Intro to Whitewater Kayaking
People get into overland vehicle travel for a whole host of reasons. For me, it was specifically the freedom that living on the road allows and outdoor adventure that drew me into the lifestyle. The ability to enjoy skiing/snowboarding, mountain biking, and kayaking from all the different landscapes was so appealing.
My real passion is whitewater kayaking, which I was introduced to my sophomore year at Towson University. I’ve been hooked ever since, chasing flowing rivers around the globe and sharing my passion for kayaking along the way for over two decades now. I’ve been an instructor, guide, distributor, designer, sales rep, pro-paddler, athlete manager, manufacturer owner, retail manager/buyer, and, most recently, marketing consultant in the paddlesports industry—with a focus on whitewater kayaking.
I spent over seven years in the last decade living full time on the road pursing my outdoor adventure passions. In that time I’ve also lived and adventured out of an E350 Sportsmobile van, custom truck camper, and, most recently, in a Lexus GX 460. Each vehicle has had its pluses and minuses, but a comfortable indoor bed, lots of gear transport space, and a quality kayak rack have remained constants.
“Getting some basic skills, while avoiding some bad habits, and having a fun and safe first experience is key to being bitten by the whitewater bug.”
My vehicles are generally purpose-built to transport my friends and myself, along with our kayaks, to remote rivers around the continent. I rely on the 4WD capabilities of my vehicle to not only get me to remote interesting river access points, but also to handle intense rain, flooded roads, and snowy conditions.
The progression of whitewater in the last 20 years has been massive, as have image/video capture devices and the mass accessibility of media. Because of these advancements and convergences, the first things that might come to mind when someone says they’re going “whitewater kayaking” are massive waterfalls, surfing giant river waves, or throwing massive front flips in big frothy river hydraulics.
As with all things these days, it’s all about capturing the short attention span of today’s media consumer. These visually impactful rapids and maneuvers are the upper 1 percent of the whitewater kayaking spectrum, and the most jaw-dropping, so they get the most attention. Reality is that whitewater kayaking is mostly about enjoying flowing rivers on a much more basic level.
While I love trying out nearly any new outdoor pursuit, I truly fell in love with kayaking quickly. I was hooked the very first time I managed to surf a wave in my kayak. To this day there are not many feelings as satisfying as sitting relatively stationary on a glassy wave as the river flows past. I will never forget that first surf, and will always crave another.
“My vehicles are generally purpose-built to transport my friends and myself, along with our kayaks, to remote rivers around the continent.”
The other aspect of kayaking that truly hooked me was the feeling of experiencing a remote wilderness destination for the first time. Places you know few, if any, people have ever been to before. Some people find that experience in mountaineering, rock climbing, ocean sailing, and the like. The rivers of the world are what call to me, which is why I’ve been chasing that feeling and experience to some of the most remote and spectacular river canyons on the planet for over 20 years. I’m planning on doing the same for many years to come.
I started in the pool, as many people do. Placid warm water is way easier to learn in than moving cold river water. The first skill you learn is how to get in and out of the kayak, especially when it flips over. This is where many people get scared of being trapped in the kayak. It is an irrational fear, however, as gravity will make sure you come out of the kayak when it’s upside down. A good instructor will also be able to walk you through this process, while making you feel comfortable being upside down in a kayak. Reality is that it’s fun and easy to do what’s called a “wet exit.” The next things you’ll learn are a few basic paddle strokes and then some basic balancing and body position techniques to help keep you upright.
The big skill you also might learn early on is how to roll the kayak upright once you’ve fallen over. Rolling is all about technique, not muscle. It is a skill that will greatly improve your experience once you get out on the river. All of these things are great skills to learn in the comfort of a pool, but can also be learned on calm warm rivers, lakes, and ponds.
The key is to learn a few basics on calm water before trying it on moving water. Don’t rush it, as it’s really fun to enjoy all levels of whitewater. You’ll want to start out on moving water that doesn’t require much in the way of maneuvers, Class I and II whitewater. This will allow you to focus on smiling and staying upright.
Most people will then progress onto Class III and IV whitewater, where the river gets more turbulent and specific moves are needed in order to get down the rapid upright, safe, and smiling. Many kayakers enjoy this level of kayaking and don’t aspire or wish to take the risks involved with anything harder. After a lot of training and time in a kayak a few paddlers will step up to Class V+ whitewater, where there are real consequences if specific hazards aren’t avoided and/or specific moves aren’t made.
“There is no better feeling than when you ace your line and are safe at the bottom of a big rapid.”
The whitewater kayaking you see portrayed in mainstream media is mostly the crazy hard, many times life-threatening, Class V+ variety. While there are for sure full-on adrenaline junkies out there, most kayakers are much more interested in the close unique interaction with nature that can only be experienced through the seat of a kayak. I can think of no better way to experience the great outdoors, be a member of a super-inclusive worldwide community, and be rewarded both physically and mentally for my efforts, than to go paddle whitewater.
There are many types of whitewater kayaking. The three most popular types are river running, creeking, and playboating. River running is all about navigating your kayak safely down the river, and is an integral part of all types of whitewater paddling. Creeking is about steeper waterways and usually demanding rapids. The increased risks however are rewarded with adrenaline and adventure. Playboating is all about doing freestyle maneuvers in a river wave or hydraulic. Playboating usually requires the most time upside down and rolling back upright.
There are also a bunch of unique niche types of whitewater kayaking that you can explore. The one you’re likely to see every four years on TV is slalom kayaking, as it is the whitewater discipline in the Olympics. Slalom involves navigating through hanging gates over the water, both upstream and down, and usually in a custom composite kayak. Other niches worth noting are squirt boating, wildwater racing, and exploratory/expedition kayaking.
Many paddlers will find a niche or two within the whitewater spectrum that appeals to them most and focus on that. Others, like myself, love all aspects of paddling on moving water and pursue it all. As with anything, it can get out of hand quickly, however, as I think I’m currently at 11 boats in my garage.
WHERE TO GET STARTED:
Whitewater Kayak Schools
NE: Zoar Outdoor
Mid-Atlantic: Calleva’s Liquid Adventures
SE: Nantahala Outdoor Center
NW: Next Adventure Paddle Sports
SW: Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School
Rockies: Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center
Eastern Canada: Wilderness Tours
Western Canada: Aquabatics
The real key is to not worry about what type of whitewater kayaking you want to do or what gear you might need. Just get out there and start kayaking! Your local paddling community, local rivers, and local access to gear will guide you in the right direction to begin with. From there you’ll find where your skills lie and what motivates you to strap a kayak to your roof and go paddle.
I highly recommend starting with a whitewater kayak lesson from a professional. Getting some basic skills, while avoiding some bad habits, and having a fun and safe first experience is key to being bitten by the whitewater bug. For your first class I’d recommend either a half-day on-river experience or a pool session. Both of these starting points will allow you to have fun, be safe, and learn a lot quickly.
“To this day there are not many feelings as satisfying as sitting relatively stationary on a glassy wave as the river flows past. I will never forget that first surf, and will always crave another.”
Get over the scary marketing hype, perceived fear of getting stuck in a kayak, and get some basic paddling skills from a professional instructor. Once you get some knowledge and experience under your belt, you’ll look at the waterways you pass every day in a very different light. They are all playgrounds waiting to be explored.
Grab a kayak and a buddy and go paddle! I’ll see you on the river.
Difficulty of Whitewater Scale:
Class I: Moving water that has riffles and small waves, but few obstructions, and offers easy rescue with little risk of injury to a swimmer.
Class II: Occasional maneuvering might be required, but the rapids have straightforward routes that are easily navigated and offer little risk of injury to a swimmer.
Class III: Requires maneuvering around obstacles in fast current, and scouting is recommended for inexperienced paddlers. Swims rarely result in injury, but self rescue can be a challenge.
Class IV: Powerful, fast-paced rapids that have obstacles and river features that will require skill to maneuver around and/or through. Scouting is usually advised in order to find a safe route. Risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high.
Class V: Fast-paced complex rapids, which can be extremely long, and offer extreme hazards. Expert boat control and river reading skills are required, and scouting is highly advised. Swims are dangerous and rescue can be extremely difficult.
Class VI: Rapids that have never, or are rarely, run and at the extremes of difficulty. Swims are highly consequential and rescue is oftentimes impossible.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May/June 2020 print issue of Tread Magazine.