Learning to Kayak

Learning to Kayak Can Be Intimidating

by Kate Stepan
first appeared in Beginners Guide 2008

Learning to kayak can be intimidating. This I learned in a muddy, debris-strewn eddy on Pennsylvania’s Lower Youghigheny River. Barely a month since I’d hit my first roll, I was not yet advanced enough to check flows or even know what “seven feet” meant on that stretch of river. Seven feet, it happens, means borderline floodstage.

“You do know how to peel out, right?” Garrick, the guy who’d gotten me into this mess, called over his shoulder as he exited the eddy into the brown torrent rushing past. Seeing my blank look, Garrick hastily pulled back into the eddy to show me how to raise the upstream edge of my kayak to prevent the current from grabbing it and flipping me over. Edging is one of whitewater kayaking’s most basic skills, and this was the first I’d heard of it. I wasn’t so sure the maelstrom in front of me was the best place to practice, but I put doubt aside and powered into the current. I crashed down malevolent wave faces, unsure of what lay beyond each frothy peak. Soon I flipped, and didn’t even try to roll, bailing out and clinging to the back of Garrick’s kayak. We nearly missed the takeout.


Learning to kayak can be awkward. This I learned on Bear Creek Lake in the Pocono Mountains, when Garrick held my face just above the waist-deep water, teaching me how to roll his ill-fitting creekboat. We were out there at least four hours, the sun sinking low, me shivering in the summer evening with a nose full of water, writhing and twisting my torso and spinning the boat every which way but upright. Eventually, as if by coincidence, I popped up on my own. Once. We called it a night; I still had no idea what sequence of muscle movements came together to make it happen.


Learning to kayak can be embarrassing. This I learned on the Class II stretch of the Lehigh River in northeast Pennsylvania, where my job was to shepherd rafts full of tourists downstream from my kayak. I would practice my roll in the slow sections, sometimes flailing at 10 attempts, flopping around in the still water like a beached carp. On a few occasions, I came up face-to-face with some slick-haired hero, who likely arrived that morning on a charter bus from New York or Philadelphia, ready to dive in and “save the guide.”


It’s these experiences, however, that made me realize learning to kayak can actually be easy. Three years later, after some proper training, I got the opportunity to teach others about whitewater. We led classes on a mild stretch of the Upper Colorado, mother ducking even the most hesitant students one at a time across gentle currents. I shook my head, marveling at how much easier I would have had it if someone had taken the time to show me the dynamics of current and boat edges. Sometimes, when corralling a student’s errant boat, hopping out of my own kayak to drain theirs on the slippery riverbank, I would even grumble, silently, that they didn’t even know how good they had it. How much humiliation could I have avoided if, as a beginner, I hadn’t spent so much time stumbling, waterlogged and exhausted, down the shore after my runaway kayak?


You, on the other hand, have a choice in the matter. Take advantage of an instructor’s knowledge and experience. Take a class; chances are the guide remembers what it was like to struggle with unfamiliar gear, carry an unwieldy boat, and timidly take to unknown waters. All of this makes he or she more determined to help you avoid painful rookie mistakes—and when it seems all hope is lost in the depths of the river or lake, remember there’s not much they haven’t seen before, and then some. Whether it’s whitewater, sea kayaking, or canoeing you’re after, there’s someone out there who’s eager to share what he or she learned the hard way—so you don’t have to.


Learning to kayak can be intimidating. This I learned in a muddy, debris-strewn eddy on Pennsylvania’s Lower Youghigheny River. Barely a month since I’d hit my first roll, I was not yet advanced enough to check flows or even know what “seven feet” meant on that stretch of river. Seven feet, it happens, means borderline floodstage.


“You do know how to peel out, right?” Garrick, the guy who’d gotten me into this mess, called over his shoulder as he exited the eddy into the brown torrent rushing past. Seeing my blank look, Garrick hastily pulled back into the eddy to show me how to raise the upstream edge of my kayak to prevent the current from grabbing it and flipping me over. Edging is one of whitewater kayaking’s most basic skills, and this was the first I’d heard of it. I wasn’t so sure the maelstrom in front of me was the best place to practice, but I put doubt aside and powered into the current. I crashed down malevolent wave faces, unsure of what lay beyond each frothy peak. Soon I flipped, and didn’t even try to roll, bailing out and clinging to the back of Garrick’s kayak. We nearly missed the takeout.


Learning to kayak can be awkward. This I learned on Bear Creek Lake in the Pocono Mountains, when Garrick held my face just above the waist-deep water, teaching me how to roll his ill-fitting creekboat. We were out there at least four hours, the sun sinking low, me shivering in the summer evening with a nose full of water, writhing and twisting my torso and spinning the boat every which way but upright. Eventually, as if by coincidence, I popped up on my own. Once. We called it a night; I still had no idea what sequence of muscle movements came together to make it happen.



Learning to kayak can be embarrassing. This I learned on the Class II stretch of the Lehigh River in northeast Pennsylvania, where my job was to shepherd rafts full of tourists downstream from my kayak. I would practice my roll in the slow sections, sometimes flailing at 10 attempts, flopping around in the still water like a beached carp. On a few occasions, I came up face-to-face with some slick-haired hero, who likely arrived that morning on a charter bus from New York or Philadelphia, ready to dive in and “save the guide.”


It’s these experiences, however, that made me realize learning to kayak can actually be easy. Three years later, after some proper training, I got the opportunity to teach others about whitewater. We led classes on a mild stretch of the Upper Colorado, mother ducking even the most hesitant students one at a time across gentle currents. I shook my head, marveling at how much easier I would have had it if someone had taken the time to show me the dynamics of current and boat edges. Sometimes, when corralling a student’s errant boat, hopping out of my own kayak to drain theirs on the slippery riverbank, I would even grumble, silently, that they didn’t even know how good they had it. How much humiliation could I have avoided if, as a beginner, I hadn’t spent so much time stumbling, waterlogged and exhausted, down the shore after my runaway kayak?


You, on the other hand, have a choice in the matter. Take advantage of an instructor’s knowledge and experience. Take a class; chances are the guide remembers what it was like to struggle with unfamiliar gear, carry an unwieldy boat, and timidly take to unknown waters. All of this makes he or she more determined to help you avoid painful rookie mistakes—and when it seems all hope is lost in the depths of the river or lake, remember there’s not much they haven’t seen before, and then some. Whether it’s whitewater, sea kayaking, or canoeing you’re after, there’s someone out there who’s eager to share what he or she learned the hard way—so you don’t have to.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts

Add a Comment

Buyer's Guide

Buyer's Guide