By Devin Kuh
“Apparently I don’t know how to kayak,” lamented a student during his American Canoe Association White Water Kayaking Instructors’ course on the White Salmon River. It’s a pretty ridiculous comment coming from a Class V paddler with years of instructing and personal paddling experience. So why did a formal ACA certified Whitewater Kayak Instructor course leave him with this sentiment? It comes down to something most of us rarely do: slow down, step back, and put serious reflection into our paddling abilities. Alongside this reflection, the ACA Instructor’s Course Curriculum aims to teach kayakers how to teach and to make the often challenging jump from a kayaker to someone who can articulately communicate and help improve other kayakers’ abilities.
While this student may have felt he didn’t know how to kayak, of course he’s competent, but lacked the finish that makes a good paddler great, keeps a paddler healthy, and allows true progression in our sport. We so often focus on the next river, the next rapid, and the next challenge, that we forget about improving our basic skills. What about getting better edge control? What about smoothing out that very effective, but graceless roll? The goal of great instructors is not just creating great experiences for their students, but helping them reflect on those experiences in order to foster growth and improvement. The ACA Instructor’s curriculum develops instructors’ abilities to reflect on themselves and others, while effectively communicating how to make the necessary changes. The basics of eddy turns, boat control, and paddle dexterity permeate outward into all aspects of the sport, from boofing and racing, to just feeling comfortable and paddling smooth. This idea is why Wet Planet Kayak School’s Boof Clinic starts on flatwater, then goes to class II and then, maybe, a splash of class III/IV. By regressing to the roots of kayaking, and putting in focused training there, it allows us to progress greatly.
By no means would we start our Beginner Whitewater Kayaking course with hours of flatwater paddling spent perfecting each and every stroke before moving on, but why do we stop having focused practice of our forward stroke immediately after that beginners course ends? We slip into the mentality of, “I just need more practice,” but practice without reflection is often meaningless. Whether you’ve never paddled, paddled 2 days, 10 days, or 100 days, you’ve had countless experiences and sensations that add to your ability to understand, adjust and implement changes to your paddling form. By doing this you rebuild your foundation skills at a much higher level than interest or time allows when you’re a beginner.
Watching a group of competent paddlers and instructors take time to look at every aspect of their kayaking and critique it – themselves and with the help of others – and then grow exponentially from it was truly astonishing, and really helped elucidate my beliefs in the power of progression through regression.