Kayak Training

Recently, I have been focusing my training on whitewater kayaking, which is easily the scariest, most intense thing I have ever attempted. To maximize our training time, my partner and guide, Rob Raker, and I traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, home to the United States National Whitewater Center. We have great rivers in Colorado but what makes the NWC unique is the world’s largest pumped whitewater park. This incredible man-made facility, which opened in 2006, offers consistent water flows and rapids so it is ideal for practicing technique. Jeff Wise, the Executive Director of the NWC, was totally gracious to us and really opened up his staff to helping me out. The entire 300-acre facility includes climbing walls, mountain bike trails, a HUGE zip line, and a 3-hour rope course tour of the forest canopy. At night when they turn the pumps off, you can walk down the channels and check out all the features that create the rapids.

Photo by Rob Raker.

The NWC holds 12 million gallons of water with seven 620 HP lift pumps moving more than 536,000 gallons of water per minute (1,200 cfs). It has an elevation change of 21 feet between the upper and lower ponds and a conveyor belt system that carries you and your kayak back up, making it an endless river!

Photo by Rob Raker.

The river is divided into two separate channels, including the world’s steepest slalom channel, the world’s highest-volume big water channel, and purpose-built areas for instruction, safety training, and big-wave surfing. When the pumps are turned off, the staff can move obstacles to change the shape and size of rapids. Unlike a real river, the channels are smooth concrete so there are no boulders that can trap a foot making the NWC relatively safe too.  

Photo by Sarah Anderson.

The competition channel is fairly narrow with powerful Class IV rapids. Rob and I did all of our practice runs on the wilderness channel, which has mostly Class II and III rapids. However, it does have some Class IVs that you can avoid with a precise line. What I quickly discovered is the difference between avoiding the big nasty rapid and getting pummeled by it is only about a foot. As a blind kayaker, getting lined up properly by my guides’ commands is critical and it’s all too easy for something to go wrong. Luckily, Rob and I met Casey Eichfeld, a 22 year-old NWC coach and Olympian who signed aboard to be my second guide. This was a huge advantage since Casey was such a strong paddler, knew the channel from thousands of hours training, and quickly learned our commands.

Photo by Rob Raker.

My first run down the course proved far scarier than I anticipated because it was a busy day. The first rapid is called Entrance Exam, which offers a mellow run on the right or a large drop on the left. We intended to run it on the right but someone else was in the way so Rob had me go left. In a heartbeat, I flipped over but managed to roll myself back up. But then I was sideways and panicking. I hit the next rapid sideways and flipped again. This time when I tried to roll up there was a kayak on top of me and I pulled my skirt and swam through a series of rapids. Eventually I was washed into a large eddy, where the water recirculates around and around. Rob pulled me to shore while Casey retrieved my boat. When I finally got out, I felt like a drowned rat - mentally and physically exhausted—my hands were shaking and I felt like I was in way over my head. I had been flipped by the very first rapid. I hadn’t passed the Entrance Exam.

Photo by Rob Raker.

After I calmed down a bit, I had to get back on the horse so we spent the afternoon in a mellower side “instructional” channel with four Class II rapids. Here I just worked on getting my nerves under control. The next day, I tried Entrance Exam again…and it flipped me again. This time when I rolled up, I was thankfully pushed into an eddy and could then ferry across the river into the instructional channel. We spent three or four hours working on techniques like purposely rolling my kayak at the bottom of the smaller rapids. After four hours of paddling, my body was pretty tired, but my brain was totally exhausted. Listening to quick verbal commands for that long and knowing if you’re just a tiny bit slow or a tiny bit imprecise you’ll get hammered is stressful. On the third day, I passed the Exam! I made it through my nemesis without flipping and was psyched. So we decided to tackle the upper wilderness channel where I had had my swim. One of the things we improved on this trip was our communication system. We refined the vocabulary: “small left or right” means a 20° course change, “left or right” means 45° change, and “hard left or right” means a 90° turn. In the past, we used to say “paddle hard” to indicate full power but that gets confusing with course changes. So inspired by Casey, now my guides use “charge” when I’m properly lined up to a rapid. This may not sound like a big deal to a sighted paddler but for me, this was key to getting through the bigger rapids. With precise alignment, I could hammer for ten seconds and get through the waves that would otherwise eat me alive. This was a real breakthrough! Our fourth and last day at the NWC, I ran the upper wilderness channel three times. Alas, the first run resulted in another flip and swim when I couldn’t get my roll. But the next two runs were nearly perfect so our trip ended on a high note.

Photo by Sarah Anderson.

Blind kayaking has its unique set of challenges such as trying to read the water as it moves under me, or taking a stroke and meeting air instead of water as my paddle hits the trough between the waves, or not knowing which way to lean as the current instantly and powerfully changes direction. Despite this, I’m making progress, building skills, and gaining confidence. We are going back to the NWC for another training session in a few weeks. And then I’ll be hitting some wild water this summer. Reach! Erik