By Ryan Copenhagen:
Wet Planet teams up with the Sundance Kayak School every summer to take students of all abilities down the wild and scenic Rogue River in southern Oregon for a multi-day Rogue River kayaking course. I was lucky enough to guide and instruct on one of these trips this summer. This is kayaking, not rafting. Kayaking is a sport that demands the user’s undivided attention. It is frustrating at times, but incredibly rewarding after taking some time to develop skills and technique. Kayaking also requires some swimming in fast moving current. That is viewed as a rush for some and is frightening for others. Thisis where Wet Planet whitewater kayak instruction comes into play. On a guided trip like this, a swimmer is greeted by an instructor as soon as they come out of their boats and are directed to shore while their boat is retrieved. Students have the chance to learn a new form of travel, test their ability, face their fears, and conquer them. This is the story of my trip:
I met with Zach Collier, the owner of Sundance, and J.R. Wier, the lead instructor, a few days before the trip started to talk about logistics. I started my trip at 9am when I left Wet Planet and drove to the Sundance headquarters, a raft guide Shangri-la affectionately named the Double Wide. A double-wide trailer with years of rafting history sits on 20 acres just up the hill from Merlin, OR. Early the next morning we went to the Hog Creek put in with the equipment truck and spent a couple hours preparing the rafts. The students arrived later. They came from all over the place. There was a couple from Europe recently relocated to Texas, a family of five from Albuquerque, four single travelers from Canada, Oregon, Idaho, and California. I was assigned to guide the 3 intermediate kayakers while J.R., and the other instructors: Nate, Riley, and Lori spent more time with the beginners. We reviewed the basics of Kayaking: strokes, eddies, strategy, timing, and then began our trip downstream.
J.R. uses a “foamy” boater to review kayaking techniques.
The first day of the trip was review for the intermediate kayakers, and further skills practice for the beginners who were experiencing their third day ever sitting in a kayak on moving water. Some had just completed their first beginner kayak course. As the trip progressed, it became clear that some would excel right away at the sport of kayaking and some would need more time. The trip moved in cycles of sunshine and rain. The students moved in cycles of success and failure in rapids. On the fifth day of the trip the sun came out, just in time for our hardest day of the trip. Four students decided to run the rapids of Mule Creek canyon: a long, fast dropping rapid constricted by narrow canyon walls, creating difficult river features unlike those we had seen before. The rest of the students rode in the rafts and cheered on the four that were stepping up to the next level of their ability. We had a detailed staff meeting about how we would mitigate the hazard in this stretch and who would be in position to rescue potential swimmers. I dropped in with my client Kathleen, a 60 year old teacher from the San Francisco bay area that weighed 100 pounds and floated like a leaf. I paddled right behind her and kept talking to let her know I was right behind her. It made her more comfortable, and it helped me too. Kayaking down a stretch of hard whitewater is one skill, leading someone and taking responsibility is another. We were on this trip together and I was determined to help her roll up if she went upside down. We rode the waves and boils together, got spun around in a strong eddyline and came out the bottom with huge smiles. The next rapid was Coffee Pot, named after the chaotic boiling water at the crux of the rapid. Kathleen went first and flipped in an eddyline that turned her boat upside down and took it upstream, I barely caught the eddy and helped Kathleen roll herself up. There was no time to waste, the current was moving us back upstream toward the strong eddy fence. I quickly said,
“Ok Kathy, paddle out of here, just like we have practiced a hundred times.”
She made the move and paddled out of the eddy and we took a break with the rafts at the bottom of the rapid while the rest of the group got back in their kayaks. At the end of the long day, after a delicious dinner, complete with cake and homemade frosting, we relaxed with some drinks and talked about our favorite parts of the trip.
Digging into happy hour!
Setting up camp and hanging gear after a great day on the river.
Most of the guests surprised themselves with their ability to learn the sport of kayaking so quickly. Everyone was inspired by the strength and perseverance of their fellow students, and most of all, by themselves.