my $.02... and yes i am biased towards Jackson, a brand which some people cant stand..
I am Not a WS fan....I had a an EZG and it was not a good boat for me. hard to roll and uncomfortable. Fuse is probably better boat, but still an older design.
My beta is to Look for a Jackson fun series... 2fun 2009- 2016. for a river-play boat (like the fuse)
or a Star series for more aggressive playboat. Allstar for the older ones, Rockstar (Medium) for the newer designs.
JK are the top selling company now,for a reason. they are really good for beginner/intermediate paddlers. (they are also close by in TN... search all the local shop for demos that are being sold. or maybe a call and see if they offer factory blems.. probably not... but worth a shot. )
Also : allofcraigs.com (adhuntr.com) and searchtempest.com are CL search engines. kind cool to be able search the whole country.
also for helmets, WRSI are safe budget helmets. super scrappy is a glorified batting helmet that will not give the same impact resistance as better helmets.I got my bell rung hard when i used one, (same era as paddling the EZG. I got worked a lot.) my advice is all from my trial and error. and certainly other people have had much better experience with WS and shred ready. (
Look at NRS.com to check some affordable options. Good luck, thats rad that you have such good paddling nearby. you will progress quick...
and keep up exactly what youre doing before you buy... demo, demo ,demo...