Style

For participants in a sport where peeling out at the top of a rapid almost inevitably results in arriving at the bottom, kayakers seem surprisingly indifferent to matters of style. Things can go pretty badly awry, and onlookers might roll their eyes at a particularly bad line, but someone would have to be radically over his head before anyone would be likely to say anything about it. In other sports, this is not the case. Compare surfing: at the world’s stoutest breaks, a surfer with only a few months or even a few years of experience would have virtually no chance of catching and making a wave. Nevertheless, even a surfer with all the skills to ride waves at Hawaii’s Pipeline would be blocked from catching waves, mocked, maybe beaten, if he were surfing with bad style or acting in a way that put other people at risk. For kayakers, though, bucking up to run something huge, even if it isn’t done with much grace, is a lot more likely to get attention and praise than putting down a pretty line on some anonymous class III. Kayaking is not surfing, and few people, if any, would want to see aggressive, territorial behavior find its way onto the river. But is that behavior meeting some social needs in surfing that are going unmet in kayaking?

If there is a place where kayaking’s collective lack of social controls is being tested, it might be the Green River in North Carolina. For how steep it is, the Green is an unbelievably forgiving run. But that forgiveness is routinely being tested by huge crowds of paddlers, some seemingly lacking the basic skills to run any river safely. In June, a video was posted on YouTube showing some gut wrenching lines on the Narrows: one paddler takes a header off Gorilla, another misses the eddy on the lip of Sunshine (a class III move at most) and drops off the center backwards, another paddler swims in the class III runout.  Two of the Southeast’s best (and best known) paddlers, Isaac Levinson and Pat Keller, posted comments, in a discussion that meandered from Facebook to BoaterTalk to the YouTube comment section, calling out the video as an example of dangerous and unacceptable behavior. The callout was unusual, but it was the reactions that were perhaps more telling in what they reveal about attitudes in the sport, as well as the mentality that our collective indifference to matters of style, technique, and safety have helped to bring about with regard to how a paddler progresses in the sport.

One paddler in the YouTube comments section wrote, “I don’t know who died and made Pat and Isaac god, but they sure are a bunch of dumb shits!!! Tell me that they came out of the womb paddling class 5. Everyone has to start somewhere…” Much has been made about how advances in equipment and technique now enable paddlers to run whitewater in a season or so that once might have taken a career to achieve, but for paddlers who took up the sport in an earlier era, the implications of comments like that are jaw dropping: for some portion of the paddling population, the Green is now regarded as a place to start, and taking hair raising crashes as a stepping stone. That mentality has serious implications, though, for everyone’s safety and for the ability of new boaters to progress in the sport.

 It is often suggested that the genesis of surfing’s aggressive attitude towards loose behavior in the lineup is the fight for scarce resources in an inherently dangerous environment, and it may be that changes in the sport of kayaking are pushing toward a similar dynamic. While growth in kayaking participation overall has largely plateaued, creeking is gaining in popularity, and moderately difficult runs like the Green are starting to see crowds that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. But while a crowd of marginal paddlers at your local playspot is annoying, crowds on class V whitewater are undeniably dangerous.

That danger manifests itself in a way that is perhaps unique to kayaking, and in a way that might account for some antagonism toward boaters insistent on paddling over their heads. In kayaking, there are a lot of ways that things can go wrong. Most of them, though, lead to a brief and urgent window during which another boater can step in and potentially save someone’s life. A pin, a swimmer being recirculated, a long swim threatening a flush drowning… in all these situations, urgent action can be the difference between life and death. And in all these situations, too, that urgent action is likely to call on someone else to immediately put his own life at risk. In the surf, outside of the unique dynamic of tow-in surfing, someone getting beat down is basically on his own. If someone falls climbing, there’s either someone standing at the end of the rope, or there isn’t. But in kayaking, when someone is in trouble, someone has to act, boldly, and immediately.

One of the most admirable characteristics of the kayaking community is this: when someone is in trouble, anyone present will step up and in an instant put his or her own life at risk to save a complete stranger. On a more pedestrian level, paddlers are almost always there for each other when it comes time to help someone who’s swam or unpin a boat, even if it isn’t a life threatening situation. When someone is paddling over his head, he undercuts that dynamic, both by being much more likely to need help and by himself probably lacking the necessary skills to help someone else. Even when it doesn’t entail undue risk, stopping for an hour to deal with unpinning a boat or helping a swimmer across the river interrupts the flow of the run and of the day; nevertheless, most kayakers value being a part of a community where helping out is the norm and wouldn’t want to see the river become an environment where people callously blow by other boaters who could use a hand. If kayakers have to choose between preserving the all-for-one safety ethos on the river or preserving the everybody-come-along vibe in the parking lot, I think most people would unquestionably pick the former.

It seems at times, as well, that the community’s willingness to accept a high level of carnage as normal has lead to some mistaken ideas about how paddlers progress in the sport. Contrary to YouTube commenter opinion, most top kayakers did not start kayaking on the Green River Narrows. “I started kayaking when I was 10, and I started paddling more frequently when I was about 13,” Rush Sturges explained to me. “I ran my first real Class V when I was 14 years old. Leading up to that run (it was Cherry Creek Proper) I was running a LOT of Class IV. I ran the local grade IV section on the Cal Salmon many times that Spring and Summer to prepare. I was very nervous before putting on the river. I had certainly hyped up what Class V was going to be like, and when I finished the run, I walked away with a smile on my face. Rather than being at the edge of my limits on the run, I was actually super solid and didn’t miss a single boof…. I personally am thankful I spent as much time and effort [as] I did on Grade III and IV before finally stepping my game up. I was super fortunate to grow up around competent kayakers, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I didn’t even have a swim until I was 20 years old on Upper Cherry Creek. I’m not trying to brag by saying that, just pointing out that time spent preparing on easier stuff is time well spent when you decide to raise the bar.”

The best athletes in any sport are often those that started young, but consider this possibility: maybe in addition to all the other benefits of beginning at a young age, kayakers who start early turn into better boaters because they are often forced by someone—a parent, an older mentor—to paddle easy whitewater longer than they might want to or really need to. As John Weld put it, “When you’re 13 years old, you’re going to the Lower Yough whether you like it or not.” It truly is a common experience of the best paddlers that, whether through the influence of an older mentor, a lack of good or consistent whitewater, slalom racing, or some other factor, these paddlers have put in a lot of time working on hard moves on easy water.

More than just putting in time on easy whitewater, learning new skills requires pushing it hard on easy whitewater all the time, and it may be that this is an easier mindset to adopt for younger paddlers(for example). It isn’t just a matter of “feeling comfortable” on easier water before taking the next step; it’s about consistently pushing it on easier water—taking the hardest lines, catching the smallest eddies, boofing every rock; learning to make judgments about what moves are makeable and which aren’t; and learning to deal with the repercussions of missed judgments in whitewater with less consequence than in class V. That sort of learning is hard to achieve in a setting where a paddler is basically hanging on for his life.

Pat Keller explained the steps he took to get better when he was starting in the sport this way: “[C]linics clinics clinics, slalom, clinics clinics clinics, foamies…. freestyle freestyle freestyle, clinics clinics clinics (you get the picture)…. Every step on the way up that ladder is important. Take time to know with each one if you are ready to proceed. Willing is easy, knowing is what’s hard.” Runs like the Green are undoubtedly a key step towards becoming a solid boater, but there are surely quite a few steps to be taken before a new boater gets there. “[T]he Green has become the Mecca of honing the skills to become a solid creek boater,” Pat says. “More and more paddlers are climbing that ladder of skill, and the Green is certainly a cherished step for all those who take it. But it must be climbed to with much respect for the dangers along the way.”

All of this is a lot less sexy than just “firing it up,” though. Your Facebook friends are going to be a lot less impressed with that attainment it took you a month to finally make on the Lower Yough than they are with a picture of you rolling over the lip on Metlako. But paddling better, not just paddling harder water, is something that takes time. And taking beatings on difficult whitewater in the hope that one day the beatings will stop is not, for most paddlers, a viable path to success.

For most paddlers who’ve been in the sport for a while, the advantages of encouraging new boaters to progress incrementally seem obvious: fewer incidents to deal with, better safety on the water for everyone, fewer risks to access because of events on the river leading to negative attention or calls to search & rescue, a stronger sense of community. The less obvious issue is how, as a community, to achieve that. Most paddlers are understandably (and commendably) reluctant to insert themselves into other people’s risk taking decisions. As Rush puts it, “My gut feeling is that if someone is putting on the river with you, it’s his or her responsibility to know if that run is suitable for them. However, I am not afraid to tell someone that they should evaluate their skills before putting on a run, or ask them what types of similar runs they’ve done previous. Ultimately, kayaking is up to the individual and there is NO ego when it comes to making sure you are as safe as possible on Class V.”

It may be that the changes the community needs are as simple as recognizing your friends when they draw creative lines on the river or paddle well rather than just “going big.” Inclusion in the Rider of the Year competition of a “Best Line” category, recognizing “styled lines” alongside categories like Drop of the Year could be a step in that direction. A few less high-fives for surviving sketchy lines and being willing to encourage friends to take a step back when needed probably wouldn’t hurt, either.

In the end, the idea is to encourage community by cutting down on the sort of behavior that makes stronger boaters want to abandon weaker ones to fend for themselves or discourages new boaters from sticking with the sport. Hopefully we can all encourage up and coming boaters to progress in the sport safely and incrementally without resorting to slashing tires in the parking lot.

Then again, maybe surf-style aggression is on the way, whether we like it or not. The top comment on the YouTube video, “Carnage on the Nars”? “[F]ucking lame. Stay the fuck off the Green.”

 

About the Author

Louis Geltman

Louis Geltman

Louis Geltman works as a lawyer in Hood River, Oregon, in between laps on the Little White Salmon.

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57 Comments

  1. Fantastic, Louis. This essay seems like it has actually been a long time coming – I’m glad someone raised the issues as eloquently and knowledgeably as you.

  2. To be fair when you pull your buddy out of some shit, it’s about being thankful they are there. The sport is all about experience and the experience of relief is part of that. High fives included. I agree with everything else, but I’m not going to stop giving hugs, high fives or anything else when shit goes down and we make a save. I love my brothers and sisters in the water and at those moments it’s totally O.K. to show it. On the other hand, I’m with you about everything else. In particular I’m drawing a line in the sand with some individuals I boat with on occasion, as the carnage/style ratio just isn’t good enough. Like I said I love my brothers and sisters of the river, and because of that I don’t want to see bad shit go down. Thanks for the article. Really well thought out.

  3. Thanks Louis. There is no doubt that these are truly wise words. If I had heard this years ago, I’m sure my progression in kayaking would have moved in a different manner. I’m now keen on helping the next generation of paddlers move forward in a safe, smart, and steady manner.

  4. I’m grateful to read a well articulated article coming out of the kayaking community.

    To paraphrase some words of advice I once heard from a world class boater; “If you are afraid to drop into every class III hole sideways, you probably shouldn’t be running class V”

  5. Great article. The personal responsibility vs kayaking as a community that self regulates itself begs the question. What is the best etiquette on how proactive to be on discouraging others who seems to get repeatedly in over their head…

  6. totally agree with everything contained in this article ! very well put and very relevant. having come from the “young paddler” background i spent MANY years paddling on flat water, grade 1′s, 2′s, 3′s and 4′s before i tackled my first grade 5 river and i think the apprenticeship made me much more aware of risk and my own ability to make lines effectively. i am currently boating with a group of uni students that have just started out and most if not all are more interested in running serious drops which they don’t understand rather than learning basic skills like rolling first. the popular media culture promotes the extreme and in the modern youtube/Facebook culture most people outside the sport perceive boating to be a high risk sport that if your not running 20ft+ falls its not worth it.

  7. Nice words Louis. The discussion of style has been absent from kayaking for far too long.

  8. Chris Totten November 15, 2012 Reply

    Awesome article !! coming from a teaching backround my favorite saying is repetition is the mother of learning. I was just talking to a martial artist the other day about the 10,000 hour rule. for anything you do to be a “somewhat master” you must put in 10,000 hours… do the math.. thats like 6 years unless your on the water every day..I would say you have to be a master to run class V… put in your hours

  9. An excellent article. I left NC around the time when Woody and Tom Vilnius and co. (can’t remember exactly who) ran the Green in totality for the first few times. We were bombing down the Twisting Falls section of the Elk in NC/TN in Mirages the spring before it happened — I remember ripping the end of my Mirage off on one of the many large slide rapids. And even to us at the time, the Green was considered ‘outer limits’. To hear that it is now considered a training ground for creeking is amazing. Wilsons Creek is a place where you learn how to creek — not the Green, which I’ve never been back to run, as I moved to Idaho/WA in that time frame. It certainly deserves respect.

    That said, I really also want to caution people from trashing the media put out by a lot of the new ‘Young Bucks’ that are propelling the sport and posting videos. As an old-timer, I get a lot of fun out of watching them, and the fact that they repeatedly, successfully run stuff that is much more 3-D than the hardest stuff I did indicates that we are really in a new dimension of the sport. Watching people like Russ Sturges, Evan Garcia, or Fred Norquist navigate truly 3-D drops using a totally different set of body control moves than anything I learned has been great.

    There’s always been stupid people in kayaking, and there always will be, because in many ways kayaking is forgiving. If you screw up, you land in water, most of the time. In my day, when boating really caught on post-Dancer introduction, in 1984, it was the mid-life crisis crowd on the Gauley all crashing and burning down the Upper on that one year we only had one release weekend. If I would have had a nickel for every 30- and 40-something swimming Pillow Rock that day, I would have had enough money to buy a new boat.

    If there’s anything that might help a little, it would be our most recent barrier-pushers to post a little more carnage. I see booty-beers being drunk, but not that many of the swims, which I know had to be epic. Evan posted one of him pitoning in the middle of a 60′ — that had to cause at least some folks to think.

  10. Louis:
    Well done.
    An undeniable fact of paddling whitewater is that trouble often has the potential for fatality. The water always has potential for being unforgiving. Often quite early on, much of the bond with fellow paddlers is the perception of that risk. Although skill development certainly improves the risk, some extremely fine boaters have drowned. I have always found it interesting that carnage is celebrated; but, perhaps it touches upon vulnerability and the hope for luck. Survival provides a chance to share a glimpse at the potential outcome of failure, and offers encouragement that luck can be yours. The survival experience may be either frightening or exhilarating but quickly demonstrates that the risk is real and it isn’t just about losing a little skin.
    I think a key is to encourage respect for the game. Those that have respect for the element and that train to develop skill will prosper. Those that depend primarily upon good fortune will suffer. The drive to refine equipment, improve access, and promote the experience will increase the frequency of collision between these two mind sets. But, for me, an old guy who started late, real joy comes from striving for some style…and not just for safety’s sake. It’s appreciation of the fine feeling of paddling well. Or sorta well, such as it is…

  11. A very true and interesting piece.

  12. I don’t like this post. I love it.

  13. Right on I get very watching some of the youtube/facebook stuff and seeing someone barely able to keep a line with horrible skills go over a fall, and swim out. They then come up for air and start fist pumping and jumping around like a fool that they “made it”.

    As old paddler for 40 years, the best were not the ones with the biggest balls but the who made the run and looked smooth almost like it was done with little effort and stayed in their boat.It know longer saddens me when I read the inevitable zyz died kayaking the abc.

    I only feel sorry for the family they left behind.

  14. We all want progression, and one of the better ways to get it is doing hard things on easy rivers instead of playing it safe on a hard river. We all have responsibility for each other when kayaking, knowing your team and your own experience level is key to remaining safe on the river. Thanks for writing this excellent article.

  15. What a great article- and so very true

  16. Kevin Heiner November 15, 2012 Reply

    This article rings so true and its great to have a culture of communication where this type of feedback is prevalent, not just in kayaking, but in general. We all have to look out for one another and sometimes that means calling someone out with the intention of looking out for their very own well being. Well said.

  17. Ian Collins November 15, 2012 Reply

    I had a rather traumatic experience, when I was about 10, my first time on a river. It took a lot of soul searching to convince myself to get back in a boat at all, but I overcame my fear by mastering every level before taking the next step. I don’t think I’ll ever run the Green, but I’ve become comfortable enough in my time to have done some class V runs and know that, if I chose to, I would run it successfully and safely.

    The trick is generating the proper fear and respect all paddlers SHOULD have. New boaters have no idea that they are not only risking their lives but the lives of everyone around them. At some point an experienced kayaker needs to intervene and pass this knowledge down to them… slashing their tires in the parking lot just makes our community look like a-holes, and brings new a-holes to the sport. Hopefully that trend doesn’t catch on too much!

    Great article Louis!

  18. Nice! I have a similar article in the works- this does the job nicely.

  19. David Bazemore November 16, 2012 Reply

    As a newer paddler I rely on the group I am with to tell me when a river we are going on is above my skill set. While I have some excellent people around me I am still amazed when another more seasoned paddler will simply say “You’ll be fine”. I am very aware the river has consequences. As a result I want to be safe while pushing to learn and I don’t want to be that guy on the river others are having to rescue. So my response to the question of how to handle the people who want to simply run it with no skills is simple. Don’t paddle with them in those scenarios. Simply explain to people they are in over their head and why you see it that way. Explain its not simply themselves being put at risk but the others who will feel obligated to rescue them. I expect nothing less from my friends. Those I’ve encountered who dismiss the consequences are people I won’t paddle with.

    • That is a very responsible approach David, but one crew that dismisses consequences can cause a lot of damage with their encouragement of newer paddlers.

      In fact, one of the boaters in the youtube video referenced was introduced to boating by me. We took a conservative approach and progress was slow, but he managed to avoid getting scared or hurt while we were progressing. After two years of consistently paddling together, I eventually took him to a beautiful zero inch Wilson Creek and he had a great day.

      Immediately after that, his Green regular friend (who wouldn’t bother boating with him during the early stages) swooped in and introduced my friend to the “school of hard knocks”, which of course the Green regular attended at the beginning of his paddling career. It is hard to blame my buddy for not holding off on the Green when an experienced boater is encouraging him to “fire it up”.

      With these types of crews, if you survive a run… it is considered a grand success. The way I imagine it, if your style sucked, then they’ll just make fun of you over beers at the tailgate while encouraging you to go again.

  20. Richi Mikosch November 16, 2012 Reply

    Hi Louis,

    may I put a translation of your Article into our annual ClubMagazine of the KanuClubZürich, Switzerland??
    Would fit perfect for some(many) of our clubmembers;-)

  21. If there was one thing that was good about playboating was that it kept people kayaking , training , and competitive spirit limited to class 3 features . I have kayaked since 1996 and been involved in kayak videos and film from 1999 to 2009 . I have had good lines and some carnage lines caught on film , but I strongly feel that in the begining 2 year or a absolute minimum of 100 days should be paddled before even thinking about kayaking class 5 runs . The people and friends I have seen rush this progression usaly end up scarring themselves out of the sport in a few short years . If your having a epic everytime you go kayaking or you feel scared every time you go kayaking you are probably boating too hard of a class . For most true class 5 boaters , the act of running a class 5 rapid is a methodical process and often don’t feel an adrenalin rush when at the bottom of a stout rapid . This can be the difference of skills and experience vs huckin and making it to the bottom in survival mode !

  22. Bhupendra Singh Rana November 16, 2012 Reply

    Hi Louis,

    Thanks for sharing such a great and knowledgeable article with us. Its very truthful and helpful. Great work!!! Cheers Bhupi from India.

  23. This is one of the best and well balanced articles on the subject that I have come across. The value of incremental learning in the sport of paddling is just common sense, but common sense seems less common than one might imagine. Those who have it, I encourage to make their voices heard. There is no need for rancor or beat downs; just the social courage to firmly speak ones mind could change the community tendencies. I feel responsible for the people that I paddle with and will not paddle with those that I do not think are prepared for the challenge before us. There is no place for bravado in paddling; courage needs to be tempered with caution. I, for one, do not enjoy getting my a$$ kicked by a rapid that is over my head. It is not fun and in no way upgrades my skills.

  24. Brandon Bloomquist November 16, 2012 Reply

    Louis -

    Great work here examining an important set of dynamics of our sport. This level of trust, the non-verbal communication and the group dynamics that we require of one another is so important on stout water. I don’t think you can learn all of that subtlety quickly.

  25. I would be hesitant in throwing my hand up in support of this article as I think there seems to be some confusion on the merit of what is being advocated in this article.

    I have been active in the outdoor pursuits for 22 years kayaking, climbing and mountain biking, what I love about these alternative sports is the sense of camaraderie and the willingness of the more experienced to guide the less able.

    The article advocates a surf style attitude, well this is no great thing and is a misguided idea if thought so. I have a number of friend who surf at every opportunity and regularly get told of stories of more experienced surfers coming to blows with less able surfers as they believe they own any wave that come along.

    I disbelieve strongly that anyone who wants to see a sport grow or see new comers getting experience that this is the way to go.

    My concern would be how anyone could contemplate the abdication of paddling past someone who is in need of help! After all even so called extreme grade V paddles get this wrong on occasion and need help would it not be ironic if the less abler paddler was in a position to help the more experience paddler and just carried on by as KARMA often balances thing out in life.

    I appreciate some people sometimes get in a little deep but is not this part of growing as a paddler and a community. I for one would hope that people realise that, the moment were someone helps a stranger could be you one day with you hand out looking for help, so is it really the down side to a trip when you put in safety for someone or is it just another experience that makes the trip more memorable.

    Well you will have to be the judge, but I for one would hope that people choose the latter.

  26. Finally some good forum from the kayak community I was beginning to loose faith

  27. Louis, Impressive insight into risk in paddle and surf culture. Respect for yourself, fellow paddlers and the river are the key. Back in the day we would read Charlie Walbridge’s ACA Annual Safety Report and ask our paddling friends about the close calls and fatalities to try and avoid repeating mistakes. Then video was widespread and I remember showing a video of a Brit expedition on the Sun Khosi to a friend of mine who didn’t quite understand the danger of vertical pins. The “Jackass” video culture and ubiquity of Go Pro’s have led to a profusion of paddlers that are in way over their heads but receive crowdsourced gratification for borderline suicidal behavior. I am constantly amazed at the forgiving nature of whitewater but when I paddle I respectfully remember my close calls and many world class paddlers who have lost their lives on the river. Calculated Risk is just that; Calculated, otherwise it is just Risk!

    PS; I’m glad all those years of edumacation finally paid off!

  28. Great advice. As a beginner myself I know that while the carage vids are the ones that get alot of attention. the prefect line can make all the differance in getting to run it again. I took up whitewater in a part of Tn that has none. Ive spent as much time as I can on flat and class 1 water as I can. Roll’s onside and off,whitewater and Greenland style( of wich I get alot of “whitewater” flack over the usefulness of these….from boaters that dont even have a offside roll) After boating for about 2 years now I made my first run on the middle Ocoee. I hope to be ready in 2 years to make the Green race. Providing I feel that I have more than just the ball’s to do it.

  29. Steve Draper November 17, 2012 Reply

    Well written article Louis, thank you for your insights on becoming a competent paddler.

  30. Michelle Tennant November 17, 2012 Reply

    When you’ve been a paddler for more than a decade and know paddlers who’ve passed on and off the river, I believe you get present to how sacred life is. You can also witness reckless risk generally extends past the river. If you’re taking needless risk not consistent with your skill level on the river, chances are you’re taking needless risk in life. The rub is, there is no life without risk. It’s up to each paddler to honor that inner voice that says, “Hmmm, not today.” Such a great article! Thanks for taking that liteary “risk” and posting your thoughts.

  31. clay wright November 18, 2012 Reply

    These days people see video of Green Race, Metlako or Stikine and say ”I want to do THAT – just as Rush wanted to run Cherry Creek or I wanted to run the Gauley when I was 12. They then decide to take a rolling clinic. How can they know how much of it is skill you can learn in 2 years and how much of it is experience you just have to live through to fully understand? I don’t think they can, personally, which is why the more experienced folks with a lot of confidence often do call people out and why how that is done it is so important.

    What we want if fewer kayaking accidents and near misses, but it can come across as territorial, like ”we don’t want you on our river” instead.

    To me if someone says ”I want to run Metlako” I can train them for that on the Tellico or here at Rock Island in a few days and tell them the risks but they are clearly going to understand falling 80′ might be dangerous and what could happen. Maybe they won’t think ”how to vertically extract a spinal injury” but I can coach that too. It’s understandable.

    If someone says ”my goal is to race the Green in 2 years” and I could likely coach that progression as well. It’s all skills, strokes, scrambling drills, and one particularly safe class 5 run that will have safety set all over it. But I would have to be very direct in letting them know that they are not class 5 kayakers even once they reach these goals… that learning the skills to run something is completely different to the understanding of whitewater required to be considered a class 5 boater and more importantly to boat safely wherever you are.

    The hard part is getting them to understand that it’s the little stuff that kills people and that it takes a whole different skill set to be able to judge what’s dangerous -as in kill you- and what’s just gonna hurt. That and to make em wipe the smile off their face when they fall off Sunshine backwards…

    When I see someone scare me … like make me think I’m gonna be carrying a kayaker out in the dark … and they laugh or smile afterwards it makes me furious! That’s when I often kinda blow it and say something like ”that was completely stupid – you should go back to the Ocoee”. While this is exactly what I mean, chances are the guy will just think I’m a dick and avoid the more experienced crowd in the future because it’s unpleasant to be around us.

    What i SHOULD be saying is ”when you blow a dangerous line it’s like dodging a bullet … you nearly got hurt and forced us all to be dealing with your injuries so now everyone who saw you is feeling nauseous and doesn’t want to boat with you for fear of seeing an accident and having to help afterwards. It’s a major buzz-kill for everyone here. You seem like a nice enough guy. Slow down a little. Please work on that technique before you tackle stuff like that again because it affects everyone on the river’s good time when you crash. Since we would all be helping evacuate you if you broke your back, we’re all feeling as lucky you weren’t hurt as you should be. Sorry, but it’s just how this game works.

    Maybe i would still be a called a dick, but hopefully it could show some cause and affect relationship they might not have considered yet… then they can start judging how good or bad their lines were by the reaction of the group they are paddling with instead of just whether they are bleeding or not.

    Then there’s the sticky part of cluing them in that missing eddies, missing rolls, swimming because you hit a rock, and running any rapid without scouting shows you are not a class 5 ready boater no matter what you have run already… I don’t even know where to begin on that one. Logs, Seives, undercuts, pin rocks, keeper holes, walled out gorges, flooded rivers, keys in pocket, darked out hiking, rescue squads, ER visit prep…. I would love to see a book like ”William Nealy’s KAYAK” taken into the next level but until then all we’ve got is each other.

    Like Pat Keller – it’s 100% alright to call people out in this sport because we all get severely impacted each time the rescue squad gets called out or there’s a body extraction. The trick is doing so either through their more experienced friends or in a way that shows we’re encouraging their participation in the sport even while suggesting they rein in their enthusiasm until they can actually hit the lines every time. We’re all connected when we run a river, there is no Ski Patrol or Park Service to swoop in and take over, so in a way the court of public opinion is the only system of checks and balances a new paddler has before injury / loss of equipment / fear of death … the real stuff finally takes over for them. It’s just part of the sport. For all of us.

    Clay

  32. otter bar kayak school / peter November 19, 2012 Reply

    Louis – Excellent piece. But most importantly great comments from the paddling community!! Clearly your views are the cornerstone of our teaching philosophy. It is simply all about control and realizing that when you are not in control you are potentially doing a huge disservice to yourself as well as being a liability to others. “Learning” skills on water that is above your ability level is a profoundly bad idea as it puts everyone at risk – not just you. Peter

  33. A river is what you make of it. I’m pretty happy running Grade 5s around Scotland and Wales on a good day, but as a paddler within a club which caters for beginners, I can have a bloody good time on some grade 2/3 and I do occasionally still get caught out…

  34. In essance I agree with what your saying whole heartedly, but “Style” is the wrong word, you don’t have to be running the nicest, cleanest or slickest line to be safe, you do have to be on a suitable line and have the knowledge and the skill to know how and stay in control.

    Carnage is a part of the sport, always has been always will be, it’s how we know we’re doing things wrong, but I agree we are seeing more and more people advancing too fast without enough prep time and work Needed.

    I’m also largly against the “oh I’ll/you’ll be fine” attitude, but also if (like with my own paddling) you spend too long saying that your next step is still too big or your not quite ready you stagnate.

    To progress you do (unless you live somewhere where the water is always perfect and you can take baby steps every time)have to take some risks sometimes but like the sport as a whole this risk can be taken sensably and in a controled way by doing the right things before hand.

  35. Jonathan Ehlinger November 21, 2012 Reply

    I think the real issue here, and something Clay touched on in his comment, is how to tell people they need to take a step back. Before getting to the issue, it is obvious the paddlers in the video are in over their heads and unaware of the potential consequences of this. The fact that they bothered to edit a video of them bumbling down the Green instead of one where someone manages not to get beatdown, is telling. However, the response to this from most is to call them “beaters” and to “stay the fuck off the green”. These kinds of responses only echo the familiar aggression of how things are done in the surfing world, which is something we should be trying very hard to avoid.

    When dealing with paddlers who are in over their heads, those paddlers should be told they are in over their heads. But, this should be done in a constructive way. There is nothing constructive about calling people “quars” and leaving it there. People, in general, deserve better than that. What is so hard about pulling folks aside and saying: “hey, I am not trying to be a dick, but you are in over your head on this run and you are making things more dangerous for everyone around you. I would be happy to discuss why and give you some advice on how to progress to the next level, but right now you are not there.”? I have never seen this happen, but I have pretty much always seen the “get the fuck off this river approach” which only serves to make both parties look like assholes as well as creating divides among groups of paddlers.

    As Clay mentioned, there is the sticky part of teaching people about the intricacies of paddling at a higher level, but I don’t see it as that tricky of a matter except for the fact that it takes a bit more energy than simply telling someone to get off the river. There is plenty of instruction coming out of people I consider to be “ambassadors” of the sport, particularly the web series Chris Wing is producing. Why can’t this be done for more advanced topics?

    Finally, it should be said that while making mistakes in class V whitewater can lead to great consequence, it should also be said that despite your skill level you will still make mistakes. What seems to be insinuated by many of the comments to this article is there is absolutely no room for error and if you make any mistake in class V that means you aren’t ready, and you should step down. This, frankly, is bullshit. I have seen plenty of phenomenal kayakers make mistakes. Sure, the attitude should be “hit your lines every time”. But the reality of the sport is that we hit our lines every time, until we don’t. The EXTREMELY important difference, however, is your recovery from those mistakes.

    As an example, I had my first swim in three years on the Callaghan this last summer at pretty beefy flows. I made a slight miscalculation of my boat angle coming off the 20 footer (despite the fact I had a great boof) which resulted in my bow getting surfed by the boil into the curtain. I held on for as long as possible, rolling, cartwheeling, etc. until my skirt blew and I decided to exit. Despite the most violent swim of my life (getting drug across the bottom of the river, the ear pain from being pushed so deep, etc.) I managed to hang on to my paddle and grab my boat once it came out of the curtain. Going further, I also got right back in my boat and finished the run with great lines because of the learned ability to get my head back in the game after something like that. All of these things were possible because of the time and focus I have put into the sport in the last 9 years and, despite how much information is wrapped up in an explanation of this, I should be more proactive at sharing with individuals interested in pushing their limits in the sport.

    It is time that individuals with experience step up to the plate in a constructive way regarding these incidents. Our sport is too great and offers too much to be tainted with arrogance coming from those with the knowledge and experience. We all have a responsibility to keep bad things from happening, but also making sure we keep the sport from turning into a dichotomy of of arrogance and ignorance.

  36. Clive Hamling November 25, 2012 Reply

    Very interesting article, well thought out and very accurate. While here in the UK we don’t have the water that runs at the volumes and gradients that Ii would consider to be as life threatening a prospect for a brave novice to attempt as the section of river mentioned here, but there are still risks, and at times deaths from paddlers being gun-hoe, or as Ii have often seen in my 30+ years of paddling whitewater, paddlers getting egged on and cajoled into paddling water that they are not ready to, and as a result of that then feeling the need to save face and man-up in front of the foolhardy and adrenaline fuelled foolish “friends” they are paddling with.

    My background is almost entirely slalom, a discipline where competition and a division system progresses beginners a rate that matches their ability to the type of water they paddle on. While i know a lot of people in the playboating and creeking fraternity consider slalom to be old school and not much fun, it does require skill. A skill that is picked up by paddling smaller water as fast and more importantly as “cleanly” as is possible. Smooth lines and effortless paddling styles get rightly praised, and frantic splashy scared paddling is (usually) coached out of the beginner. Mere survival of the water is not met with approval, but skilful moves are.

    A clear example of this scenario became very apparent recently, with the opening of the Olympic course in London a venue is now open where reasonably hard whitewater is close to the capital that is clean and inviting (unlike the weirs in the dirty river Thames, when its running at a good level). To paddle this venue you need to be assessed. When i first heard this i reacted with a “WTF, why?”. This was a first for me, to be rated and deemed safe by someone else seemed weird. But as it turned out i now fully understand the need for such a process. Of the 10 paddlers who came to be assessed along with me I was amazed that only 5 could roll, and only 1 paddled the course without swimming. Thankfully that was me. This water is engineered to be reasonably safe, but still many legs get broken. And to think that these paddlers may go somewhere far more dangerous and attempt to run that river left me wondering about the sanity of some individual. we all “assess risk” when going to cross a road, climb a steep bank or even just to jump from the 3rd rung of a step-ladder. To not do that with moving water seems alien to me.

    I certainly would encourage all those that might feel a little bit of inner guilt when they read this article to consider how much more fun it might be to “run” the whitewater they are on than it is to just “survive” it. And in turn how much safer that would be for all of those around and for them too.

  37. Shane Robinson November 25, 2012 Reply

    Louis,

    Great article, and I agree with the others, that it is a topic that has been a long time in coming. Also, excited to see what other great topics this site produces. I think the community is eager for a more substantive conversation on topics like this.

    I’d offer one piece of advice for any younger paddlers reading this based on my own experience:

    While I certainly had some great mentors as I learned to kayak, I actually struggled to find boaters to teach me “the ways,” much of the time and had to teach myself (and learn with friends at a similar level) the intricacies of advanced kayaking. This forced me to teach friends and push them (and myself) to get better so we could boat harder rivers. While having more experienced friends teach me these skills might have been an easier progression, having to teach myself made for a slower ascent into difficult water as I was keenly aware of my own limitations. If you are lucky enough to be paddling with people better than you, take some time to paddle with people less skilled than you. This forces you into a teaching role, and you will quickly learn what you “don’t” know. If you can’t teach people to paddle the water you are comfortable on, then you shouldn’t be progressing to the next grade of whitewater. It also will likely turn the table of being the rescuer and not the rescuee, which is half the skill set needed to run difficult whitewater.

    Thanks again, Louis.

  38. Latest brain research in men tells us that the brain is not fully developed till 25 and some research is extending this figure to a mind blowing 35.
    This lack of full brain deveopment leads to young men taking risks without thinking through the consequences or the fact that someone elso has to risk their life if an accident happens.

  39. dave glasswell January 4, 2013 Reply

    I have a fairly simple philosophy when taking less experienced boaters down hard rivers
    (Remembering that i learned by following better boaters than i was)

    3 stage gading system for rapids
    1. You are capable of running this one.
    2. Take a look, decide yourself. If you want to walk, its fine. If you run it, we’ll set up rescue
    3. No- you will not run this.

    Providing there is respect and ground rules have been set before taking to the water,so far i have never had any problems, both in being told no or in having to say it to someone else

  40. Bill Mattos January 8, 2013 Reply

    Great article, with a lot of good points very well made. I would add, though, that Youtube commenters are inherently aggressive and imho this probably doesn’t reflect a trend on the water as much as it does one on the internet ;)

  41. Nice essay Lewis. There are a lot of interesting comments about your article, and while style can be a tricky issue to communicate in our sport, I think you did a great job using the “YOUTUBE” comments to highlight evolving sentiments as the population of class V paddlers (for better or worse) grows, and the internet proliferates carnage and communication. These views along with snap judgments from experienced boaters can come across as brash- especially when paddling in new groups of paddlers. I am in Chile right now paddling with a bunch of people I don’t know (from 7 different countries) including a few with lots of class V experience. We had a near miss on the Rio Puelo yesterday in big water class V. Everyone stepped up, and it was refreshing to be with people that were able to maintain composure in dire situations- though it was inexperience that caused the mishap. I do my best to paddle in groups of the best boaters I can find, and my paddling is often rises to the occasion when I am with a more experienced group. That being said, I still make mistakes and sympathize with those that do- because the reality is- if you decide to put on with a group of inexperienced boaters on a class V run- you are only as good as you weakest link- and you are exposing yourself to greater danger. That is why I seek out groups that are the best, and have the MOST experience. I always have, and I think that is part of why I am still paddling class V twenty years after my first class V run.

    One point I would make and your article spawned in me is the importance of positive role models and mentors to help shape development and judgement. The paddling community fortunately has a TON of great mentors (many of whom are posting to this blog), and finding one can have a HUGE influence on personal development and decision making. This is why I believe instruction and coaching are so important and I have dedicated my life to it. One of the best parts about paddling for me have been the mentors that have taught me, set an example, and helped shape my judgement. With the increased population of less experienced class V paddlers, the need for experienced mentors is greater than ever… I hope everyone who is reading and posting comments to this article can appreciate this need, and take action to help our sport grow by encouraging the right principles, values and mentality when it comes to paddlers pushing their ability into the class V realm.

  42. Larry Ausley January 17, 2013 Reply

    By my count, mine will be the third comment on this post from current members of ACA’s River Kayak Committee and Sam Drevo has already pointed the rest of the Committee to the post. I just want to add a “Well Done” and to say that this post itself falls into the category of mentorship for safe kayaking. In a week where southeastern rivers are literally overflowing their banks, there is a lot of chatter about floodstage paddling and I’m seeing a lot of one-upsmanship really typifying the problems you discuss here. Our sport needs much more context like that you provide here and We thank you for it. I’m off to make sure my social circle digests this great info.

  43. Tom McEwan March 16, 2013 Reply

    Louis, Great Piece, and well written. Thanks for putting it out there.

    Have you ever heard it said:

    “Practice making hard moves in easy places, so that hard places become easy.”
    or
    “It is not never making a mistake that makes you a real boater, but what you do to recover from your mistakes that really makes you a boater.”
    or
    “the better you get, the more fun it is.

  44. Strong piece! Thanks!

    I was given this advice years ago and still follow it:
    Only run a rapid if you’re pretty certain that you’ll look good doing it.

    Another classic:
    It’s better to regret not running a rapid than to regret running it.

  45. Katherine Macey August 29, 2013 Reply

    Having paddled since 1991 and my kayaking “growing up” having been done in a very supportive and safety conscious group of friends from my local university and local kayaking instructors and mentoring many new kayakers, I cannot say how much I appreciate this.

    I’m sure there will always be the “young testosterone” group, and hopefully there will always be another group for those of us who prefer to paddle safely and progress within their limits – and as my own number of days paddling per year sadly diminish – recognize their current limits and still have folks to paddle with!

    Thanks for your eloquence.

  46. John Schauer September 4, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for sharing a perspective deep in insight and wisdom, Louis! I googled you to see who my son Paul, who carefully chooses his Class V crew, would trust to go in to Devil’s Canyon on the big Su’. Now I understand that it wasn’t “river cred” like your run of the Stikine or winning the North Fork championships, but rather your good judgement that make you an asset and trustworthy partner.

    Hope the weather gods are smiling wider when you next seek the North American Grand Slam.

    John

  47. bradley lauder December 25, 2013 Reply

    Great write up! Thanks. keep the rivers muppet free!

  48. Where do Rookies find a modicum of instruction? Local paddling clubs.

    One paddling club, the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club, aggressively sponsors and subsidizes its members to ACA Whitewater Instructor and Rescue certifications. Local volunteer rescue squads participate in our training events. TVCC members are asked to upgrade paddling skills and community service.

    How else do Rookies become Rambos?

  49. Terry DeMoe December 27, 2013 Reply

    One of the best articles I have read in quite awhile. As a nearly twenty year veteran of running whitewater rivers as well as teaching many others for the last fifteen or so years (was certified to teach WW kayak in 04′ and certified to teach SWR in 2013 after assisting my mentor for the last ten years in SWR). Now, I am from a part of the country (Oklahoma) where you have to really want it because of limited water and reliable rivers and creeks. So, I don’t see a lot of this new attitude here. But on a recent trip to visit friends that live in Knoxville TN, I was pretty shocked when they told me of this new trend in the sport of starting boating early in the season and then running the Green before the end of the season was the new “norm!” To be honest I could tell that it had miffed them a bit at the boating community. And it really did me as well. I don’t know that I saw this particular video. But, I have seen one or two with paddlers who had no bussiness being on the Green. In short, some of the very best advice I ever recieved from an instructor was this. “Make easy rivers hard to make hard rivers easy.” I give of my students this advice at some point. I also like to add (especially during my rescue courses, but also just when I am helping a buddy along) Keep your rescue skills in line with your boating skills, especially your self rescue skills. Do this and you become an asset instead of a liability to your paddling group.

  50. Eric Parker December 29, 2013 Reply

    Louis, your essay contains some great points and I strongly agree with your analysis of the issue. As a sport, kayaking needs to better appreciate the accomplishments of intermediate and beginner paddlers and less of careless hucking and unsafe river behavior. Thank you for your insightful article and for putting this issue on the table. Lets stay safe out there!

  51. Stephen Wright March 16, 2014 Reply

    Well-written! These kinds of articles get written every few years, but your is probably the most in-depth that I’ve seen yet. As someone who’s kayaked 200+ days a year for more than 15 years, and spent a lot of time in a bunch of different kinds of boats, I can agree with lots of what you say. I really don’t like the surfing attitudes at all and don’t want that to be any part of kayaking: I think that it’s toxic, selfish and ultimately harmful to surfing. One of the best parts of kayaking is that so many of the top athletes are extremely welcoming and encouraging to beginners.

    I think that one thing that’s leading to so much charging-without-skills, is the lack of diversity in many kayakers’ time on the water. If all a person does is creek boat, then “what have you run?” becomes the easiest gauge of a person’s skills. If a kayaker enjoys a few different kinds of paddling (creek, play, slalom, squirt, etc….), then it’s much easier to not sweat walking a rapid. Also, there are a ton of skills to be learned by spending time doing other flavors of kayaking: I.E. my creek boating has been greatly improved by my time in a squirt boat–sounds strange, but definitely true.

    I think that a general shift of values towards “skills” from “rapid or river checklist” would be fantastic. Thanks for getting this conversation going!
    Stephen

  52. Stephen Cameron March 16, 2014 Reply

    Nicely said, Louis. Even in the seventies, I’d see people who felt that if they ran a class III, however shakily, that the next step was a class IV. More concerned with what they ran than how they ran it. There were less paddlers in those days, but that attitude is still there – though it’s probably riskier as there are more people doing it and on much bigger drops.

  53. Great article and I’m excited to pass this along to a few friends that are learning to boat and wonder why I always take them down “easier” runs.

  54. Russell Huff March 20, 2014 Reply

    Thank you for this great article. For us slalom is the ticket for developing paddling skills by forcing our paddlers to practice hard moves and critical skills in a relatively safe environment for all concerned. It also builds the fitness and strength required to routinely pull off graceful and stylish runs. Check out the US National Whitewater Team Trials in Charlotte next weekend and judge for yourself how stylish the best racers are.

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