Photo by Darin McQuoid

After 29 years coaching hip snaps at Otter Bar, a Northern California-based kayaking ranch, owner Peter Sturges is now spread out with management duties. But his number one focus—to make learning to kayak a world-class vacation—is as sharp as ever.

“When I started kayaking the Klamath in the mid-1970s, I paddled rapids that were too hard too soon, and I swam every time,” Sturges says. ” I decided that shouldn’t happen to anybody else.”

Sturges purchased 40 acres in northwest California’s 7,000-foot Siskiyou Mountains and started a school for kayakers on the Salmon River in 1981. The spread includes three-quarters of a mile of riverfront property and 20-plus Class I to V runs within an hour’s drive of the 4,000-square-foot lodge. The proximity of the whitewater attracted some of Sturges’s first instructors, Lars Holbeck and Chuck Stanley, two of California’s top paddlers in the 1980s and authors of the guidebook, California Whitewater. That quality instruction has become the baseline of the program: the world’s best paddlers teaching some of the newest.

Otter Bar’s student-to-teacher ratio never exceeds 4-to-1, meaning students’ comfort levels dictate their progression. By the last day of the week-long beginner course, nearly all boaters run Sandy Bar, a splash-happy Class III just above the Wild and Scenic Salmon’s confluence with the Klamath. Whether you plug the hole at the bottom (the site of many paddler’s first combat roll), or skirt it on the left is up to you and the discretion of your instructor.

The most important aspect of a day at Otter Bar? Getting everybody back to the ranch in time for dinner-the outfit’s other luxury. Apres-kayaking means sipping Meridian Chardonnay and waiting for the ring of an Indonesian gong to signal the homemade calzones are served, or one of hundreds of the lodge’s other five-star meals.

— Kyle Dickman
Photo by Darin McQuoid