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Lake Casitas Opens Door to Paddlers

Canoes and kayaks can glide through the reservoir during certain weekend hours, but only if the boaters are club members.


Here's some good news for canoe and kayak lovers. Lake Casitas, long off-limits to paddlers, now allows these boats on a limited basis.

But before you fantasize about gliding around the lake on a moonlit ride, be aware that you'll have to navigate some tough bureaucratic shoals.

The Casitas Municipal Water District approved canoeing and kayaking last November for an eight-month trial period, provided those uses are closely monitored by the newly formed Lake Casitas Canoe & Kayak Club.

The approval may be the first move toward more recreational uses of the lake, which is a drinking-water reservoir. Bigger boats have long cruised the lake, but tippy canoes and kayaks have been barred because they are more likely to capsize, dumping their occupants into the water and possibly contaminating it.

Although that scenario seems far-fetched, the district is proceeding cautiously. For now, paddling is only allowed on Saturdays and Sundays, from 7 a.m. to noon. You must be a member of the club ($35 annually for individuals and $50 for families). Infrequent users can get a 48-hour membership for $15.

So far, the memberships number nearly 40, according to club President Tim Dewar. Although the procedures are a bit cumbersome, it's worth it to enthusiasts who have waited a long time to skim the water.

"There's wildlife everywhere," Dewar said. Herons, egrets and ducks nestle on the shore. Sometimes a herd of deer drops down to the water's edge for a sip.

Early in the morning the lake is often blanketed with mist. "People have never seen a more beautiful sunrise," he said.

But members can't just paddle wherever they wish. Canoes and kayaks are limited to the north shore, about one-third of the total shoreline, and they may venture out no farther than 150 feet. That eliminates any exploring of the big island in the middle of the lake or any paddling by the undeveloped portion of the lake's shoreline.

There is still plenty to see. The designated area stretches from a model airplane strip, past fishing docks, campsites, the main launching area for other boats, all the way to a finger known as Wadleigh Arm on the east side.

Nor can you simply launch anywhere. The club uses Group Camp G on the north shore for launching. Before they sign you on as a member, they put you through a little paddling test to prove you can handle your boat. Part of the test involves getting in and out of the boat safely from the dock--shore launching isn't allowed because body contact with the water is forbidden.

If you become a member, you'll check in and out whenever you launch your boat. That way, the club keeps track of who is on the water and whether they break club rules, like harassing the wildlife.

The rules about water contact might seem excessive. Some kayakers--those who have sit-on-top sea kayaks--must wear full-length wetsuits, including rubber footwear, because water can flow into and out of the boat through the scuppers. This is a must even during the summer when temperatures in Ojai can hit 100 degrees.

"They stop short of making us wear gloves," said Dewar, who hopes that eventually the requirements will be loosened and canoes and kayaks will have as much access to the lake as other boats.

Dewar, editor of the Ojai Valley News, brought his canoe with him when he moved to Ojai from Michigan. Then he approached the district's board about canoeing on the lake. "They said it wasn't possible," he said. But he persisted.

"We'll see how it works and whether they can stay out of the water," said John Johnson, the district's general manager. "Our first priority is to operate a water system--we're not going to allow anything that harms the quality of the water. Recreation is a second issue."

Nonetheless, the county's largest lake is in the throes of change when it comes to recreational uses. The approval for canoes and kayaks may be the first in a series of new uses for the lake, which has primarily been the domain of anglers.


The district will install a new $9.3-million water filtration plant by July, so board members are considering opening the lake to swimming, water-skiing and other forms of boating.

But there are a few hurdles, like insurance questions and the need for added patrols. Because the lake is a water reservoir, state law must be changed to allow activities such as swimming, Johnson said.

"We've asked state Sen. Jack O'Connell to introduce a bill to change the law," he said. "He's looking at it."

So load up the kayak or canoe. But for now, you'll have to leave your swimsuit at home.


* WHAT: Kayaking and canoeing with the Lake Casitas Canoe & Kayak Club.

* WHERE: Lake Casitas, off Highway 150 near Ojai; launching ramp at Group Camp G on the north side.

* WHEN: 7 a.m. to noon Saturdays and Sundays.

* CALL: 289-4630.

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