Monday, March 4, 2019

Lessons Learned from Whitewater Kayaking

Last week, I posted Why Sea Kayakers Should Learn to Whitewater Kayak.  This was a Liquid Fusion Kayaking post compiled by Jeff Laxier and written by me.  This week, I wanted to share my personal perspective about whitewater kayaking.
Jeff Laxier running Mears Creek Falls on the Upper Sacramento River
When I started dating a gypsy kayak instructor (Jeff Laxier), I was gun-ho to learn how to sea kayak and to surf kayak.  I was not drawn to whitewater kayaking.  I am not inclined toward gravity or adrenaline sports - which was my initial perception of whitewater.  My first whitewater kayaking experiences of course involved swimming.  As a kid, I did a bit of inner tubing on the river behind our family farm .  However; as an adult, I have decided that I really don't like swimming in rivers (I love swimming in the ocean).
Swimming on the river is not one of my favorite things. Photo by Jeff Laxier
So how did I catch the whitewater bug?

Whitewater kayaking is very important to Jeff.  In the winter and spring, it is pretty much all that he thinks about.  So one winter, I asked him to take me on as a private student and teach and train me how to run the river.  He did and I fell in love with whitewater river running.
Starting out in easy current when learning to river kayak is key. Photo by June Ruckman
What did I discover and learn about whitewater?

1.  PLAY and FUN - I discovered how playful and fun whitewater kayaks are.  They are lighter, more playful, and easier to manage in dynamic water than a sea kayak.  A friend lent me a Eskimo Kendo Starlight which is super lightweight.  I can easily carry and load it myself.  It was so easy that instead of loading up my sea kayak, I started throwing the whitewater kayak in the back of the pick up and playing with it at home in the surf and rock gardens.  This of course built my skills for the river and vice versa.
Whitewater kayaks are playful and fun on the river and in the sea. Photo by Jeff Laxier
2.  A PUZZLE - Initially people wanted me to follow them down the river.   Then I discovered that as long as I had a general sense of the line, I liked reading the water and choosing my own lines.  I discovered that the rapids were a maze or puzzle that I had to figure out and find my way through.  As my skills and water reading developed, I was able to take different lines, catch tricky eddies, and ferry across chutes and onto waves.  Now, I love slaloming down the river - ferrying, attaining, and eddy hopping until my cheeks are sore from smiling and my paddling partners are ready for burgers and beers.
Eddy hopping down the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania.  Photo by Jeff Laxier
3.  BEAUTY - River canyons are special places and each has its own unique character.  I have discovered that I loved exploring different rivers.  I especially love camping on the river and overnight river trips.  There is a magic about the 360 degree immersion in a river canyon.  The peacefulness to river running - going with the flow, watching for wildlife, and contemplating the scenery - speaks to my soul.
The Smith River is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  
Skills Learned from Whitewater Kayaking -

Vision - Looking where you want to go is key.  Find a reference point (a tree or rock) and focus your vision on that spot to get where you want to go.  Conversely - avoid looking at hazards or obstacles.
Look where you want to go! Essential skill in all action sports.  Photo by Jeff Laxier
Drive - The river has current and momentum but sometimes you have to be aggressive to make your kayak go where you want it to go.  I tend to go with the flow and try to be as efficient as possible.  Whitewater kayaking has taught me that there are times when you need strong powerful strokes to get where you want to go.  For example to build up speed to leave an eddy.
Anchor the blade and drive the boat to where you want it to go! Photo by Jeff Laxier
Fear Management - Things happen fast on the river and you have to learn to be in the moment and let go of fear.  I have found that taking a couple of deep breaths before starting down a rapid helps me to relax.  The more relaxed I am, the better I am able to move and work with the water.
Lava Falls on the Grand Canyon is definitely a lesson in fear management, looking where you want to go, and making it happen.  Photo by June Ruckman
Decision Making - I like to challenge myself but have learned to know when to say when.  Some times it is portaging a rapid and other times it is opting for an easier run or a day off.  Days when a river it above your skill level, the paddling group is questionable, or you are feeling "off" are good days to eddy-out and choose a different adventure.  Always have a Plan B and C.  I always carry in my kit a good book to read, a pair of hiking shoes, and a camera so that I have enjoyable options if I decide not to run the river that day.
When in doubt, scout.  Good decision making will make for a better day for you and everyone else on the river.  Photo by Jeff Laxier
Whitewater Technique - Vertical paddle strokes, stern draws, edge control relative to the current, surfing standing waves, and boofing are whitewater specific skills that I have generalized to improve my overall paddling skills - especially when sea kayaking in rock gardens and surf.
Boofing the ledge on Rancheria Creek.  Photo by Jeff Laxier
Learning to run whitewater has definitely has made me a better all around sea kayaker.  It has also opened up a world of different paddling options.  As I am writing this post, I am dreaming of our next multi-day self support whitewater river kayak trip.
Kayak camping on the Eel River.
If you haven't given whitewater kayaking a try, I encourage you to find a seasoned and reputable instructor and take a lesson or class.  If you don't know how to roll, sit on top whitewater kayaks and inflatable kayaks can make whitewater kayaking fun accessible. 
Jeff Laxier makes sure that you develop the fundamentals before moving on to harder water.

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