Anyone that grew up with a big, extended family knows the triumphs and challenges that families, and communities, encounter. There are the firsts and the lasts, and everything in between. As with all of the places one can find water, one can find someone on it in a little boat. Fresh or salt, fast or slow, deep or shallow, paddlers live for it!
Just like your big extended family, there might be those relatives who you may not understand, who you think are a little ‘off’. They might, for instance, enjoy early mornings clad in neoprene, crammed into a tiny plastic boat playing in the river. Or they might venture to the crashing surf in the dead of winter because the cold hasn’t allowed enough melt to pump up their favorite run. They are strange, no doubt, but strangers can become friends, and they may just have something to teach us.
I’ve worked at paddlesports shops on and off for years. A common (and sometimes dangerous) misconception among the staff at these establishments is a simple equation: More Gear = More Capability. Such was my attitude when I purchased my first boat-a sleek, fast, shiny sea kayak. I paddled that boat on the lake. I paddled it in estuaries. I paddled it on deep, wide rivers. I learned the paddle float rescue and buddy rescues. I was big & I was bad. Then I paddled it in the ocean- I was terrified.
I had fallen into the trap of money misspent. I had a beautiful carbon fiber paddle, true, but my paddle couldn’t roll my boat. It couldn’t judge the conditions of the day, or plan a trip-I had forsaken competent instruction in favor of new toys.
Fast forward two years. I now work at a whitewater specific shop. How could I manage a staff of whitewater boaters with no whitewater skills? I had to get some and fast. Conveniently my company offers an after-school whitewater program for local kids-so I tagged along. I learned a ton about boat control, edging and how to read the river. Most importantly I was humbled.
Paddling in whitewater allows an aspect I hadn’t considered: access to challenging yet predictable conditions in discreet segments. Read another way: rapids with big, safe, calm pools immediately below. This is the situation on my home river, the Deerfield, in western Massachusetts.
The biggest rapid on the Fife Brook section of the Deerfield is a Class III known as Zoar Gap. It’s not the biggest or longest rapid, only about 100yds, but it provides a mental challenge like no other. For beginning paddlers, the sight of the heretofore calm, flat, wide river entering a constriction 30ft wide can induce a bit of fear. For me, this fear was constructive: it focused my energy on overcoming the challenge of difficult whitewater. The difficult whitewater provided the perfect opportunity to practice the roll, buddy rescues and group management in a controlled and relatively safe environment.
The challenge and excitement of whitewater paddling has led me full circle-to become a much more confident and capable sea kayaker. It has allowed me to take the skills I’ve learned on the river and adapt them for challenging days on the ocean. Most importantly, whitewater has allowed me to push my personal boundaries safely, provided a more objective view of my abilities and to better understand the risks posed by challenging water, either on the river or in the ocean.
I encourage any paddler to experience as many aspects of the sport as they can. Not only will this make you a well-rounded boater, but it might also help the greater paddling family feel a little more like home. And don’t forget the reason we paddle in the first place; fun!