As I began my second season here at Wet Planet, I was quickly reminded of what an amazing group of people I get to work so closely with. With the goal of creating a blog highlighting our kayak instructors here at Wet Planet, I sat down with Jeff, Devin, Susan, and Frazer to learn their perspective on this dynamic and challenging sport. In hearing their thoughts and personal philosophies about whitewater kayaking, I quickly became inspired by these talented and thoughtful individuals.
Jeff, a Pennsylvania native, former EMT, and ski patrol has been with Wet Planet for four years. He has traveled throughout the US and to South America following his passion of whitewater. Devin is a teacher of all sorts – from math and science to kayaking. He has raft guided on rivers around the world, and is enjoying his second season at Wet Planet. Susan is a graduate student studying Water Resources Engineering. Rivers have been a huge part of her life for over a decade, as she has taught kayaking in Mexico, China, Costa Rica, and Peru. Frazer, a Jackson, Wyoming native, became a kayak instructor at a young age, and later in college managed the whitewater adventures for Humboldt’s outdoor program. Check out what each have to say about kayaking, how it has impacted their life, and why they love sharing this passion with you.
What does kayaking mean to you?
Jeff: Kayaking for me is an outlet for the right combination of physical and mental challenge – where I have found a great social group to spend my time with, within the challenges it provides.
Devin: Kayaking means access to beautiful, untouched wilderness and a connection with the power of nature that is not often found. Not only that, but an experience that can continue and remain magical, fun and fulfilling at all ages and all levels. Some of my favorite days in a kayak have been doing class II eddy moves on a stunningly gorgeous river.
Susan:Kayaking means a way for me to relate to the natural world on more intimate terms. I become a part of it, not simply an observer. Kayaking is a way to experience a reality that feels more alive and real than everyday life.
Frazer: To me kayaking means using a personal self-propelled river racecar to get a better understanding of the divine natural phenomenon that is flowing water. As the ferry man in Sidhartha understood, everything in the world can be learned by understanding the river.
Besides time spent on the water, what do you love about kayaking?
Jeff: Kayaking is endless perfection and unending challenges at all levels. For example, once you master a more difficult river, you can paddle an easier river with the goal of fewer paddle strokes. You can perfect less challenging runs, and challenge yourself in kayaking class V whitewater. The ways in which you can challenge yourself are unbound.
Devin: I love the access to new places and the community it fosters. A lot of the canyons and rivers I have gotten to paddle on are only accessible by river. It is an incredibly special experience to see these areas. Along with that the whitewater community is incredibly tight, always willing to help out, give you a shuttle, or share a beer.
Susan: I can’t imagine finding a sport with a better community of people than those in the kayaking world. The drama of our society seems stripped from these people, as they have experienced places unknown to the rest of the world and lived through moments that bind friends together for life. I’ve made the hardest decisions with them, lived through moments of pure fear, but also shared a profound and simple joy with them.
Frazer: Kayaking allows a person to explore places on this Earth that are not accessible any other way. Besides being the most effective way to travel (under your own power) through inhospitable mountainous terrain, kayaking allows you to establish a respect for the natural world that is unlike any other. You are always at the mercy of the river, it is stronger, faster, and more powerful than any person could ever be. Every day that the river allows you to ride on its great currents is a glorious day. However, you must humble yourself to the river because although it is capable of giving you much joy, it is also capable of providing you great peril. A balance must be kept with the river and once learned, this balance can be applied to all aspects of your life. Kayaking with the river, with the flow, is singing and living in harmony with the world.
What aspects of whitewater kayaking challenge you most? How do you overcome these challenges?
Jeff: Fear and continuing to stay motivated challenge me the most. I overcome it by being in groups of people that I trust and know well, as well as people who handle and understand fear in a similar way to myself.
Devin: The mental side is the biggest challenge for me. I often find myself scared when pushing myself and trying to improve as a boater. This can often prevent me from doing new runs or trying new skills. The best way I have found to overcome this is by pushing myself really hard on easier water and then making sure to remind myself that kayaking is fun when I do get on that step up run. I like to ensure I am ready for the run and then just make sure to tell myself to have fun because I paddle best when relaxed.
Susan: My challenge in whitewater is not the whitewater, it is how my mind and heart feels about the vulnerability we all face while paddling. For me, even the same rivers are always changing depending on how I feel that day. I no longer try to “overcome” these challenges, but learn to face them and learn from them. Difficult whitewater (class IV/V) comes and goes in my life, so I will have never “overcome” my fear associated with it. I can only hope to know more about myself at the moment when the decision must be made.
Frazer: Maintaining a proficient level of kayaking, especially in hard demanding whitewater, requires both physical and mental strength. In many situations you may have the skills necessary to successfully navigate a river or rapid, but if your head game is not there you will surely fail. The mental strength and endurance required to keep calm on the river and maintain confidence is my greatest challenge in kayaking. I wish to travel all over the globe kayaking committing multiday rivers and this is impossible without first conquering the mind.
What is your favorite memory or biggest accomplishment in your kayaking career?
Jeff: My favorite memory took place on an overnight river trip on the Cofanes River in Ecuador. This was with my friends Tyler, Abe, George, and Seth. This was an unknown and remote stretch of river on the northern border of Ecuador and Colombia. It is very unknown, incredible exposed, and beautiful.
Devin: My favorite memory kayaking is the first time I paddled the Green Truss section of the White Salmon. It was November 2012 and the first weekend that the Lower Lower White Salmon was open to recreational users. Me and a couple of friends decided to run the truss down to the Columbia. It was an incredibly fun experience and great sense of accomplishment getting to run the truss, but what made the day was the group we were with and getting to see a beautiful section of previously buried whitewater. As we got into the lower lower we saw hundreds of salmon spawning upstream under our boats and eventually reached the Columbia at sunset. It was the perfect day of hard whitewater, gorgeous canyons, incredible camaraderie and exploring areas seen by very few people.
Susan: I traveled to China as a science and history teacher with World Class Academy in 2009. We paddled first on the Great Bend of the Yangtzee – a section now under a reservoir – then over mountain passes to the Mekong and Salween Rivers. This trip pushed my boundaries beyond my imagination, both on the water (play boating the biggest rapids I had ever seen), and with my group (learning to teach high school boys and falling in love with the man who is now my husband). Traveling for the purpose of exploring rivers elicits some incredible moments.
Frazer: Some of my favorite memories and greatest accomplishments occurred in New Zealand. When I was 18, fresh out of high school, I traveled alone to NZ to kayak for 8 months with no idea what I was getting into. The discovery of myself, great rivers, and great people that ensued in NZ hold a special place in my career in terms of where kayaking can take you, and what it can teach you.
Your job allows you to share one of your passions with others – sometimes with people who have never kayaked before. What is this like?
Jeff: I enjoy seeing people progress and achieve the “Aha” moments. Teaching someone skills in abstract and watching them become intuition and second nature for someone is very undoubtedly rewarding.
Devin: That is why I have the job I have. Sure, it allows me the incredible opportunity of paddling all the time, but so does working as a nurse, or in the food service industry. I am an instructor and guide because I get to share the places and things I love with other people. Kayaking has allowed me to travel all over the US and to other countries and see new places. I love being able to start people along their own whitewater journey.
Susan: Sharing kayaking with others is like giving them the best gift. One that they must take the biggest steps to receive (by taking the time to learn the skills and acquire the gear), but one that will lead to a life more fulfilling than anything they could ever hope for.
Frazer: I remember the day well when my good friend Ben Dann and I took Eric Parker, a now well-known boater, kayaking for the first time. We went to the Hoback River near Jackson Wyoming for a day of teaching our new friend about the wonders of kayaking. Watching Eric have the most exciting day of his young life on small class 2 and 3 whitewater gave me the first glimpse of how satisfying it could be to introduce and teach someone the world of whitewater. As it turns out, that day was a pivotal moment in Eric’s life and led him to excel rapidly in whitewater kayaking, traveling all over the world in pursuit of his passion, perhaps more in love with the river than any other individual I have met.
All of our instructors are eager to share their passion for kayaking with you. They have years of experience in this sport, but they too remember the challenges of learning and beginning the amazing journey that whitewater kayaking provides. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced kayaker, we have the course that is right for you. Join us!
Author Hayley Spear spends her summers in the Columbia River Gorge and enjoys paddling, hiking, and exploring as often as she can.