I’d like to preface that I am not the best or the most impressive whitewater kayaker out there, not by a long shot. What I do know, is that I have a solid foundation. I believe that this foundation with time and effort would lead me as far as I am willing to go. My kayaking goals have always been to have fun, be safe, and make sure I offer support to those I’m boating with.
When you think about any sport, a solid foundation is the building block to success. Success is gained by time, energy, and practice, practice, practice. You wouldn’t teach someone to run before they’ve learned to walk. You wouldn’t expect to be an Olympic swimmer before you know how to float. The journey from the foundation to exceptional success is a long one, but there is no doubt a solid foundation is vital to success and will help you along the journey to achieving your goals.
What I’m telling you is that starting with a solid foundation will allow you to reach the goals that you have for yourself.
Let me take you back to 10ish years ago. I was a 25-year-old from Hawaii that had never heard about whitewater kayaking. I distinctly remember seeing these funny-looking “things” on cars and outside of homes in White Salmon WA. I didn’t even recognize them as kayaks. So when I heard people talking animatedly about kayaking, I was picturing a pasty tourist ocean kayaking in Hawaii. As an immature 25-year-old, I thought this was super lame. Please rest assured, as a more mature human, I am far less judgemental. Turns out these “funny-looking things” were whitewater kayaks. And my friends and acquaintances were talking about taking these colorful, plastic kayaks and paddling them through beautiful river canyons, through rapids, and over waterfalls. Ok, this was definitely NOT lame, this was pretty impressive and darn cool! I wanted to know more. I took an afternoon and journeyed to Husum to watch from the road as some friends paddle the White Salmon River. I saw friends moving with grace and precision, simple effortless movements of a paddle led them winding and weaving through waves and over drops. They were one with the river. It was beautiful, they were beautiful. I wanted to move effortlessly with the river too. So I signed up for a 3-day beginner kayaking course with Wet Planet.
I walk into Wet Planet a nervous and awkward beginner with secret, grandiose expectations of gracefully moving down the river. We checked in and got to know our team of instructors and learned our plan for the next three days. We got introduced to all the gear we’d be using. Our instructors picked appropriate kayaks for each of us and helped us get them fit correctly. We talked about river hydrology and river features, and how to identify areas we wanted to be versus areas we didn’t want to be. “Friendly waves have friends”, sounded fun. And of course, we learned about our favorite “pause button”: the river eddy. It had never occurred to me that you may want to stop from time to time. This was not like the ocean, the river keeps moving whether you want to keep going or not. Suddenly my grandiose visions of moving gracefully through river rapids were fading. And boy was I glad I was taking a course with actual instructors!
After a delicious lunch, we loaded up all the new gear…ok, our very capable instructors loaded up our gear while we watched, and we headed to a nearby lake. Phew, flat water did seem like a good place to start after all. At the lake, we put on our river gear and squeezed into our snug-fitting kayaks. With my paddle in hand, my instructor gently slid me onto the water. WOAH, this was not an ocean kayak. The curved hull of the kayak moved and wiggled like an animal underneath me. It was a little unnerving at first but I soon trusted the movement and relaxed in my kayak. Starting on flat water was definitely an excellent idea. For the rest of the afternoon, our group worked on moving through the water. We learned essential paddle strokes and how to control the direction of our kayaks. We flipped over on purpose and did a “wet exit” to get the feel for intentionally coming out of our kayak while upside down. We practiced getting our kayaks on their edges and rocking the boat from side to side on purpose. At the end of our day, I was feeling pretty confident and looking forward to the next two days when we got to get on the river.
Today is the day to go down the river for the first time. I’m feeling pretty excited. We arrive at Wet Planet and all our kayaks are already loaded on a trailer. We make sure we’ve got everyone and everything and off we go headed for the Klickitat River. Today we get to continue to practice our paddle strokes, and we get to see what we remember from river hydrology. I remember this day being more challenging, and more fun than I had expected. We practice what we have learned so far on moving water and added in important skills. We learned how to scout rapids and read the river ahead so we know where we want to go. We practice catching eddies. I learn that this is a crucial skill. This is how we stop on the river, where we can catch our breath, and take in what’s ahead and around us. Also, turns out, catching eddies is hard and fun! Who knew? And getting to where you want to go (once you figure that out) isn’t as easy as it was on the lake. There was so much to learn and practice! After a riverside lunch, we continued to move down the Klickitat River. The river got a little more challenging as we went. I remember flipping over a couple of times and waiting for a “T-rescue” which we had learned on the lake the day prior. This is basically where you wait, upside down, for a buddy to paddle over to you and make a “T” with the nose of their kayak on the side of yours. You then use their kayak and your body to roll yourself upright. I did a few of these. I really prided myself on being comfortable waiting upside down for my rescuers to save me. I also remember the wise words of the Yoda of kayak instruction, Andy Round, telling us the better skill to learn was how to not get upside down in the first place. Wise words to live by. I would need to get better at that skill for sure.
Today was the big day. Another trip to the Klickitat River, but this time we would go further and get the chance to run our very first class III rapid; “Ishy Pishy”. I know, sounds like a real doozy with that name. Funny name or not, that final rapid loomed ahead and we were all nervous and excited to see it. Like any good progression, the third day was more challenging. We paddled the same section as the day before, but the instructors had us try harder lines. We practiced our skills more and more as we got closer and closer to the infamous “Ishy Pishy.” After another stop for a delicious riverside lunch we came upon our big rapid. Our instructors motioned for us to all catch an eddy upriver. Sometimes graceful, other times not as much, we all made our way to the eddy to get out and scout the rapid. Leaving our kayaks stowed safely out of the water we walked downstream to check out Ishy Pishy and develop a plan. We all stared at the river as we walked downstream. Big waves running together all back to back. These waves had “friends” so they were friendly… but there were a lot of them and it looked like chaos. At the end of the wave train, there was a massive wave that shot up into the air. Little ‘ol Ishy Pishy was intimidating! I learned then that making an educated decision to run a rapid is important. And the decision is always yours to make. It’s hard to avoid peer pressure even in your 20s or 30s. But I would always remind myself, and my future students: the decision and the consequences are yours alone. Always do what you feel is right, on that day. On this day, I decided to go for it. I don’t remember if anyone decided to walk around, I was entirely in my head, visualizing my line through the infamous Ishy Pishy. Even ten years later, I remember it well. That nervous feeling as you walk back to your boat ready to do this big and brave thing, wondering and hoping that it will go well. Back at our boats, we climb in. Putting our skirts on, and grabbing our paddles as our instructors review the plan and the butterflies swirl in my belly.
We had a good plan: the first instructor would catch an eddy just below the rapid to support us coming through. A second would guide us through the rapid, follow-the-leader style. Another would be right behind us to watch and support us. We had a good group and I trusted our instructors. So we peeled out of the eddy one by one and here we went, to run Ishy Pishy. I hit the first wave, splashy, fun, exciting, and then another wave, and another until I found myself heading right for that HUGE wave at the end. Where did that instructor go that I was supposed to be following? Everything seemed so much bigger and messier from water level. There was no stopping now, so I paddled right at the giant wave, T’d up to it just as I was taught and I launched off of it. I was literally in the air and it was awesome! And then, in almost an instant, I was upside down. Ok, don’t panic, I knew what to do. I let go of my paddle and tapped the sides of my boat motioning the universal signal to my instructors: “I’m here and ready for a T-rescue, come and save me”. And so I waited, and I waited. I was weirdly calm. I remember starting to worry. What would happen if no one came? I didn’t want to swim out of my boat. So I waited some more. I asked myself, was the only option really to give up and pull my skirt? So I waited some more. And then BAM! Just before I was ready to give up and come up for air, there it was, a boat to save me. So I reached up and grabbed the nose of my instructor’s kayak and flipped myself upright. With a huge smile on my face, my savior cheered for me and told me he was there and I could relax. So I relaxed and hit an eddy line which promptly flipped me back upside down. Still holding onto my instructor’s kayak, I righted myself quickly and was met with “well, not that relaxed”. I had made it through Ishy Pishy and it was awesome. We retrieved my paddle and paddled to our takeout eddy. Everyone was animated about their run through the big class III rapid. We dried off and changed as we waited for the van to come back from the put-in. Wow, what a day, what an incredible, life-changing 3 days. I was hooked.
Those were my first three days of kayaking ever. I had a lot to learn and a lot to practice, but I had the tools from those three days to lead me to a successful and enriching decade of kayaking. The ten-ish years that followed led me to work for Wet Planet. I paddled my little heart out in those days: graduating up slowly to harder river sections alongside my extremely competent friends and coworkers. I got amazing opportunities to enjoy multi-day kayak trips with friends and coworkers. I eventually ended up teaching kayaking for NOLS on the rivers in Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. I smile remembering these early days on the Rivers of Washington and Oregon. I have since hung up my kayak paddle in exchange for a surfboard as I raise a family back in Hawaii. But I know that I will be back on those sparkling rivers from time to time. Moving gently and gracefully on simple and fun river stretches that allow me to feel one with the river’s beautiful and powerful flow.