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Journey from Novice to Intermediate Whitewater Kayaking From a Bend Kayak School Student: Whitewater

Damn! Paddling is fun, especially when you aren't so intimidated that you can finally start having a good time.

My last whitewater kayak trip on the Packsaddle run below the Detroit Dam on the Santiam River was my best paddle, and I say that because it was not only the first whitewater kayaking river run I ever had that didn't involve a swim, but also because after whitewater kayak lessons and practice, I am beginning to understand both my boat's interaction with moving water and how to read moving water.

I find great joy when my knowledge and skill improve enough that I can embark on a journey of discovery without overriding fear. The same thing happened many years ago when I made the transition from novice sport climber to a competent traditional climber (sport being pre-bolted climbing and traditional being climbing where one places - and removes - on'es own gear). I knew enough about protection, building anchors, and rope management to not be a liability to my partners, and my climbing technique was good enough that I transitioned away from being petrified and felt reasonably safe climbing above my own gear. The number of routes that this transition opened up for me was astounding and I reveled in the chance to get farther out in both geography and difficulty on multi-pitch climbs.

At this moment in my whitewater kayaking journey I feel like I'm making the transition from a novice to an intermediate paddler (and one who has no real ambition to become an expert, just FYI). My instruction from Bend Kayak School with the whitewater kayaking lessons that I received and time with local mentors have imbued me with enough knowledge that I understand the basics of what the kayak can do, what I can do with the kayak, and where I should put the kayak. And all the practice I was willing to both pay for and do on my own, repetitively, has given me a decent quiver of skills to draw on to actually perform what Bend Kayak School so patiently taught me.

Getting on the Packsaddle run was definitely billed as a step up in the level of kayaking difficulty for me but I'd been building my skills and confidence through the late spring and early summer so I felt prepared. My combat roll (what paddlers call it when you have to roll unexpectedly in moving water) seemed pretty solid after the continual flushings I suffered on the lower play wave on the Expert Channel of the Bend Whitewater Park. My last few swims while kayaking on both Metolius and McKenzie River runs were kinda silly and circumstantial, as opposed to being a result of some failure or mistake on my part to read the water or manage my boat. And my kayaking partners for the day were both very experienced, supportive, and encouraging.

After a few warm-up rolls in smooth, fast water and some practice bow and stern draws, we were ready to paddle. I typically lag behind just enough to absorb the leader's route finding beta and to see in what features they choose to play, then mimic what they do. So, there I was surfing! Paddling downstream backwards! Curling elegantly into eddies in the middle of a series of waves! Crossing eddy lines into fast, upswelled current and peeling out! I was paddling, man!

I don't want to make it sound like I was super awesome because I wasn't. I still got flipped when a failed to lift the upstream edge of my boat through inattentiveness or tucked the boat's nose too far into a wave in which I was surfing, but my combat roll was solid all day long and I always got myself upright on the first or second attempt. And I also was able to stay upright through the Class 3 rapids we kayaked, even the one that I entered before my partners. I was feeling so confident that I simply read the rapid's entrance flows, elegantly adjusted my boat's approach, stayed forward with my core engaged, and found a little eddy in which to re-group and assess the last bit of the rapid I'd been unable to see at the entrance. My kayak partners were grinning ear-to-ear after that one, though I think that they might've been shaking their heads and rolling their eyes a little at my audacity. But, honestly, since they'd told me before we started that Packsaddle was a pool-drop run (meaning you'd find a pool after each rapid, which present an opportunity for a non-combat roll or an easy swim), I felt like getting into that particular rapid first wasn't too reckless.

Then right before the pull out there was a falls with a 4-5 foot drop (I'm probably exaggerating but, hey, you weren't there so just take my word for it). Having never done one, I was happy to lag behind the leader to watch his set-up and entrance. A very experienced kayaker (and kayak slalom instructor of nearly 40 years), it nonetheless seemed as though his drop was a bit scrape-y and threatening to tip him over into the hole below. He, of course, remained upright and exited the hole without any real difficulty. Thinking that his entrance was the right one because he'd done it and survived, I executed the same set-up and entrance. As my boat scraped over the boulders and caught, I was certain that I'd tumble ass over tea kettle into the hole but managed to figure out what to do with my hips, core ,and paddle so that I remained upright through the drop. The hole immediately grabbed and tugged at the kayak stern and I pulled my forward strokes hard to extricate myself ... to no avail. The stern pulled in another direction and I flipped.

"Patience," I thought, "Just set up for your roll, keep your eyes open, and feel the paddle on the surface until it seems buoyant."

"Patience," I thought again moments later.

"Patience," I thought again.

Aaaah, there it is. The paddle is up, my core is properly wrenched into position for the hip snap, and ... BAM ... I'm up and smiling as the leader approaches for the T-Rescue I no longer need.

"Damn!," he said. "That was awesome! I thought you were going over when you banged those damn boulders on the drop. Then I thought you'd struggle to do a roll in that hole. But, goddamn!, here you are! Yahoo!"

We see our third correctly set-up to catch the chute, miss the boulders entirely, and simply plop into and paddle out of the hole.

"That's the way to do it!," he yelled. "Why'd y'all go over those damn boulders, anyway? Just looking for a challenge?!"

"I just screwed up my approach a bit," says the leader a little sheepishly.

"I didn't want him to feel bad about screwing up his approach so ,,,," I said with a wink.

What a hoot! I felt like a kayaker. Not a great one and, in fact, barely competent on that class and style of river but a kayaker, nonetheless. Great kayaking partners, clear running water, glorious scenery, no swims, excellent boat play, clean rapid runs, and my first significant drop - it really couldn't have been a better day and I'm proud of myself and grateful for the whitewater kayaking instruction that I received that I've come this far in just three seasons.

My favorite part about paddlin (kayaking) is the same as my favorite part about climbing. I get to be outside doing something physically and mentally challenging. It's kind of like a puzzle or a game of chess that you get to do outside and that involves the body. You learn where to look, how to assess it, look at what tools you have, check your body's condition, predict what might happen afterwards, and execute a few moves. Then you do it again. And again. And you get to do it outside! In the glorious Out of Doors!

Get outside. Get into a kayak.

Even better, take some whitewater kayaking lessons from Bend Kayak School and get into a boat. You'll see so many things you wouldn't have otherwise and you'll discover something about yourself you wouldn't have otherwise. And you'll have fun. Guaranteed.

I got involved with Bend Kayak School as a student, and now I work for them and we are great friends. I've met so many great people through whitewater kayaking... Come out and join us, I'd love to get on the river with you!

Happy paddling!


For Whitewater Kayak Lessons: Call (541) 241-6263 or Go To

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