I suggest taking a beginner course on paddling. Proper technique on paddling can really help at not only navigation, but saving you some pain in your arms/shoulders/back from shitty technique.
As for life jackets being 'required', sometimes they are in certain parks, but it's usually up to the paddler. I'm currently using a Stohlquist Rocker. It allows for really easy arm movement and fits well. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00...?ie=UTF8&psc=1
I would also suggest a drybag and a good-sized water bottle. Camelbaks are nice: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00...?ie=UTF8&psc=1
Also, don't die.