I thought I had let go of kayaking. But after a 2 year hiatus and a fun-filled spring of whitewater adventures on the Owyhee River, Wind River, and high water on the White Salmon River, I decided to hop back in my boat, out of curiosity and seeking to recapture my sense of joy in my kayak. A 5-day, raft-supported trip kayaking the Lower Salmon River provided the perfect opportunity.
Kayaking the Lower Salmon is ideal for beginner and intermediate kayakers in so many ways. The river itself offers immeasurable fun and forgiveness with its wave trains, class II-III rapids, pool-drop nature, warm water, and the blessed freedom of not wearing a drysuit. And the river progresses nicely. The first day is spent on easy class I-II, allowing a good warm-up before bringing on bigger whitewater. These factors made it easier to both thoroughly enjoy and push myself, understanding that swims might be humbling but not scary or annoyingly cold. If the Lower Salmon was my kayaking option every day, it would be easier to get in my boat regularly!
5 days dedicated to kayaking also meant more than cruising downstream. Sure, I can make my way relatively upright and unscathed, but working on the finer skills can be daunting. Gratefully, Wet Planet’s expert instructors Jeff Clewell, Dave Seal, and Andrew Regan helped us practice and hone our skills, continuously drilling us and analyzing our form. (Use your core to take you where you want to go. Stern draws! Start your forward stroke from my toes. Lighten your grip on your paddle. Maintain a proper forward stroke in rapids. Keep your paddle in the water. Keep paddling through the boily waters. How to scout rapids, bottom up. Head butt the big ones. Just relax! Did Jeff mention stern draws?) Mindful of our various skill levels and individual ways of learning, Jeff, Dave and Andrew coached, challenged, and encouraged us, each offering their own perspective and personality to ensure that we each made the most of our river time. They are excellent at what they do, and I was appreciative of their enthusiasm, insights, and endless patience!
Spending full days in my kayak granted me a feel of comfort that only time can provide. Given that my main hindrance to boating is the mental aspect of the sport, 5 consecutive days to simply play and focus energy solely on kayaking felt important in developing skills, form, and confidence. Closing my eyes at night, I could still feel the playful sensation of waves even a couple days removed from the river.
As if this trip wasn’t already enticing, white sandy beaches, delicious meals, dramatic canyons, and nights sleeping underneath the stars offered sweet rewards and comfort as we meandered downstream. Hot dinners, prepared by our raft-support crew, were positively divine after paddling for hours and sitting riverside at sunset. Easy-going nights and mornings at camp, while immersed in natural beauty and the sense of being away from it all, provided relaxation and serenity, a complementary balance to our full days on the river.
My favorite highlight occurred on one of the bigger rapids called China. I flipped at this rapid 5 years ago, so when I swam here again this trip, I’m not sure what hit me harder – that stinkin’ wave or sense of déjà vu. Dave then offered to run the rapid with me a second go, giving me a nudge I couldn’t refuse. I did, and redemption was sweet!
While my physical paddling skills surely improved, it’s the feelings of pure joy and palpable growth, like that at China, that I also want to carry forward. Despite nervous anticipation, I found inner calmness going through rapids and flying over waves. I savored sweet elation as I noticed that bigger rapids began to slow down, enough that I could appreciate their powerful, unique features as I paddled though. I gained confidence by faking confidence, as well as energy and support from my instructors and fellow boaters. And I felt pride by simply showing up!
It was the perfect trip at the perfect time with the perfect people. It’s the meaning and magic from this trip that I hope continue motivating myself and others to kayak and spend more quality time on the river.
Author Leah Wagner is the glue that holds Wet Planet together. If you’ve called our office, chances are that you’ve had a lovely conversation with her. If you work with her, she’s usually the one responsible for the flowers left on your desk or cookies slipped into your bag. She keeps people happy on rough days with her hugs and sweet notes, and is a connoisseur of good teas, an incredible baker, yogi, and can frequently be found at the local swimming pool. She has partaken in every trip that Wet Planet runs, including guide school, kayak courses, and our Lower Salmon kayak trip.
All photos taken by Wet Planet’s river manager with quite the eye for good light, Dave Seal.