"You wouldn’t live in Vail, Colorado and not go skiing. And you wouldn’t live in the D.C. area and not go kayaking," insists Steve McKone, co-director of Calleva’s Liquid Adventures Kayak School (LAKS).
According to McKone, that’s because the greatest outdoor recreational asset in our nation’s capital makes it one of the most diverse and accessible paddling locales to be found anywhere in the country. The Potomac River provides tidal cruising next to America's treasured national monuments; Class III surf features in Mather Gorge, a place with rocky cliffs that couldn’t seem further from a metropolitan center; and the spectacular Class V at the Great Falls of the Potomac, with its after work hair-boating found nowhere else on the East Coast.
"I wouldn’t call it the dark side, but rather the 'other side' of D.C.," McKone says of the opportunities for paddling in this fast paced urban environment. Experiencing the Potomac is an "empowering feeling," insists McKone.
The accessibility of the river and the fantastic range of paddling opportunities for all levels of boaters are the main reasons why D.C. has such a vast paddling community. McKone says it's not uncommon to come across a Porsche sporting Thule racks with a playboat on top.
But McKone, and the Potomac, also boast another immeasurable and not-so-secret human asset who has made the D.C. paddling community stand out from others: McKone's co-director at Calleva’s Liquid Adventures, eastern whitewater legend Tom McEwan.
McEwan holds a special place in the pages of whitewater lore. He was the first to run the Great Falls of the Potomac back in 1975, a Class V drop that's become a measuring stick for many creekboaters. McEwan also completed numerous other first descents on wild rivers around the world. But the 70-year-old's legacy is equally intertwined with the countless people he's introduced to kayaking. McEwan has shared his collective wisdom gained through a lifetime of rivers and lead the way as new paddlers have overcome personal and environmental obstacles to find their passion. For some, that means simply enjoying peaceful moments on the river; for others, it's pushing their limits in Class V or competing on the Olympic stage.
"I’ve really acquired an admiration for how they face challenges," says McEwan, reflecting on what he has learned from the students he has had mentored. Youth or adults, close to home on the Potomac or as far away as Mexico, McEwan provides each of his curious pupils with an unmatched energy that's equally inspiring to his fellow instructors, such as McKone.
"If there's the one thing you can take from paddling with him, it’s his enthusiasm," notes McKone. "He is always ready to go paddling, always down to paddle any type of water. He is like a kid in a candy shop as soon as you say lets go paddling."
This passion, enthusiasm and confidence rubs off on students in an intangible way. "There was a student doing a private lesson with Tom," recalls McKone. "She told me Tom could get her to do anything on the water just by this look that he has. I don’t know if that is something I am ever going to get, but I know the look she was talking about. The look says, 'You are going to do it, I know you can do it.' He doesn’t have to say anything. I don’t know if I will ever master that.
"When someone of his stature is on the river with you, it really gives you confidence to do things you normally wouldn’t do with anybody else," adds McKone. "He's the partner who is always pushing you to do better things. You know he is always going to be there for you."
C&K recently had a chance to catch up with the director of Calleva’s Liquid Adventures Kayak School, Tom McEwan, to learn a little more about his life’s work as a whitewater mentor.
CanoeKayak.com: Could you tell us a little about your relationship with the Potomac River as a paddler and instructor?
Tom McEwan: We got started kayaking back in grade school. My mom was part of the Canoe Cruisers Association. She got us going on trips to Harper’s Ferry and stuff like that. So that’s how we first started into it.
The first time I went out on the Potomac we paddled up to Difficult Run in a canoe. I was with a friend of my mother’s. I didn’t know anything about how to handle a canoe, so we flipped over in the current and swam out and swam down to some rocks and got out. The Potomac doesn’t usually freeze over. You can paddle almost every day of the year. That’s one of its real advantages. And so we'd set up gates in this one slot in the river behind an island and we’d practice maneuvering. Instead of hitting rocks you learned you can hit a gate and it won’t damage your boat as much. We learned a lot about how to control our boats and how to steer. The other thing that is pretty essential for learning how to paddle is being able to roll. We got pretty good at it, so we could roll in any circumstance. That makes a huge difference. If you don’t know how to roll then you are always tense and afraid of flipping. When you've got a roll you don’t care anymore. It gives you so much more freedom.
We learned the skills and wanted to share them with others. We enjoyed the company of others. So therefore at Valley Mill Camp [a summer camp founded in 1956 by McEwan’s parents Robert and May, where he also taught] and Calleva Camp, we have brought up a lot of young people who have developed into some of the best paddlers in the country. Some have gone to the Olympics, and have really scored high in the Olympics. It has really fed upon itself; the community has become stronger and stronger as time has gone on.
Racing has always seemed to play a role in your paddling career and you continue to coach it through programs like your Cheat Race training. Why is racing an important aspect of paddling?
The thing is, to really become an advanced paddler, there are several things you need. You need to be in good physical shape. You need to be able to hold your breath for long periods of time. And there's no denying it, you need physical strength. The other thing, too, is you really need to be familiar with the boat and how it handles so you can put it exactly where you want it when you are running a rapid. Otherwise you can get in trouble. So all of those things, when you try to win a race, are really going to make you much faster, and able to choose your precise line. That really helps you later on if you just want to go run a rapid. You can put your boat exactly where you want it—you have that kind of control. As for strength, there are times where you have to accelerate the boat hard and fast. Knowing that you can do that—being confident in your own strength—makes a big difference. So really to measure up to the whitewater around us that we like to do, it helps a lot if you train yourself. It really spills over into the rest of your paddling because you have that much more confidence.
Do you see your time as an instructor as a service to the sport and your local paddling community?
Absolutely, but the sport itself has the greatest impact. I have really changed since I started teaching, in that I’ve grown to really like people so much more than when I was a teenager. I watch people and how they face up to the challenges that are in front of them. You flip over in a rapid and you’ve got to be tough to hang in there and roll up, because you are scared. You see the way people face their fears, because paddling can be a source of fears, and the fears we have the first time you run Great Falls or fears you have the first time you get in a boat and try to make it go straight and you feel like you are going to tip over every time you go in the current. These are real fears. The way people handle them is something we [instructors] learn from them. I have such great admiration for the folks who go out there and grow past their fears, and learn how to enjoy the sport with a lot of strength and personal courage. You see that in your students. It really is a revelation for me.
Could you tell us a little about the instructors you work alongside, and what makes the experience at LAKS stand out?
All of us are dedicated boaters. Our job is teaching but we also go out whenever we can to paddle. We like to run the hard stuff. We like to run the easy stuff. We like every kind of circumstance. I think what happens, when you have a lot of enthusiasm for something, it spreads to the people you are teaching and they also start to get that same feeling.
Your co-director [Steve McKone] mentioned you always sprint to the takeout at the end of the day. Do you have a reason for the ritual?
Well, when you are teaching you are leading a group downriver, focusing all of your attention on the students. But at the end, when all the rapids are done, you think, 'Well gosh, I could really use a little more of a workout myself.' And so that’s what I do, and I also try to get Steve and some of the other guys too to dig it out at the end to get a little bit of a workout and push beyond the output they have had so far.
What are some of the different challenges you face when instructing as compared to when you are just out paddling a hard river? How do they translate to one another?
When you are instructing you are always looking out for your students. You don’t want them to be exposed to something dangerous. When you are just paddling for yourself you are also looking for what could be harmful. You are looking out for what has consequences. You have to think about it, and examine what you are about to do. You have to be honest with yourself. There is a limit to what you can do and what you can’t do. For you to know your own limits is one of the most important skills to acquire. You really do have limits, and yet within those limits you can do quite a bit.
Knowing yourself is an important part of paddling. Sometimes when I finish a hard paddle or hard river, I look at myself in the mirror. Did I chicken out? Or did I do everything I could do? Did I take the easy lines, did I duck, or did I really face the challenge in front of me? Sometimes you have a good feeling, and sometimes you say gosh, I’m going to do it better and different next time. You learn about yourself.
Has your time as an instructor made you a better paddler?
Absolutely. It’s made me much more responsible for my students. It’s a genuine care. You really care about those people who are following you. The worst thing you can imagine is if somebody got hurt. And so you are really on guard the whole time. That's healthy: it's good for a person to care more about other people than himself.
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