July 23rd, 2014

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome.

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome. - image
Nicholas learning to kayak in California on the American River

The initial learning curve was steep. My first few times in a kayak I found myself upside down underwater, unable to breathe, and bound to a hunk of plastic that kept me in this less-than-ideal position. I almost felt like the helpless protagonist of a Hollywood action thriller whose feet are bound to cement blocks as he is thrust into the ocean, indefinitely removed from the life-sustaining nourishment of oxygen. For many beginners kayaking can feel dangerous, counterintuitive, and often quite scary. But with a little bit of guidance and practice the sport is anything but.

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome. - image
Nicholas kayaking in June on the Cooper River in Washington.

Being a beginner kayaker isn’t like being a beginner at baseball, poker, or just about anything else – rivers are dynamic environments and unless your are in control of your boat, the river is in control of you (regardless of whether you are upside down, swimming alongside your abandoned vessel, or even right side up). But with even a small degree of control, from the balance on top of the water to the simple ability to roll upright, kayaking begins to feel more like a form of liberation than constraint.

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome. - image
Nicholas and fellow Wildwater guide Neils having fun on the river.

A qualified kayaker will tell you that learning to re-right your kayak isn’t the most important starting point, and that there are in fact many basic techniques that trump this coveted ability. That said, when I first learned to roll my kayak upright I felt as if I had uncovered some sort of superhuman nautical power. The more comfortable I became upside down, confident that the surface air was always going to be there for me, the more in-synch I became with the river environment. With 360 degrees of motion around the fulcrum of the water’s surface, I felt as if I had breached river’s third dimension of vertical, horizontal and vertical space – no longer simply on the water but in it.

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome. - image
Wildwater guide and kayak instructor Lance playboating on the White Salmon River.

It’s striking to watch trains of fuzzy little ducklings scamper around the peripheries of powerful rapids, coolly navigating the narrow channels of green water as if oblivious to the ferocity of the hydraulics that surround them. They meander through the rivers with an instinctive confidence and finesse, hardwired with the wisdom to revere the river’s power without challenging it. By using carefully calculated strokes and remaining acutely aware of their surroundings, ducklings seem to dance about the tumultuous river environment without ever putting themselves in direct danger.

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome. - image
Wildwater guide Jamie kayaking a few years back.

As primarily ground-dwelling creatures, we humans are not endowed with the same physiological capabilities that allow ducks to inhabit and play about the river environment – our bodies are simply not designed for it. But kayaking somehow opens these doors. As I gradually grew into my kayak it came to feel like more of a bodily extension than an accessory. Like some sort of aquatic centaur, my body became all boat from the torso down. It was as if I had been granted the awesome privilege to experience rivers in such a way that my physiology alone would never have allowed - to actually feel the wrath of the currents firsthand, in their sublime beauty as much as their humbling ferocity. I suppose that the magic of kayaking, for me, lies in this special capacity to help us transcend the very basic limitations that would otherwise keep us far removed from the majesty of whitewater.

Learning to Kayak: A worthwhile endeavor for people who like things that are awesome. - image
Neils kayaking through the first rapid on the Cooper River

Blog post written by: Nicholas Farley