“OK – but if you swim, you have to get your own shit,” she said pointedly.
I nodded compliantly.
“I’m a strong swimmer.” What else could I say?
She was a tiny, five-foot-tall firebrand; and although her size didn’t match my mental image of the expert paddler that she’d been touted as, her attitude and confidence seemed to double her physical stature. A mutual friend had just introduced us, and the gathering in a cramped attic apartment felt more like a job interview than a casual meeting with a new boating friend. I had recently moved from Colorado to Asheville to do more paddling, and this was my window of opportunity to meet someone who held the keys to the mysteries of the local rivers – and to a shuttle vehicle.
“Allllll right,” she slowly relented, drawing out the words to express her lingering skepticism.
The deal was done. I was in. After bumming around parking lots at commonly run rivers all summer looking for random (and sometimes questionable) paddlers to leech onto, I finally had someone solid to paddle with in mid-winter. I hoped I wouldn’t screw this up.
A couple of weeks later I found myself standing next to a swollen river, shivering in the February chill while squiggling awkwardly into a new drytop – the first drytop I ever owned. It would be a huge improvement over the army-surplus wool sweater and rain jacket that I had used for years. The blue and teal of the top collided with the red of my baggy shorts in a raucous calamity of fashion made worse by my stick-thin, long-underwear-coated legs and goofy, oversized wetsuit booties. I resolutely zipped up my plum-purple PFD and pulled a flimsy plastic helmet down on my head. Caroline was kind enough not to laugh out loud.
I dragged the enormous 12’7” log of a boat to the edge of the river and climbed in. The Gyromax C-1 from Perception was almost perfectly round and imminently unstable with virtually no rocker and dangerously pointed ends. I velcroed the thigh straps tight against my legs and pulled the shock-cord rim of the skirt over the tiny opening, sealing myself in the boat in a fashion I wasn’t used to. An open boater for years, this was only my second river day in a C-1. Unbeknownst to my guide, I had exactly zero combat rolls under my belt with a single blade, and only one in a kayak – five years earlier. I slid into the water and followed Caroline downstream into the unknown rapids of the Big Laurel.
Just above the lip of the drop, my day came unglued.
I didn’t swim until the first class III. We paddled straight in without scouting or much line description. Looking back, I think it was a test to see how I would react while we were still close enough to the put-in to hike out – or maybe Caroline simply figured that rapid didn’t warrant any worry. She eddied out and watched me freestyle stroke after the wayward boat while clutching my paddle. The need to get out of icy water is a fantastic motivator, and I was as strong a swimmer as advertised. Years of towing swamped canoes to shore had honed my amphibious edge. In less than thirty seconds I was gasping on the bank, lifting first one end of the boat and then the other to empty most of the water from the cracked and leaky hull – a losing battle. I climbed back in with a fierce resolve never to repeat that. It was too cold for swimming. I had just learned a lesson: while drytops are great when you’re paddling, they’re not very warm once you’re in the drink. Caroline nodded approvingly at my quick recovery and then peeled out, and I slid into the flow to follow.
The next day we paddled again, this time on a familiar stretch of water for me: Section III of the Chattooga. Temps were even colder than the previous day. Being more cautious and familiar with my boat, I made it all the way to the final rapid with no incident. I was cold and tired from twelve miles of kneeling in a puddle of water and stopping to empty frequently. All that was left was the biggest rapid – Class IV Bull Sluice. Ready to be finished as quickly as possible, we bombed in.
Just above the lip of the drop, my day came unglued. I lost my balance in the cross-currents and flipped to my off-side. The single blade of my paddle drew a giant arc across the sky before I tucked and exited as I washed over the drop upside down. I found myself standing in the middle of the rapid on top of Decapitation Rock. Water roared on all sides of me, and my feet immediately began to go numb in the ankle-deep water. I watched my boat wash slowly across the pool past where Caroline had eddied out, then looked desperately at her for some sort of help or advice. She calmly watched the boat pass by and then looked at me and shrugged, unmoving. I was in no danger, so I was on my own. I gritted my teeth, clutched my paddle, and leaped over the rapid into the frigid pool below to chase my boat.
Two days of lessons in the February school of whitewater hard knocks made it clear that I needed to adjust my strategy. The decked boat and drytop were huge advancements in warmth, but the boat design was so bad that I was swimming in rapids that I could easily ace in my canoe. Swimming canceled out the benefit of the warmer gear.
I needed a new boat. Fortunately, a new C-1 design had just been released, and I found an almost-new used Cascade in April. It was a huge advance in performance. It was only eleven feet long, had good chines, and was very wide and stable. I had no swims on Class III or IV that summer – including cleaning the Big Laurel several times at higher water. By September I was ready to step it up to the next level. I hit Section IV twice at solid flows and ran the Upper Gauley twice with only one swim at Pillow, on which I self rescued.
The phone rang one rainy October morning, and Caroline asked if I wanted to run the North Fork of the French Broad. Owning no comprehensive guidebook and having no internet back then, it was the first time I had ever heard of this river. I said I had to go to class, so could we go tomorrow? She said it had big drops and would only run today from the rain. I said I’d meet her in twenty minutes.
Once on the river, we ran a large slide and then some smaller rapids, descending into an otherworldly tunnel of overhanging trees and rhododendron. Deep in the forested gorge we pulled over to scout Boxcar Falls – a twenty-foot, double-drop, slide-into-a-boof over a large, churning hole. It was the biggest rapid I had ever contemplated running, but I felt prepared. I’d been boating a long time and could confidently self rescue in heavy whitewater. I knew that Caroline would hold a rope to extract me from the hole if I was in danger, but a missed line would still mean a frothy beating and a cold swim chasing down my gear. I steeled myself, got in my boat, then paddled over the edge and up the next rung on the paddling progression ladder. After eight years of paddling, I was just about ready for Class V.
Nowadays, it’s hard to say how well most paddlers self rescue. Boats are so stable that paddlers take far fewer swims – especially on easier rivers; and when they do swim, they stroke for shore wrapped in cozy dry fleece inside a modern drysuit. When the sport shrunk by half in the early 2000s, the culture of paddling changed as dramatically as the equipment. The coddling began. Instead of fostering self-reliance through encouraging self rescue, a pervasive attitude developed that every swimmer should be helped lest they get discouraged and quit paddling. Many now deride paddlers who don’t retrieve others’ boats and gear, or even those who don’t help by emptying a swimmer’s boat for them. But how did we get here from the old-school of hard knocks?
Technology, information and teamwork have removed rungs from the ladder, allowing paddlers to climb in two or three steps what used to take six or eight.
In the early ‘00s, it was commonly accepted that new paddlers should start in difficult-to-paddle, edgy playboats, because playboating was all the rage – they would soon want to playboat anyway. These boats were as hard to paddle as the Dancers of the ‘80s or the Gyromax in which I learned. Taking a lot of beatings on easy rivers was the norm. New paddlers got discouraged more quickly than in the mid-‘90s when folks learned in stable boats like Crossfires and Corsicas. Newer paddlers now had to swim their sub-7-foot playboats to shore so often that few were sticking it out long enough to gain mastery of the sport. After all, paddling is more fun than swimming. Cooperation became a method of survival for the dwindling paddling community even as the norm slowly shifted from starting out in playboats to creekers. But the practice of cooperation and ready rescue on easy water stuck.
We’ve also seen a fundamental shift in how paddling groups form since the days when I was coming up. Back then, there were so few of us, and river information was so scarce, that you almost had to have an experienced mentor in order to climb the ranks, or even find the rivers. Many of the best paddlers were willing to help others progress in an effort to generate more people for their paddling phone list in the future. There was an oral tradition that contained not just information on rivers, hazards, skills, and rescue, but also a firm guide to make sure that you had all of the necessary knowledge and experience before you took each successive step up in difficulty.
Nowadays, the available information, gear, and boat designs have gotten much better. There is so much information available that paddlers often start out as groups of friends who get together to learn without much guidance. They get super-forgiving creek boats and progress to difficult whitewater more quickly than ever. Technology, information and teamwork have removed rungs from the ladder, allowing paddlers to climb in two or three steps what used to take six or eight. Rivers that my generation took eight years to reach are now commonly run in the first year or two of boating. It’s great that we’ve made the sport so friendly to get into, but what’s the cost of skipping those intermediate steps?
The cost is that many paddlers are arriving at Class IV+/V with less experience and self-reliance than ever. They often lack the requisite ability to scout and choose their own lines, identify hazards, deal with mishaps, or get themselves or their companions out of trouble. Boats are so forgiving, in fact, that class III and IV quickly get boring for many paddlers, and they rush to get on more difficult whitewater; thus, it’s often not until Class IV+ or even V that they experience much carnage at all. As the game has gotten easier, lessons that used to be learned through refining skills on intermediate rivers are now learned where the stakes are much higher. The ace up the sleeve that a forgiving boat provides is not as good an asset if you have to play it on almost every hand instead of relying on your own skill and judgment to carry you through. Many paddlers start out briefly playing a nickel ante game with a stacked deck and then go all-in on Class V without even really knowing the rules: luck only lasts so long, and experience trumps it every time.
Is there a solution? History tells us there is.
Whitewater is a team effort, but each of us is ultimately in charge of our own destiny.
As you’re learning to boat (and we are all still learning to boat), take your time in your progression and encourage others to do the same. If you’re bored on Class III or IV, there are ways to increase your level of excitement without increasing your risk before you have the requisite experience. First, learn to style all of the hardest lines. If you can’t figure out where they are, that’s a sign that you need to spend more time there. Reading the water to find more challenging moves on easier rivers is great training for finding the only lines on harder ones. Second, change your boat. When class III and IV are boring in your creek boat, master it in your playboat. For a period of time in kayak evolution, this was the norm. Back around the turn of the millennium, many boaters learned in longer, more stable boats before switching to the budding selection of shorter (7’-8’) playboats for more challenge. Others learned to paddle in playboats before progressing to creekers. It was encouraged that people be comfortable in their playboats on Class IV before taking their creek boats on Class V. When playboats got shorter than seven feet and much harder to paddle down river, this rule got lost in the shuffle. Now, times are changing. There are new river running playboats which are more approachable and have lessons to teach us. Plus, they’re a ton of fun to paddle!
When teaching others to boat, do your part to teach self reliance to up-and-coming paddlers, just like my mentor did for me. Don’t facilitate complacency. Swimming my boat to shore was a lesson in how to move in whitewater, an incentive to choose my lines more carefully, and a reality check as to where my abilities stood in relationship to the rivers I was running. I’m not suggesting we make beginners wear wool sweaters and shorts; but if they are not in danger, let them learn about line selection, self rescue, and real consequences. They will not ultimately understand the pure elegance of the perfect dance with the river unless they’ve experienced her stepping on their toes. Practically speaking, they’ll be much better off when they inevitably swim in Class IV+ or V if they have trained by swimming their boat to shore many times in easier water. You are not doing them any favors by bailing them out every time they get into trouble. Whitewater is a team effort, but each of us is ultimately in charge of our own destiny. Our first and best line of defense is learning to keep ourselves out of trouble and to swiftly and effectively extract ourselves when we get into it. Doing someone’s homework for them will get them to the next grade, but it’s not going to help them master the material. An upper level exam in the school of hard knocks is something they need to study carefully for.
Paddling whitewater goes much deeper than climbing a ladder of numbers assigned to rapids or taking your creek boat down the hardest possible rivers. There are as many different lines, lessons, and experiences to be had as there are boats and rivers to paddle them on. Winning the game of paddling prowess and enjoyment isn’t measured in numbers from I to VI. It’s measured by how much you learn, how long you play, how much fun you have, and how many irreplaceable experiences you take away from the game.
Be safe and control your own destiny,