ESSEX, Mass. — It wasn't long before Eric Sideri's fears faded and he was gliding, almost effortlessly, by sea kayak through the Essex River Basin, about 30 miles north of Boston.
Passing weathered houseboats, shellfishermen digging for clams and wind-swept sand dunes of island beaches, Sideri, a first-time sea kayaker, took in the views peacefully - forgetting his worries only minutes earlier of tipping over or losing steam during the half-day tour of the area.
"I was apprehensive at first," said the 68-year-old Sideri. "I thought, three hours of doing the same thing, man, that'll be tough. But it went right by."
Sideri and his 67-year-old wife, Angela, were among a small group of sea kayakers who paddled their way late last summer through a 3-mile stretch of the basin, which includes the pristine Crane Wildlife Refuge. The 2006 season begins in May.
"We'd been out on a motor boat here before," said Angela Sideri. "But this was up close and personal. It was great being right on the water."
Sea kayakers can glide through the tidal marsh with views of hundreds of types of birds, including snowy egrets, terns and great blue herons. Crane Beach is only a few strokes away and provides a relaxing spot for picnicking or swimming.
There's also hiking on the trails of Choate Island, famous for providing the set for the 1996 film, "The Crucible," about the Salem witchcraft trials in colonial Massachusetts.
A three-hour tour by Essex River Basin Adventures, the main outfitter in the area, costs $49 a person. The company also offers sunset tours and trips by moonlight.
"It's a very fun way to see the area," said Stephen Baglioni, an ERBA guide. "It's not too tough a paddle so really, anyone can come out and have a good time."
Helen MacMellon said her husband and teenage daughter prefer to stay on dry land, so she needed kayaking buddies. Signing up for a trip was a good way to meet more people who enjoy the sport.
"I'll definitely be coming back," the 52-year-old said. "It was a beautiful day and it's a beautiful area."
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The Crane Wildlife Refuge, once part of the vast early 20th century summer estate of Chicago industrialist Richard Crane Jr., encompasses more than 680 acres of islands, salt marsh, sand dunes and winding tidal creeks in Essex and Ipswich.
It was given to the Trustees of Reservations in 1974 by Mine Crane in memory of her husband, Cornelius Crane. Both are buried at the summit of Choate Island.
"The history of the area is as interesting as the wildlife," said Baglioni. "There's really something for everyone here."
Surrounding the refuge is the Great Marsh, the largest contiguous salt marsh in New England, covering more than 25,000 acres from Hampton Harbor, N.H., to Gloucester.
Some kayak tours stop at Choate Island, which also goes by the name Hog Island because of its agricultural past. At its summit are sweeping views of the area, including the coasts of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
The spruce forest on Choate Island, planted in the early 20th century, attracts golden crown kinglets and sharp-shinned hawks. Gulls and sandpipers feed along the shores.
"People worry that they'll have to learn to roll or that they'll get exhausted on these trips," said Ben Pedersen-Wedlock, who has been guiding trips in the basin for six seasons. "But it's just not like that."
About 4,000 people paddle with ERBA each season, which stretches to mid-October, said Chris Osburn, another guide. The company started in 1993, serving about 800 kayakers.
"It's really gained in popularity," Osburn said. "I think people just like feeling so close to the wildlife and you get a bit of exercise, as opposed to just sitting on a motorboat."
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