Looking back at my younger self and what I have done over the years, I’m really quite surprised – both at the journey and how it has changed me as a person. The first time I picked up a paddle, I really had no idea what lay in store, and now as I look back and reflect on my adventures, here’s what I would tell my younger self if I had the chance.
If you want it enough, you will get it
I loved kayaking when I was young and I still do to this day. I can remember paddling on the flat water endlessly, playing and learning. From simply trying to get the boat to go straight through to getting that first flatwater cartwheel. If you set your sights on achieving that thing and you will eventually get there. Commit to the path of learning the art. At times you will feel stuck in a rut, at other times you’ll achieve things you never thought you could.
Learn the basics really well
Paddling grade 3 really well isn’t that different to paddling harder rapids with good style. Sure some of the tactical decisions develop and the head game is stronger, but the majority of technique you use will stay the same. The things that I spend most time teaching paddlers who are relatively new to the sport are actually pretty similar to the things I coach much more experienced paddlers on:
- Learn to engage your core and hold good posture
- Learn to paddle forward effectively, rotating through your core and pelvis
- Learn to turn using well-developed sweep strokes
- Learn to carve the boat on edge whilst driving it forward
Think safety – always
Your frame of mind and rescue skills are the things that will keep you and your friends safe. It’s amazing how just a split second can colour the whole of the rest of your life. Some things are beyond our control, but most of what happens is down to your choices.
- Consider your attitude to safety, your margin for error, and be aware that the small things all add up. One person in the group forgetting their throwbag might not be a problem, but a group with a bad hangover, missing throwbag, and high water levels could soon get out of control.
- Consider your attitude to rescue and what you are capable of. How far are you willing to go to save a friend? The decisions you make on the river are the ones you will have to live with.
- Prevention is better than a cure. There will be mishaps along the way, and it’s often in your hands to stop these from turning into epic rescue scenarios.
- Dress for a swim! You may be warm and working hard in the sun, on a glacial creek, until events turn and you find yourself in a dark gorge, in the water, trying to save a friend in trouble.
Paddle with the best people you can
This will help your learning curve no end. When you paddle with better paddlers, as long as they are conscious of your ability, the experience you accumulate will increase dramatically. Watch everything, from how they pack the car and run the shuttle to how they choose & paddle lines on the river – then reflect on why they do things this way.
Trends come and go, the current one seems to be paddling large creek boats everywhere. Creek boats are great, but they don’t teach you as much as a more playful boat. Get in touch with the water, get pushed around by all its weird currents, and learn to roll quickly and reliably. Don’t ever be satisfied with just floating down a rapid. There are fun moves to be made all over the show, you just have to find them!
Hard whitewater takes more than skillful paddling
When we seek out harder whitewater, we also find steeper terrain and trickier access. These environments that demand respect, and (too often overlooked by paddlers) a good level of physical fitness. Slipping from a rock whilst inspecting a rapid could be just as dangerous as blowing your line on a class 5 rapid. Loosing your bearings on the march to the river and putting on late could tip the balance.
Grade 5 paddling puts demands on you beyond being a good paddler. I’m amazed at how skills learned climbing and even skiing have sometimes saved the day. Do you have the ability to move around in steep, slippery terrain? Could you set up a rope system to extract a friend from trouble?