Endangered Species: Are Whitewater Canoeists Endangered?

Are open boaters disappearing from American rivers?

by John Manuel
first appeared in Canoe & Kayak, December 2007

Log onto our C & K message boards if you have any thoughts on this…. is it a dying sport? When was the last time you took your canoe through class 4? Know any “kids” open boating?

When my friends and I carved into the big eddy below Delabar’s Rock on the Nantahala River, we found ourselves face-to-face with something we don’t see much of anymore: Fellow canoeists. Naturally, we struck up a conversation. We commented on each other’s battered Dagger, Mohawk, and Mad River canoes. We laughed at our common attribute, the gray hair sticking out from under our helmets. And we stared wistfully at the passing parade of duckies, rafts, and kayaks.


“Not many canoes out here anymore,” I said to the canoeist beside me.
“No,” he said. “I don’t know who’s going to carry the torch after we’re gone.”
The trend is clear. Fewer open canoeists paddle American rivers every year, and those of us who still do seem to be in our 40s, 50s, and beyond. Exact figures are hard to come by, but the anecdotal evidence is undeniable.


The Nantahala Outdoor Center, once considered the capital of whitewater canoeing instruction, no longer offers regular canoeing classes, says the head of instruction there, Wayne Dickert. And Bob Foote, perhaps America’s best-known whitewater canoe instructor, now spends much of his time teaching people to kayak.


America has produced numerous champion canoeists, most notably five-time World Champion Jon Lugbill. Now, many wonder where the next generation of single-blade competitors will come from. Dickert estimates that at least 60 percent of the participants in the 2006 ACA Open Canoe Slalom Championships were age 45 or older. “Only three were under 18,” he says.


“I’m 37 and I’m one of the youngest open boaters out here,” confirms Walter Augustine, safety coordinator at the Adventure Sports Center in McHenry, Maryland. “I feel like we’re a dying breed.”


Yet statements like Augustine’s seem to bring open boaters out of the woodwork. After reading a doom-and-gloom article in a paddling newsletter, Mike Lewis summoned any and all canoeists to his banquet hall in Lenoir City, Tennessee, for 10 days of paddling and merry-making. The invitation, posted on the Web site cboats.net in March, 2007, drew some 200 open boaters from across North America.
“About 40 of us went to the Little River (a Class IV run in the Smoky Mountains) and traumatized a bunch of kayakers,” Lewis says of the impromptu festival, in which paddlers as young as 12 tackled whitewater classics including the Nolichucky, Obed, and Ocoee.


“I’m 37 and I’m one of the youngest open boaters out here. I feel like we’re a dying breed.”


The gathering showed that American whitewater canoeing still has a pulse. In Canada, meanwhile, the sport’s future has never been in doubt. “In the last two years, participation in our whitewater canoeing class has surpassed our kayaking course,” says Claudia Kerkhoff Van Wijk, owner of the Madawaska Kanu Center in Barry’s Bay, Ontario. Among those courses is a solo canoe class for children using the Splash, a kid-sized canoe from Composite Creations.
Manufacturers are also bringing new canoe designs to the adult market. “The newer boats are easier to paddle than older ones,” says Eli Hebert, an open canoe rodeo champion and—by way of disclosure—a sales rep for canoe builder Esquif.


The innovation is encouraging, because much of canoeing’s relative decline can be attributed to one underlying fact: Canoeing is harder to learn than kayaking. For most novices, that’s a good reason to choose kayaking; for a few, it’s at the core of canoeing’s enduring appeal. For others, Hebert included, it’s all about fun. “This season, I saw a 4-year-old girl race a canoe in Alabama,” he says. “I saw a 13-year-old girl canoe a waterfall in Tennessee. We definitely are not dead!”

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