When we’re teaching or guiding people in sea kayaks (or to people wanting to rent kayaks) and we inquire about their experience in such boats, we sometimes get a response along the lines of a shoulder shrug and the claim that ‘I’ve done whitewater,’ as if their having once spent some time in a short boat bobbing down a creek trumps anything one might do in a sea kayak. It seems a common attitude, and it would be understandable if the only thing one saw of sea kayakers were the more prevalent species (perhaps best that I don’t describe that at the moment – that could be a whole other post) (And my guess is that if you're reading this, you are not among that species).
But the response could mean anything from ‘I pointed it downstream and somehow lived,’ or ‘I’ve learned rescues, refined skills, spent LOTS of time on the water and expect that some of that might apply to sea kayaking as well.’ Usually the former is probably closer to the truth, akin to a skier who manages to get to the bottom of a black diamond run and figures he (sorry- it’s usually a ‘he’) is now an expert. Kind of like hitting your first roll, once upon a time, in a sea kayak.
Well, the shoe is on my other foot now; I’m a sea kayaker wondering how my abilities might transfer to whitewater kayaking. And I know that if I told that to most whitewater instructors I’d probably get a fairly obvious eye-roll. I’ve gone whitewater kayaking a few times now, under close supervision of more competent paddlers, and I’ve loved it. And I would say that having good boat handling skills does transfer, especially if you’ve spent some time in tidal currents or surfing, and you’ve rolled enough in those conditions that you tend to come-up rather than swim. (Maybe swimming isn’t a big deal, but it does seem like a bit of a bother, especially when the water is COOLD) (note the extra 'O' - I'm trying to learn the vowel-enhanced lingo).
I did a little whitewater canoeing when I was in high school, mostly on what I would consider guided trips, and then Rebecca and I paddled on our own on some rivers out west (The Colorado, the Rio Grande) on excursions that could only be counted as mishaps in which we were lucky things didn’t get worse. Ah, but you really want to be able to get to those places, deep in the canyons, far into the wilderness, and the rivers are the way to get there. We’re lucky, actually, that those mishaps didn’t turn us off on paddlesports. Those experiences may have actually encouraged us to approach sea kayaking as we have: cautiously, seeking guidance and coaching, building confidence slowly.
So our approach to whitewater is similar. We’ve wanted instruction, but you know that a beginner class might try our patience. We’ve waited for the opportunity to take a whitewater class aimed at sea kayakers, and in a few weeks we’ll do just that. Nate has been good about getting us out in those short, funny boats as pictured in these shots from a recent run on the Union River in Ellsworth.
That run is perhaps a bit easier than the Sou, and it allowed us to spend a lot of time just trying to surf the waves, getting more of a feel for how these boats handle. And maybe we’re Nate’s guinea pigs a bit as well, since he’ll be assisting Todd Wright in the upcoming Whitewater for Sea Kayakers class. The class will be June 5-7, and is based in Burlington, Vermont. There may still be spaces left. I’ll admit, hearing the roar of that running water still gets my stomach a little fluttery, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.