Monday, March 28, 2011

Slave River Summer

As the warm weather draws nearer and you begin to make your paddling plans for the upcoming season you may want to consider a few events that’ll be happening up in Canada this year. Excitement is already building over the first inaugural Whitewater Grand Prix taking place on some of Quebec’s most renowned rivers early this May. But, as there is seemingly no limit to the amount of big water in Canada there is another event that you can’t afford to overlook this summer. The first annual “Edge King Throwdown” will be taking place this summer on the Slave River in conjunction with their 4th annual Slave River Paddlefest.

I had the opportunity to attend the festivities last year and I’m hard pressed to think of a more enjoyable, grass-roots event. The events this year will run from the 26th of July Through the 1st of August, kicking things off with the newest event, the “Edge King Throwdown” Big Air Competition, on the 26th and 27th. In years past the majority of the freestyle events have taken place on smaller features but as the popularity of Paddlefest has grown Fort Smith is ready to host some big water freestyle for which the Slave is most highly regarded. While this is a new direction for the Fort Smith Paddle Club, offering up a large cash prize of $1000 (to be split among the top 3 competitors), the event promises to offer a fun, easy going atmosphere. John Blyth of Fort Smith, who’s really pushed for the event this year, says “it’ll be an event by boaters, for boaters”. The feature won’t be decided on until a day or two before the event, so that only the most prime playspot will be used dependent on flows. The snowpack is already looking solid this year as if it really makes a difference. For those who are unfamiliar with the Slave its volume is similar to that of the Missouri River, but with some rather large whitewater. Last year was actually one of the lowest water years in living memory in which it flowed a mere 90,000 cfs during our time there. Needless to say there is never a shortage of water, or big water fun for that matter. If you’re looking to make a new playboating mecca this year, or are already familiar with the Slave this is the summer to make your way north. Aside from the excellent events there’s another reason to go celebrate on the Slave. As of October, potential hydro development plans were withdrawn from the Slave River, thanks in large to the Smith’s Landing First Nations tribe. Apparently even a hydro-development firm realizes the true value of this incredible river. >

For more info on the Slave and Slave River Paddlefest events checkout: or look for the Slave River Big Air Comp on Facebook.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Fist of Boof presents: Paddle Without Effort

Paddle Without Effort

Ominous High Water Gore Put-in: photo Tommy Hilleke

Wigston less the effort: photo Evan Stafford

On the valley floor of any river with a sizable drainage, when you’re looking pensively upstream, you can feel the force of the water droplets collecting. Gathering in the watershed. Flowing into each other. Forming the river from above and below ground. Eventually reaching you, they culminate into a pulsing artery carrying the lifeblood of the earth, inches from your feet. You might as well be scouting the crux rapids of their entire effortless course.

Wigston Apple Saucin': photo Tommy Hilleke

Will Rawstrom slicing into Scissors: photo Evan Stafford

Intention is a subject thoroughly explored in many martial arts philosophies, and also in many forms of Eastern medicine and science. In the discussions water tends to play a significant role in defining the ideal of action without effort. Water knows how to get it done without even trying. The human mind is extremely powerful yet it has a hard time not tripping over its own feet. When we concentrate too hard, or try to force our actions, our oversized intentions can get in the way of our execution. Water does not intend to carve granite into polished bedrock waterfalls. Water does not intend to carve mountains into deep and gradient filled canyons. It just does.

Tommy doing without doing: photo Evan Stafford

The cliché is to “do without doing,” but does water not embody this idea perfectly? Water is soft when you enter a foam pile with the proper angle from heights as tall as large buildings, but from the roof of a flooded house, with all of the rivers power rushing past your feet, threatening your life, not to mention demolishing an entire town, the softness is gone and well, out comes the beast. The river though is neither beast nor angel. It doesn’t care. It is as ceaseless as it is formless.

Eddy above the chaos below Scissors: photo Evan Stafford

Relax. Stop straining. The river isn’t straining to create that perfect 30-foot waterfall. It requires no effort for it to gracefully arc off the lip into that emerald pool. The conscious mind is a mere mechanism for deciding which larger and more encompassing actions to take. The conscious mind is not there to dissect which stroke to take next or when it should be timed. If your training is sufficient, your unconscious mind and your body will take care of the rest. Do not think about your paddle, just stick it in the water and take a stroke.

Tommy taking the meat at Tunnel: photo Evan Stafford

But damn, isn’t that just harder than it sounds. The revolving door between conscious decisions about your odds of gracefully descending a rapid, and the walk back to your boat, the few deep breaths and the pushing off into the unconscious strokes of action and reactions, is easily jarred from its hinges. The key is the greasing of the hinges. The training, the lessons, the gathered experience of having let go before for long enough to feel a few fleeting moments of inspired paddling. Choose your line, but then paddle free of effort, be the droplets of water on your charted course… even when you’re chartered course gets turned a wee bit upside down. Be the water, flowing without effort.

Thinking too much about taking the stroke and not enough actually taking the stroke: photo Tommy Hilleke

Friday, March 04, 2011

Teaching your friends to they don't quit in their first season!

One of the best ways for someone to get into kayaking is to have a friend teach them. Many of the boaters we know never took a lesson from a kayak instructor, they just tagged along with friends. I've taught lot's of my friends to kayak, some who became as addicted to the sport as I am, and others who quit their first season. I learned a lot from those friends. Before I became a kayak instructor and learned how to teach, I had trouble remembering what is was like to be a beginner. So when I took friends out, I thought they would pick things up easier. After years of teaching kayaking professionally, I learned the value of gradual progressions. Start with the most basic concepts and gradually add complexity as they master the basics. Just because I am excited to have another friend get into kayaking, doesn't mean they should start their learning on whitewater. I see this all the time in our playparks and popular rivers. Kayakers think of a particular run as "easy", so it should be no problem for a beginner to paddle, and they take their newbie friend down an "easy" class 3 run and he swims the whole thing. Some people think this is awesome and they become great kayakers, but most quit after the first day. So here are some of the important pieces of advice that I learned the hard way.

1. Always, always get your friend paddling around in a lake or pool to start. Don't start on a river, unless you have a nice BIG pool to use that is basically like paddling in a lake. The first thing they should do is flip over and wet exit. Everyone has a fear of being trapped upside down in the boat before they actually try it, and realize it's no big deal.

2. Teaching someone to roll is not the same as teaching them to kayak. This is one of the most common mistakes I see. A beginner learns to roll, then hits the river and they don't even know how to paddle a kayak. Also, most beginners who learn a pool roll can't combat roll yet anyway. So when they are on the river, it's as if they've never even been in a kayak. their roll is useless and they have no other skills to get them down the river. I teach the roll AFTER I've taught them the other basic strokes, braces, t-rescues, etc. Once they've done all that, they are more comfortable in the boat, and rolling is much easier to learn.

3. We all know how hard it is to get a whitewater kayak to go straight when you are a beginner. Let's face it, these things are designed to turn easily. So I always start by teaching them to balance the boat and sit with the proper posture. Then I start teaching turning and corrective strokes like sweeps and stern draws. Then when you get to the forward stroke, they already know how to correct their direction when they veer off course. I also don't emphasize perfecting the forward stroke as a beginner. I think it develops over time. Think about it. In a whitewater rapid, how far do you generally need to paddle in a straight line? maybe 10-15 feet or less at a time. Whitewater paddling is basically connecting short bursts of forward strokes and turns to link all the moves you need. Rarely does a whitewater kayaker need to paddle in straight line for a long distance in a rapid. Mastering turning and correcting strokes as well as balance and bracing is more important for a beginner than having a beautiful forward stroke. Not that a good forward stroke isn't important, it's just something that they need to work on over their first couple of seasons.
4. Teach the sweep roll. It's easier to learn and more reliable in aerated water.
5. Once your friend is ready to hit the river, choose the river wisely. Class 2 rivers with lot's of eddies are best. Class 2 rivers that are lined with strainers and bushes are not very good. Class 3 rivers are never suitable for the first time on the river. Fast learners may be able to move up to class 3 after a few runs on class 2. The point isn't to make our friends swim, the point is for them to learn how to maneuver on a river so they are safe and have fun. To a newbie, class 2 is a complete adrenaline rush. It may be boring to you, but not to them. Also, it may not be possible, but try to choose a section of river that you are familiar with. That way you know where the good "learning" eddies are. The three main skills that you should focus on for beginners are ferrying across the river, peeling out of eddies, and catching eddies. Those three things are the foundation for most other skills we learn on the river.
6. As your friend progresses, let them lead you down rapids from time to time. So many beginners and intermediates have done nothing but follow everyone else down rivers. They never learn how to read water and choose their own lines. Also, have them scout rapids and use hand signals to explain to you how to run the rapid. This helps build the foundations for scouting and communicating with a group. I've met paddlers who are 5 years into the sport and have never picked their own line down a rapid. That's not cool.
7. Teach your friend about safety from the beginning. Teach them about throw ropes and rescue vests, and how to swim in rapids. This stuff seems simple to us, but it's important for beginners to know about it.
8. Boat selection. Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but the proper gear for a beginner is crucial. Usually it's best for beginners to be in river running boat such as a Remix or Mamba or something similar. Creek boats are okay too. Playboats are usually not the best choice unless the novice is super athletic and gung-ho to learn, and they don't mind swimming a bit more. I've had some good luck with students starting in playboats, and also some bad experiences. Make sure the boat is the right size and volume for the person's weight.
9. Once they are pretty comforatable on class 2, get them surfing waves and hitting harder ferries and eddies on class 2. In my opinion, a paddler shouldn't move up a class of whitewater until they can hit EVERY eddy on a river of the class they are currently comfortable on. Just because you can float down a class 3 river without incident doesn't mean you are ready for class 4. You should be able to hit every eddy, surf every wave, and nail every ferry on your favorite class 3 run before moving up to class 4. Same goes for moving from class 2 to 3 or class 4 to 5.

If you follow all of this advice, teaching friends should be easier and safer, and I can guarantee that more of your friends will stick with the sport instead of quitting in their first season. Of course some will probably still quit in the first season, but hey, kayaking isn't for everyone.

-Nick Wigston