June 18, 2012
I swallowed a lot of pride, not to mention a lot of river water, on my first visit to the National Whitewater Center. But a few weeks later, I returned for more. On that first trip, the very first rapid, called Entrance Exam, spanked me hard and I never made it past the first third of the Channel. So I was a bit apprehensive about returning to Charlotte for five days of whitewater training on the same man-made river.
On day 1, I practiced my role a few times in the upper pond and then headed down the easier instructional channel to get warmed up. My kayaking partner, Rob Raker, was guiding me as usual. Although I made it through Entrance Exam, I got sideways and flipped in the third rapid. Even in my first visit, nothing in the instructional channel had given me trouble. Even worse, I missed my role and wound up swimming. This threw me into a rut and I could feel myself getting more timid in the rapids. I tried to fight my way out of this negative head-space by making myself flip in the boily swirly whitewater under drop 2 in the instructional channel, but I wound up swimming once more. My other rolls, although successful, felt weak—barely getting me upright and not at all instilling confidence. After this tough morning, I needed something to break the negative pattern, so Pablo McCandless, a former member of the Chilean Olympic Kayaking Team and head of the kayaking program at the Whitewater Center, put me in the front of a tandem kayak and we did the full channel together. He told me he’s never flipped in the wilderness channel, so that made me feel pretty confident. He thought this would help me start to form a mental picture of the lower rapids, much bigger than I had experienced so far.
When I smacked into Sunset, the first big wave in the lower channel, I wobbled big-time, and new it would have flipped me if I’d been in a single boat, but with the pro in the back bracing we sailed through. After a few more runs in the tandem, I started to settle down and felt less twitchy from the waste down. Part of getting through a big wave is to paddle hard through it while at the same time, bracing your core muscles, centering your weight and not leaning too far forward. The next day, back in my single boat, Pablo helped me learn some paddling strokes such as the draw, which allows you to pull yourself sideways in the water, and began working on my brace so I can lay my kayak over on it’s side and pop back up. He also taught me how to “boof,” which is a technique where you lean back to raise the bow of the boat before hitting a wave. This prevents the boat from diving into the hole that precedes the wave. Boofing actually lifts you over the hole, so you stay in control.
The rest of the day, Rob, Pablo and I ran the first third of the wilderness channel. In rapid three, I flipped both times, the second time getting spun around and entering the wave backwards, but thankfully Pablo was there to help me with my roles. My big breakthrough came on Day Three when Pablo suggested I try a new boat. For the past couple of years, I’ve owned a Pyranha Karnali kayak that is considered a good downriver boat. Pablo wanted me to try out a Liquid Logic Stomper 90. He explained that the front of the Karnali can dive under the waves and get pushed around, but the Stomper is a creek-style boat with more rocker which makes the bow want to resurface so would lift me over holes. Like many people, I avoid change once I have my system in place, so I was hesitant to switch kayaks in the middle of our trip. However, Rob persuaded me that this safe environment was the perfect opportunity to try new things. It turned out to be a great decision—the change was like night and day! I cruised through the Instructional Channel. Although I did flip once, I rolled up on my first try. Soon I was feeling a lot more confident with my kayaking but I still hadn’t run the main channel where the real action is. Pablo suggested that I’d feel more comfortable if I swam all the rapids first. So I put on nose plugs and jumped in! Pablo swam with me and helped me get lined up to the rapids. At first, it was a bit frightening to drop into these big holes that suck you down. But you go through the washing machine and pop out the other side. It was actually kind of fun, like a big roller coaster! Near the end of the day, Pablo suggested I was ready for Sunset, the first big wave in the lower channel, and although it did flip me, I rolled up and felt pretty good. On my next run, I got through Sunset upright and Pablo and Rob pushed me to keep going and do a full run. I really wanted to say, No, and end on a positive note, but trusted these friends to steer me right and push me a little further than my comfort level. So, like the new boat, so I screwed up my courage and went for it. My run wasn’t perfect, but I made it through M Wave and Shut Down, the two biggest rapids, and only flipped on the last rapid, Biscuits and Gravy. I made my role, and was through the full channel for the first time! In a burst of excitement, I gave Pablo a high five!
The next day, we ran the main channel a couple more times. One thing about whitewater kayaking is that it’s such a dynamic, fluid sport and no two runs are the same. If you enter a rapid at a slightly different angle, or at different speed, or even at a different lean, it will affect how you come out at the bottom. One time I got shot off a wave and went straight into a wall at full speed, BAM! Another time a very powerful and swirly eddy trapped me and Pablo had to guide me out. Another time, I didn’t zing left when I needed to, and I went straight through the biggest hole in the channel, Shut Down. And yes, it definitely shut me down! Pablo really showed his expertise when I got turned sideways before going over a rapid and I was stuck upside down in the recirculating wave. When I reached my paddle up to brace, Pablo paddled up with perfect timing, grabbed my blade, and pulled me out of the rapid so I could roll up. On the last day, Rob guided me flawlessly down the full channel, and my last time, I made it down – no swims – no flips. And icing on the cake, Pablo took me down the Competition Channel, which has lots of big Class 4 rapids, including one at the bottom called, Big Drop. Let’s just say that it was a wild ride! So I’ve now had nine days of kayaking at the National Whitewater Center and my paddling has improved a lot. I would like to get back for a few more days at some point because it is such an ideal river for training. But first, I have a trips scheduled to the Snake River in Wyoming and the Urabamba in Peru. Thanks to Pablo, Jamie, Michal, Casey, and the rest of the amazing staff and instructors at the USNWWC, and especially thank you to Rob.