A never-ever gets a crash course in whitewater kayaking in Summit
The gear basics
Kayak ($500 to $1,500-plus) — Not all boats are created equal. Two models are made for whitewater: longer creek boats (usually 8.5 feet long) for stability and shorter “play boats” (5 to 7 feet) for whipping around. Talk to a shop expert before buying. Top brands are Jackson Kayak, Pyranha and Liquidlogic.
Paddle ($100 to $300) — You could always use your hands, but it’s not the preferred method. Look for ergonomically shaped bars (not the old-school straight variety) made of carbon fiber. Also be wary of collapisble and screw-together models. They tend to break. Top brands are Werner and AT Paddles.
Helmet ($40 to $150-plus) — This is a must. After all, knowing how to roll won’t do much good if you’re unconscious. Price varies like clothing: The more features, the higher the dollar value. Just be sure to replace it after any good knocks to the noggin.
PFD ($60 to $150-plus) — Don’t just head out with the bright-orange horseshoe from the marina. You’ll be twisting and turning and paddling constantly, so look for models that are slim and adjustable. PFDs range from Type I-V, with various uses. Type III is perfect for novice and expert paddlers. Top brands are NRS and Kokatat.
Spray skirt ($50 to $200) — It wouldn’t be whitewater boating without a skirt. Just about any skirt will do for a beginner, but be sure to try it on before buying. It should fit your waist and your boat. And don’t feel compelled to return it if there’s a bit of leakage — no skirt is perfect.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what went wrong when I accidentally flipped my kayak for the first time and, well, got pinned down.
Here’s how it went down. I was at North Pond with another never-ever boater, Ken Joel of Denver, trying to learn the basics of whitewater kayaking. Our instructor-slash-lifeguard Matti Wade of Ten Mile Creek Kayaks had led us through the basics of paddling and turning (more on that to come) when it came to the first big hurdle for any newbie: rolling.
When you watch a pro like Matti roll a kayak, it looks simultaneously impressive and kind of easy and just a little frightening. After all, the point is to do something no boat is made to do — flip completely upside down until the passenger is submerged in water — then return to the sweet, sweet open air without gagging, flailing, drowning or otherwise freaking out.
In all honesty, gills would come in handy. They’d also made whitewater kayaking somewhat moot, but no one would need to know — just hide the human-fish neck flaps under a neoprene turtleneck and you’re good to go.
Now, I’ve been a swimmer for most of my life, yet most of the time I was powering through early-morning laps at an indoor pool, where the water is Caribbean-clear and there’s absolutely no tide or flow whatsoever. Granted, I’ve also done a fair share of surfing on the Pacific Ocean and wakeboarding on lakes outside of Fort Collins, but never while shoved into a piece of hallowed-out plastic that was secured to my waist with a skirt. (The flexible, water-resistant kind, not the warrior from “Braveheart” kind.)
That said, it’s not like I was all that intimidated by kayaking when Matti and Ken and I first eased into the water. I’ve had plenty of friends who swear by the sport, particularly early in the season when local waterways like Tenmile Creek and the Eagle River are flowing at peak levels. It’s something of an addiction, much like bombing a chute or dropping a cliff is an addiction for me when winter rolls around. I used to watch in awe when a Kiwi friend showed me videos of he and other psychos dropping 30- to 40-foot waterfalls into gushing, pure-white pools of foamy water. More often than not they’d pop out right away, nose first, like some kind of man-sized buoy, but every so often they’d be underwater for uncomfortably long stretches. Hell, I was watching from the comfort of a couch and I still felt a touch of queasy tightness in my chest.
The thing is, I’ve just always been more inclined to tackle whitewater from the relative safety of a raft. Sure, a raft is almost the exact opposite of a kayak — think of rafts as open-air death traps, as opposed to a more-or-less airtight death trap — but it somehow feels safer, with less emphasis on skill and more emphasis on sitting back for the ride.
But kayaking has always intrigued me, especially the adrenaline-pumping “Am I going to die?” learning curve for rolling, so I was more than ready to give it a shot from the safety of a flat, calm pond, far away from the roiling waters of Ten Mile and the Eagle.
So when it came time for Matti to dig into the “meat and potatoes” of the course, as he said, I was practically itching to flip upside down and drown myself. We’d already been through the basics of paddling, including the most important (and unexpected) tip of the day: stay inside the box. River boats are much more agile than their lake-bound cousins, meaning it takes much less power to turn and spin and move forward, all of which I did when I first got on the water and tried to manhandle my way from one shore to the other.
Like Chubbs says in “Happy Gilmore,” just tap it in. Keep your eyes forward and hands in the box — no massive, wheeling movements like the guys at GoPro Games — and you’ll be just fine.
But I digress. Before trying my first roll, Matti gave me the three S’s: set, sweep and snap. Set comes right at the beginning, when you lean over one side (usually the opposite of your writing hand) with your chin tucked, eyes down and paddle parallel against the side of the boat. Now’s the tricky part: As soon as you roll over and are fully submerged — nerve-wracking in principle but not too bad in practice — you sweep the paddle up and over your head, keeping one elbow tucked tight while fully extending your writing hand (right for me). Then all you have to do is snap your hip on the extended side to pull your body, the boat and the paddle out of the water. Easy enough, as Matti showed us by doing three in a row.
And when Matti was helping me it really didn’t seem too difficult. I had no problem holding my breath, and although I just couldn’t get the sweep part down, I still managed to whip my head back into the sunlight after only three or four seconds.
Well, little did I know, but Matti was doing about half of the work, as in the hard half. Which brings me to my first accidental roll. After helping me through a few, Matti moved on to Ken. I was sitting off to my side in the kayak, trying to get a feel for the snap movement, when I tipped. How, I don’t really remember, but I couldn’t right myself before going headfirst into the drink. Remember, whitewater boats are made to be agile — the better to skirt rocks and boulders with, my dear — so it doesn’t take much to make them do what you want them to do.
Or at least it doesn’t for a veteran. For a novice, it felt like it had a mind of its own. And so there I was, underwater, trying to work my way through a roll move I thought I could muscle through. But after maybe five or six seconds I started to panic a bit and straightened my spine, the first no-no of going under in whitewater. I jostled and twisted, trying to get out of that stupid death trap, when my early-morning training took over and I remembered to pull the release on the sprayskirt. I immediately floated out of the boat and was pulled to the surface by my PFD. It was my first-ever swim during my first-ever kayak class. My heart was pumping, my breath was just a bit ragged, but damn it, I was ready to go again.
But first, time to review the three S’s.
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