If you’ve ever driven roads where rivers come down from the mountains, you’ve probably seen them, in those little plastic boats that look like jelly beans and move like jitterbuggers–whitewater kayakers. If, like me, you couldn’t resist pulling over at a bridge and watching, you may have asked yourself, “Could I learn to do that?” And if, like me, you’ve begun to get unsolicited mail from the AARP, you probably also thought, “Am I too old for that?” No matter what your age, you must have wondered, “What would that be like?”
The answers, based purely on my own experience, are yes, you could; no, you aren’t; and it’s like nothing you’ve ever done before. Well, I admit it’s something like skiing or sledding. Just imagine that the snow is constantly moving.
They say you “run” a river, but really, you ride it. Your boat is simply a device that lets the water take hold of you and carry you along as it dances downhill to the music of gravity. You can create your own counterpoint, your own moves and patterns, but always and only within the measure of what the river allows.
For those of you still standing on the bridge and wondering, I’d like to offer some advice and useful tips that I’ve learned since climbing over the railing myself and taking to the water.
This article first ran in Canoe & Kayak Magazine’s Beginner’s Guide. To order a copy, call (800) MY-CANOE, ext. 114, or CLICK HERE.
Take Lessons: Young people often enter this sport through the Darwin Door in the School of Hard Knocks. They get lured into tagging along with kayaking friends, often running rivers that no beginner should ever attempt. Those that survive and enjoy this all-too-literal baptism become boaters who tend to perpetuate the trial-by-error approach. For anyone past the age of immortality, believe me, there is a better way. Start with qualified instruction, ideally from an established paddling school. In the course of a weekend, a good program can give you the foundation to be comfortable on Class II whitewater. As an extra benefit, most schools provide all the gear you need, so you can sample the sport without investing in equipment.
I’ve used several schools, and they’ve all been excellent. But my favorite is Pisgah Whitewater, run by Heath Cowart and his wife, Melinda Hendershott, in and around Asheville, North Carolina. Most paddling schools are tied to destination resorts. Pisgah is at the opposite end of the spectrum–no lodging, no store, no set location–and that is its great advantage. Pisgah can bring the class to the students, matching up individual abilities and interests with the almost infinite array of whitewater possibilities in the Blue Ridge region. What the school really has to offer is Heath and Melinda, two national-level competitive paddlers who have become world-class teachers. They keep their class size very small (maximum of four) and teach all the classes themselves. They make the learning process easy, safe, and above all, fun.
As I look back on my own first lessons, I wish I had paid better attention to the details I regarded as “the small stuff.” I was told to grip the paddle with only one hand and let it spin loosely in the other, but I ignored the advice for many months until I “discovered” how much effort it saves to do it right. I don’t honestly remember if my first teachers told me to lean forward when running a rapid, but I didn’t get it until my first run with Heath, who explained that I would have greater control (and fewer flips) if I did. I’ve learned that, when it comes to fundamentals, all the small details have big consequences.
Join a Club or Find a Group: The first commandment of this sport is “never paddle alone.” You may run into expert paddlers who admit to doing it occasionally, but you won’t find any who will claim that it’s a smart idea. You really need a group to be safe on the river, and paddling clubs exist to meet that need.
They also can be a great source of guidance and training as a supplement to professional instruction. The more seasoned paddlers in the club usually have skills in the advanced to expert range. Collectively, the members of an established paddling club possess an incredible wealth of information about whitewater rivers. I’ve seen people who can sit at a table with pencil and paper, and walk you down a favorite run drop by drop and rock by rock. Of course, you can also buy guidebooks that do the same thing, but no book can match the service of a human guide. Having an experienced group actually lead you down a river is the best security you can get once you push off from shore.
Age Doesn’t Matter, Much: Health may be a prerequisite for paddling, but youth isn’t. Fitness and flexibility count for much more than muscle. I took my first whitewater class when I was a couple of months shy of my 58th birthday. With me in that class were two other over-50 gents, three young women, and two strapping lads in their late 20s or early 30s. The geezers and the gals came through with flying colors. The young bucks bailed early.
I think the main effect my age has on my paddling is that it inclines me mightily toward caution. My body complains tediously of old injuries–an ongoing argument in my right hamstring and a domestic spat in my left rotator cuff. I’m not eager to aggravate or add to these internal disputes. My body simply does not have the recuperative powers it once had, and I know that a more serious injury could landlock me for good. So I move up the learning ladder very deliberately and slowly. I make sure I’m totally familiar with and comfortable at one rung before reaching for the next.
Actually, there is much to be recommended about this approach for anyone of any age. Whitewater kayaking has a reputation as an “extreme” sport, an image cultivated by its many Darwin Award candidates and promoted in TV commercials aimed at teenage viewers. But this is tripe, or at least hype.
There are risks in whitewater paddling, as there are in virtually all outdoor sports. They can never be entirely eliminated. But they can be managed and minimized with good equipment, good training, and above all, good judgment. More than anything, your level of risk is determined by two simple choices that you must make on every outing–what river to run and whom to run it with. Ten thousand clowns run Class II rivers like the Nantahala every year without serious mishap. Conversely, a few of the world’s best paddlers die every year attempting to run some unrunnable Class VI. The point is, that to a very large extent, you get to pick your risks, so pick carefully.
One Warning–It’s Addictive: When I was about 10 years old, I visited Disneyland. The Matterhorn had just been opened, and despite the fact that I was afraid of roller coasters, I bought a ticket and took the ride. I don’t know quite what it was–some unique alchemy of the speed, turns, and surprising moves in and out of darkness–but that ride thrilled me to the marrow. When it was over, all I wanted to do was ride it again. That’s all I did, standing in the ever-lengthening lines, until my mother’s patience gave out along with her pocketbook and I was dragged away, pleading unsuccessfully for one more turn.
I never forgot the Matterhorn. And I never felt anything like it again until the moment, a year and a half ago, when I came slashing and crashing through a minefield of rocks, holes, and standing waves on the last pitch of Boy Scout Rapid on Wisconsin’s Wolf River. As I wobbled into the eddy where the rest of my class sat waiting, the look on my face made them all laugh. I laughed back because they all were still wearing the same look–the Matterhorn look. It hasn’t worn off yet. It’s a thrill every time, and I know that I am truly hooked. I will stand in line to do it again and again. Nobody is going to drag me away.
Clearly, one of the side effects of this sport is some type of obsessive-compulsive disorder. All the same, I think the benefits are worth the drawbacks. Kayaking has been shown to provide effective temporary relief from the more severe effects of aging.
For information about Pisgah Whitewater, log on to pisgahwhitewater.com.