My First Time: River Kayaking

on July 24, 2012
Mike Stewart

I laughed when I heard the message on my answering machine. It was my best friend, Maggie. “I just bought a kayak, and I want you to buy one, too.” Two days later, it was my turn to leave her a message. “OK, got the boat. Let’s go!” It’s not that I’m particularly impulsive—or persuadable. I had been talking about getting a kayak for a few years, so I could explore the clear, trout-filled creeks and lily pad-laden ponds I’d loved as a child.

I was almost 60, after all: Why put it off any longer?

So Maggie and I donned our life jackets, grabbed our paddles, and started floating and gliding our way through easy-to-navigate lakes and streams near our homes in Eastern Pennsylvania. Our big, recreational kayaks were forgiving—not tippy and quick-turning like the ones you see the pros maneuvering down rushing rivers, dodging boulders, squeezing through tight sections. We were conservative, fair-weather boaters, and that was OK with me.

But after a couple of seasons of this, I wanted more—more adrenaline, more challenge, more thrill. So I signed up for a group trip with some easy whitewater sections through my local outfitter. My boat lumbered through them like a big clumsy barge, while other paddlers in their sleeker crafts moved as elegantly and easily as a raft of ducks. I wanted to learn how to go around rocks instead of over them. But how? For that, I knew I needed instruction.

The Philadelphia Canoe Club’s beginner whitewater kayak class seemed like the right fit. It involved a preliminary gear-fitting session (they provided all the gear) and then two weekend-long classroom and on-the-water sessions. While most of the students were younger than me, I wasn’t the oldest in the class—or the most nervous. In fact, most of the lead instructors had a few years on me, and their patience and positivity made me realize that this was something I could learn to do.

Our classes were packed with information, including basic paddling strokes, “reading” the water, swift water safety, and learning to do a “wet exit”—getting yourself out of the boat while it is upside down. Flipping over is the easily the scariest thing about kayaking for most people. Initially, it is disorienting, and panic can set in. It is probably the thing that convinces some people that whitewater kayaking is not for them. But after doing it a few times, I got more comfortable and less freaked out. I realized I could hold my breath way longer than it takes to get out of the boat.

We got to put our knowledge to the test during two trips on the upper Lehigh River. “The Gorge,” as it’s known, includes Class II and Class III rapids with names like “No Way,”  “Dragon Lady” and “PinBall.”  Despite these intimidating aliases, Class II rapids are suitable for novices, featuring wide, clear channels with relatively navigable rocks. Class III rapids are a bit more challenging, requiring good boat control amid large waves, in tight passages and around rock ledges. (Whitewater classifications range from Class I-Beginner to Class VI-near impossible.)

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I’d fantasized about being able to boat this section of the river, but never dreamed I would be doing it so soon. I was nervous and excited getting into my boat in the early morning coolness and river mist, seeing the dark water rush by. One of the instructors told me to ferry over to an eddy by a bridge and wait there until everyone was in their boats and on the river. Just this simple journey, probably no more than 30 feet, took an inordinate amount of courage. I remember thinking, “Well, this is what I’m here for, so let’s do it!” I used my knee to raise the upstream edge of my boat, angled my bow against the current, and paddled upstream, moving sideways so I wouldn’t be swept downstream. I made it, with a delicious feeling of accomplishment from experiencing a small fear and pushing through it.

The rest of that first day was more of the same—surges of fear, then accomplishment, then fear again. At first, I tried to stay behind the lead instructor, so I could follow his “line,” but I was encouraged to find my own, to figure out how to run a rapid myself.  I was willing to try to “thread the needle”—to snake through a narrow space between two rocks. I learned to catch eddies, spots where the water moved slowly in the opposite direction of the river, when I needed to rest. I even peeled out, an impressive move where you paddle into fast-moving water at a 45 degree angle, then angle your boat downstream, kicking up a bit of spray as you pull off the sharp turn. For each new situation there was a certain amount of tension, but, mostly, it was simply getting more and more of a feel for the water and how to move in it. The boat and paddle began to feel like an extension of my body. It was almost like dancing with the water, figuring out how to move with it.

Even two years later, with much more whitewater time under my belt, I am still a fairly cautious kayaker but happy with my progress. I had to take a break part of last summer for hip replacement surgery (non-kayaking-related) but as soon as I could, I was back in my boat. I have bailed in “big” water–an easy Class III rapid. I have paddled myself out of a big hole–a place where you can get pulled down under and chewed up a bit before being spit out.  I am figuring out how to use just about every stretch of river as a place to learn.  I have come to appreciate and respect my teachers–both the people who are so generous with their time and knowledge, and Mother Nature, who reveals her beauty and power on the river. I have found other areas in my life where I need not let a little fear stop me. Today, “go with the flow” has a whole new meaning for me.

If you want to get started with river kayaking, click the links below to find out what you'll need in terms of gear and important dos and don'ts.

What to Wear

Dos and Don’ts

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