Here are a few suggestions for businesses that can help you get out on the water:
Ridgefield Kayak: Ridgefield, 360-727-4520, http://www.ridgefieldkayak.com/
Columbia River Kayaking: Skamokawa, 360-849-4016, http://www.columbiariverkayaking.com/
Island Sailing Club: Hayden Island, 515 N.E. Tomahawk Island Drive, Slip D-85, Portland, Contact: 503-285-7765, http://www.islandsailingclub.com/
Stand Up Paddle Portland: Portland, 541-554-2759, http://standuppdx.com/
With a quick shout of "cast off the bow lines," Richard Witherspoon slipped the Cal 27 sailboat from the dock at the Island Sailing Club toward the open Columbia River.
In minutes, the only sounds were the rustling of sails, the sloshing of water and the occasional cranking of gears as Witherspoon, 30, and his friend, Rhys Balmer, 32, piloted the ship for a leisurely afternoon sail.
Witherspoon, of Camas, has been sailing for 13 years. Balmer, of Portland, is a certified captain who teaches at the club.
With summer finally trickling into the Pacific Northwest, both said they can think of nothing better than getting out on the water to soak it all in.
"I really like the peacefulness of it," said Witherspoon, keeping a steady eye on the horizon. "Once we get the sail up, it's perfectly quiet. I learned here at the club after I graduated high school, and I've been hooked ever since."
Sailing might seem complex to those who haven't tried it before -- but it's actually pretty easy to pick up over a weekend or so, the pair said.
"Everybody can participate, everybody can do this, no matter the age or background," Balmer said. "I'm amazed that there are people who've lived around here all their lives, yet they've never gone out on the Columbia River to enjoy the water."
The club offers classes, rentals and memberships, with a wide range of price options to get newcomers out on the water. Standard membership is $184 per month, which includes all gear, insurance and moorage fees -- and lets you use any boat from the club's fleet of 42 boats at three locations. Visitors can pay $200 to get a brief lesson and try their hand at it for two hours with an instructor to see if they like it.
Going for a paddle
If sailing's not your thing, though, don't worry. There are more options around Southwest Washington than you can shake a paddle at.
Probably the most popular spot to get out on the water in Clark County is through Ridgefield Kayak near the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.
The company rents a fleet of 36 one- and two-person kayaks by Lake River, the 12-mile Columbia River tributary that goes from Ridgefield to Vancouver Lake. The refuge is home to a wide variety of birds and you might also spy black-tailed deer, coyotes, raccoons, beavers, river otters and brush rabbits along the shoreline as you paddle.
And unlike sailboats or some other options, you don't even really need lessons before you begin simple kayak trips, said co-owner Gail Alexander.
"It's fabulous out on the river," Alexander said. "It's one of those activities that really renews the heart and soul. It's great restorative recreation."
The company also organizes guided trips, classes and can help groups set up camping trips.
"There are lots of beach opportunities, lots of wildlife and great historical and cultural information around here," Alexander said.
Basic rates for a two-hour rental, which includes all gear, dry bags and life jackets, are $32 for a single and $47 for a double kayak.
If you're willing to go a little further for some more advanced kayaking, Columbia River Kayaking in Skamokawa has rental sea kayaks and hosts sea kayaking classes, along with more basic trips and classes for beginners.
The company, near Astoria, Ore., has 35 sea kayaks and canoes available.
"It's really pretty cool down here," said owner Mark Whitaker. "Just below us it starts to get wide and starts to open up near Astoria. There's a bunch of wildlife refuges here. Lots to explore."
Basic rental rate is $30 for two-person kayaks and canoes for two hours or $55 for a full day and $20 for a one-person kayak for two hours or $35 for a full day.
People should call in advance or visit either company's website to make sure they can get rentals, Whitaker and Alexander said.
Paddling with a twist
For a little more exercise and action -- along with some local Asian flavor -- it's easy to get involved in the sport of dragon boat racing.
The boats, decorated with dragon heads, commonly have a crew of 22, with 20 paddlers, a caller and a steerer, although the teams and boats sometimes vary in length and size.
Some historical studies suggest the sport traces back to the Yangtze River in China more than 2,500 years ago, although its popularity around the globe has only taken off in the last half-century or so.
Most teams practice three times a week, with races held throughout the Pacific Northwest and the world, including some during the Rose Festival.
Dragonsports USA and the Mighty Women Paddling Club both operate out of Portland, but welcome newcomers from throughout the region, including Clark County, to join one of their 40 or so racing teams, said Jean Zinn, who runs both clubs.
"It's the outside with all your friends, racing, wildlife and you get to be a part of a team," Zinn said. "It's great exercise, and if you want to try it, the first three times are free."
If you enjoy the sport, Dragonsports USA charges a $40 lifetime fee for membership and will help you find a team that suits your interests and schedule.
The next big races are coming up Sept. 9-10 in Portland on the Willamette River, and Zinn said there's still plenty of time to hook up with a team and be ready to race in them.
"You have to be at least 14 years old to be able to race, but other than that we don't have many restrictions," Zinn said. "We have blind teams, breast cancer teams. Some people come in bad shape and use it to get in better shape. It's a great sport. Everybody needs to try it at least once."
A new trend
One of the stranger ways to get out on the water is through a new method called stand-up paddle boarding. The boards look sort of like surfboards, and people stand on them and paddle around on calm rivers or lakes.
"It is getting a lot more popular," said Jessica Miller, who teaches paddle boarding in Clark County and Portland. "It started in Hawaii, where I'm from, then moved to California and has been moving up to the Pacific Northwest. It only really got here a year or two ago."
While the boards look like surf boards, the experience is quite different. You don't have to have the same balance or coordination on a paddle board that you do on a surfboard, she said.
"I like surfing, but living in this area, it's not so easy to get to the coast," Miller said. "For people who've never surfed before, this is a very different way to view everything."
Standing on the board, you can mosey around a river or lake and look at birds, wildlife or foliage in a quiet setting. But despite that, it's also pretty good exercise, she said.
You can pick up almost all the basics with a 90-minute lesson. Miller charges $75 for a private lesson and less per person for larger groups -- and during the lesson, she provides all the gear and a board, so you can see if you like it before you spend money on your own. She also travels to your preferred location, so long as it is in the general Vancouver-Portland area.
"It's something that becomes easy quickly, but it's not something you necessarily can pick up on your own right away," Miller said. "It's also something you can do year-round, and once you get the hang of it, you rarely fall down."
If you decide to buy a board, good ones cost between $800 and $2,000. Mass-market ones, which can cost less, are often sluggish and hard to navigate, she added.
Of course, there are many other options for getting out on the water, including personal water craft, power boats, water skiing and rafting, and there are a lot of other companies that rent kayaks, sailboats and even paddle boards.
Rivers and lakes abound in the Pacific Northwest, and there are so many ways to enjoy them. All you have to do is find your own preferred way to get out on the water and enjoy, Miller said.
"The possibilities are endless," she said.