps each member of the group climb into their cockpit, and launches the kayaks into the water.
Pagani, 54, is certified by the American Canoe Association as a level 4 coastal kayaking/open water instructor. He offers half-day (two and a half hours) and full-day (five-six hours with a lunch break) kayak outings from early May through October for easy, intermediate and challenging skill levels. After signing up for a tour through kayakeast.com, a confirmation email is sent to participants with suggested items (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, bathing suit, water shoes, towel, water, snacks, eyeglass retainer strap and a change of clothes), directions to the kayaking site and a waiver.
Growing up in New Jersey, Pagani often went fly-fishing with his uncle. That led to his passion for kayaking. “Barnegat Bay, Little Egg Harbor, Long Beach Island and the bays further south, they’re very shallow, they have lots of little channels that cut all over the place, and they’re just fantastic for fly-fishing, but you can’t really get to them,” says Pagani, who now lives in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania—home base of Kayak East. “So I figured, Alright, let me get a kayak and then I can get to them. I started doing more paddling and less fishing. I just paddled everywhere.”
He still does. And no matter where he paddles, there are similarities to the terrain and waterways in the Garden State. Last December, Pagani went to the Everglades in Florida. “If you just transplant the mangroves for, say, the phragmites in the Meadowlands, it’s not a whole heck of a lot different,” he says. Other states offer vast paddling areas that take days to cover, but in New Jersey, kayakers can explore an entire area in one day.
This day’s trip on Monksville Reservoir offers plenty to observe. Cricket chirps and the rhythmic sound of paddle blades slicing the calm water are the only noises heard. The group encounters people fishing, stand-up paddle boarders, and a fellow kayaker in a tandem boat with his dog. Along the way, Pagani tells stories of his adventures kayaking up and down the East Coast. He points out turtles sunning themselves on rocks and blue herons wading at the water’s edge.
“Over the years I’ve introduced so many people not only to kayaking but to all these different spots,” says Pagani. “There’s things that I know about [an] area that it might take you a dozen or so trips to figure out.”
For paddlers, Kayak East’s tours offer exercise, relaxation, plenty of fresh air and an opportunity to literally unplug. “I love being out on the water in nature,” says Stacy Nedza, following the Monksville Reservoir tour. “I don’t have my phone out there at the risk of it falling in the water, so it forces me to unplug and really escape from all the noise.”
Pagani’s familiarity with the landscape and his calm demeanor make the tour even more enjoyable. “John is knowledgeable, friendly and easygoing,” says Carolyn Blanckmeister, who has gone on several Kayak East outings.
Camaraderie is another benefit—even for Pagani. “The kayaking part, it sometimes gets repetitive, but what’s great is every day I’m out with a different group of people, and I never get tired of that,” he says.
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