My First Whitewater Kayaking Class

By Robert Macias
Austin Expert,

Although I was the editor of an outdoors magazine for five years, the truth is I spent way too much time staring at a computer, sitting on my ever-expanding butt.

An all-day whitewater kayaking class on the San Marcos River seemed like a great way to begin the process of re-awakening the muscles that didn’t see much action while answering emails or repairing grammatical errors.
At the Olympic Outdoor Center in San Marcos, instructor and former Olympian Ben Kvanli asked the class of 11 students to describe any previous kayaking experience and explain what they’d like to get out of the course. I was glad to see that there was a good mix of beginner and intermediate kayakers. I’d done a little kayaking before, but mostly on calm water. And I had a great trip a couple of years ago to British Columbia, where I spent a week kayaking amid the orca along the Johnstone Strait. That should put me at the intermediate level, right? Wrong! Faster water, smaller kayaks—it’s totally different.

After the brief orientation, we loaded up the kayaks, jumped in a van, and arrived at the parking lot of the Saltgrass Steakhouse. I was sad to discover the restaurant wasn’t open yet and a mid-morning steak break was out of the question. The eatery just happened to be close to our launching point.

Lessons on Dry Land

[post_ads]Ben gave us a few pointers as we sat in our kayaks in the parking lot. I should’ve listened more closely to the part about where your knees are supposed to be. When I first inserted myself into the kayak, the footrests seemed to be entirely too close to the man-hole (probably not the right term for the seating area). My knees were rammed into the top of the kayak in a very uncomfortable fashion. However, when I moved the footrests further toward the front of the kayak, I think I over-compensated. As it turns out, your knees should be in constant contact with the top of the kayak—that’s what gives you control.

With the parking lot lesson completed, we all slipped into our skirts. Wearing a spray skirt when you’re not actually in a kayak is fairly humiliating; it looks like a big Rolling Stones tongue hanging off your waist. Fortunately, we all looked equally foolish. When seated in the kayak, the “tongue” wraps around the, er, man-hole to seal the paddler in place (and prevent water from entering the kayak). I remembered from my Canada trip that it’s important to put all the accoutrements on in the right order. Basically, the sequence should be: skirt, life jacket, helmet, sunglasses. And anything you need to access while paddling, such as a (waterproof) camera or water bottle, needs to be attached to the life jacket (you can’t get to the interior of the kayak because of the skirt).

The Easy Part
We lugged our kayaks a short distance and, with the help of Ben and his three assistants, we were soon paddling through nice, calm water, surrounded by giant elephant ears and pecan trees arching over the water. Ben demonstrated proper paddling form, which involves moving your body side to side, relying more on your stomach and leg muscles than your arms.

Easier said than done. As hard as I tried to follow the instructions, no matter what I did, my kayak pulled to the left like a car with alignment issues. And even when I paddled on the left to try to move the kayak to the right, I continued spinning to the left. The more current we encountered, the more severe the problem became. I learned to stop the spin by sticking my paddle into the water on the right side as a brake. After a while, I figured out that this probably had to do with the fact that my knees weren’t touching the top of the kayak. I pressed harder against the footrests and forced my knees upward, which seemed to help a little.

Upside Down Underwater
While I was still struggling to master the basics, we arrived at our first drop. Thankfully, it was more of a slide than a drop, with water flowing over a gradual concrete ramp. I made it over without incident and started to relax a little.

As my navigation skills were improving gradually, there was suddenly a new hazard to contend with: unruly hordes of tubers descended upon the river. Thankfully, most of them just bounced off when I ran into them.

When we approached the second drop, the instructors pulled us aside for another lesson. They said to aim for the V where the water was deepest and not to look at the rock on the left. It seems that by looking at an obstacle, you can unconsciously steer yourself right at it. Also, they said if you’re paddling faster than the current, you’ll be in control; otherwise, the current rules.

Well, I aimed for the V, but my front end veered to the left just before the drop, and I realized I was about to be seriously tumped over. Ben had taught us to hug the front of the boat when we were about to flip, and then to pound on the bottom of the boat to summon help. I got the pounding part right anyway. As I went underwater, I somehow got bent completely backwards, which makes it harder for the rescuer to turn the boat upright. I’m sure it was only a couple of seconds before Ben flipped me back up, but it seemed longer. Ever the positive reinforcer, Ben said, “Way to hold your breath,” as I attempted to regain composure.

Still a little shaken, I paddled myself into calm water and observed as the instructors taught the other students how to “surf” by paddling upstream into the froth of a waterfall.

On our lunch break, the instructors mentioned the 14-foot drop that loomed ahead of us at the end of the course. Totally optional, they said, no pressure, they said—but everyone does it.
Ah, crap.

Fear-Based Learning

[post_ads]Fear is a powerful motivator. After lunch, I started asking more questions, in hopes of being a little more in control of my kayak by the time we reached the big drop. With four very knowledgeable instructors on the water at all times, it’s easy to get help. In fact, if I didn’t fully understand one instructor’s explanation, I’d paddle over and ask another one the same question.

For one stroke, they told us to draw the letter J in the water with the paddle. If they saw my handwriting, they’d understand why I had such a hard time learning this one. I can barely make a legible J on a piece of paper with a pen. After instructor-hopping a few times, I was finally able to make a passable J with my paddle. This was a particularly useful stroke since it allows you to make an abrupt turn, even in the middle of a fast current. This would come in handy, say, if I were headed for a 14-foot drop and changed my mind at the last minute.

My favorite stroke was one that involved making a half-moon motion beside the boat with the paddle face aimed back at the boat. By subtly swishing the paddle in a back-and-forth half circle, you can move the kayak to one side in small increments. I got a lot of use out of this one since I was pretty much always in need of minor adjustments.

We went over a couple more small waterfalls, and I somehow managed to stay upright. By mid-afternoon, however, my overall lack of fitness was becoming more of a factor. My long-dormant muscles were awake all right—awake and screaming.

First there was the toe cramp (third toe on the left foot, in case you were wondering). Then a thigh cramp, a stomach cramp and a back cramp. At one point, I removed my right hand from the paddle, only to find that my hand was stuck in a claw-like cramp.

As I straightened my fingers forcibly with my other hand, I could hear that we were approaching a waterfall.
Ah, crap.

The Final, Glorious Plunge
I rounded the bend to discover that we were actually below the falls. To do the 14-foot drop, we first had to lug our kayaks up a hill. The narrow waterfall emerges from the remains of an old mill. Large calcium deposits have grown outward from the front of the concrete structure. The water flows over the calcium deposits, which means that the drop is not quite as vertical as it initially seems.

The braver members of the group immediately emerged from the water and started climbing the hill. I decided to watch for a while.

Then it started to rain. Oh, sweet rain. Surely, no one will fling themselves off a waterfall in the middle of a hard rain. Wrong again.

Since the first few people seemed to actually enjoy themselves, I decided to face my fear (and succumb to peer pressure). With the rain still coming down, I pulled the kayak out of the water, took a few steps, and immediately slid down the muddy hillside.

I finally clawed my way to the top and plopped back into the kayak. Before I had a chance to express my second thoughts, two of the instructors launched me with a good shove. I saw the front half of the kayak go underwater, yet somehow I popped right back up.

Despite the aches, pains and a few harrowing seconds trapped beneath a kayak, it was an amazing day.

Clearly, the next skill I need to learn is “rolling,” or flipping yourself upright after getting dunked. Ben says the idea of flipping over is a lot less stressful when you can save yourself. I watched a few people try it, and frankly, it doesn’t look very easy or enjoyable. But maybe with the tag-team assistance of four patient instructors, I’ll eventually figure it out.


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Travel Magazine: My First Whitewater Kayaking Class
My First Whitewater Kayaking Class
Travel Magazine
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