When I was nine years old, I attended my first whitewater kayaking camp. I spent three days practicing wet exits, eddy peel outs, and running gentle class II rapids on the Klickitat River. It also gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by world class kayakers, which I credit to developing my love for kayaking. I wanted to be just like them when I grew up –  confident, stoked, and eager to share the passion for kayaking. Seeing these talented, engaging people inspired me to return to the same camp every year following and commit to becoming a whitewater kayaker. Flash forward seven years, and I’m working at one of the greatest whitewater companies in the Pacific Northwest as an assistant instructor for kids kayaking camps, just like the one where I got my start as a kayaker.

Nia Teaching Kids Kayaking Camp

Nia with students at lunch during Level 2 Kids Kayaking Camp

Wet Planet offers kid’s kayaking camps all summer long for kids as young as 9 years old. The kids come from all different locations, backgrounds, experience levels, and excitement. Over four days, they learn the basics of whitewater kayaking while having a blast on the river and making new friends. By the end of the four days, they’re all itching to get back on the water as soon as possible. I’ve enjoyed most moments during the five weeks of camps this summer, but a few have shined through as my favorites. These are my top five moments of kids kayaking camp:

Kids Kayaking Camp

1. Two sisters’ determination to learn to roll

During both the first and second camps of summer, the same two sisters attended the program. The first week was a Level 1 camp for first timers ages 9-12. The week was fun, and the kids enjoyed it, but some of the kids were more interested in swimming than kayaking (not all that uncommon for younger groups), so it wasn’t as kayak-centric. However, when the girls came back the next week for Level 2 camp, their focus changed. They were both determined to learn to roll – a skill that can be challenging for many adults, let alone kids. The first day, both sisters were able to execute flawless t-rescues after minimal instruction – the first step in the roll progression. Then, one of the girls successfully rolled for the first time! The look on her face after she flipped back up – a combination of surprise and excitement – easily puts this as the number one best moment of summer kayaking camps.

Learning to Roll Kids Kayak Camp

One of the two sisters who learned to roll!

2. Level 2 kids find success running Class III

Our fourth camp of the summer was a Level 2 camp for kids ages 10-13. The grand finale of the week was running Ishy Pishy, a class three rapid on the Klickitat River. It’s a perfect introduction to class three for the children, being a non-technical wave train with a clean pool at the bottom. All day long, the kids had been talking about Ishy Pishy, sharing their past experiences. Anticipation was high when we eddied out above the rapid. The kids were given the option to portage (walk around the rapid), but all of them wanted to take on the challenge. Every one of the kids managed to make it through the rapid without flipping! After a week of working on paddling techniques and skills, it was so gratifying to see them succeed.

Kids Kayaking Camp

Riding the waves of Ishy Pishy!

3. A sneaky treat during lunch

It may seem odd to have sandwiches make it to a spot on the top five list, but with kids, food is important. Every day, at most camps, the question “What’s for lunch today?” was asked hundreds of times. Each time, we replied with, “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” which is our standard lunch for kids camps, barring any allergies. Lunch was always a fun time, with stories being told and food being traded. By far, the best lunch happened in week three, when we opened the cooler and there were peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches waiting for everyone! The surprise was loved and appreciated by everyone.

Kids Kayaking Camp

Enjoying lunch at kayaking camp!

4. Persevering through Rattlesnake Rapid

Our last camp of the summer was a Level 3 kid’s camp for ages 11-14 who have previously taken Levels 1 and 2. Level 3 is a definite step up, consisting of harder whitewater and more advanced skill-developing than the other camps. We skipped the flatwater day and went straight into paddling the hardest section of the Klickitat, ending with class III Ishy Pishy. After evaluating everyone’s skill levels on the Klickitat, it clear that they all had the abilities to paddle the Lower White Salmon River. “The Lower,” as it’s called, starts out with an optional class III rapid called Rattlesnake – a nearly river-wide hole that requires a pretty precise move. The kids were given the option to put in above the hold to run the rapid, or below to skip the rapid. Impressively, the majority of kids were feeling confident and put in above Rattlesnake. With instructors setting safety below, the kids tackled the rapid, and most of them swam. One kid in particular, who hadn’t had the best time the day before, had surprisingly decided to run the rapid. After swimming out of Rattlesnake, I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to want to run it again any time soon. However, the next day, back on the same stretch, he put in above Rattlesnake again. I was nervous that he was going to have another bad swim and never want to kayak again, but his perseverance paid off. This time, he paddled hard through the hole and made it out the other side without flipping! It was a moment where I felt both proud of him for 1) pushing himself to try again and 2) not pushing himself too hard to do something he didn’t know he was capable of.

Kayaking Camp

Tackling Rattlesnake Rapid during Level 3 Kayaking Camp

5. Two kids help their peers find success

The final greatest moment of the summer also occurred in the Level 3 camp. That week, we had two students who were both already able to roll in the pool and could successfully combat roll most of the time – a level of skill that we don’t typically see in kids that age. One day, we were spending time in the Wet Planet pool working on t-rescues and hip snaps with kids who didn’t yet have those stills. Since both the boys could already roll, they were spending quite a bit of time floating around the pool talking. At one point, I had to get out of the pool to go grab a new skirt for a kid. When I came back, both of the boys were teaching another kid how to do a t-rescue. I stood back for a while just to see what happened while keeping an eye on them. The kid flipped over, and tapped the side of his boat for help. Just like that, a successful t-rescue was performed, all taught by the two boys. It was so gratifying to watch the boys use the skills that were taught to them, and then use those to teach another companion. For the rest of the week, they then continued to assist in the pool, helping their peers learn and grow and sharing their love of kayaking.

T-Rescues Kayaking

Kids working together on T-Rescues in the Wet Planet Pool

After a summer filled with laughing, swimming, and lots of kayaking at the Wet Planet Kid’s Camps, I can’t wait to return next year. Being able to help kids learn to kayak, just how I was once taught, fills me with satisfaction and joy. I am so grateful to be given the opportunity to spend the summer on the water, doing exactly what I love and sharing that with the next generation of kayakers. Here’s to next year!

Author Nia Burtchaell-Norman  is an assistant kayak instructor and base support staff at Wet Planet. She loves being a part of the team at Wet Planet and sharing her love of whitewater on and off the river!