My First Time Whitewater Kayaking

As an outdoors person, I have to admit that I’ve gotten pretty cocky when it comes to outdoor activities. I used to think that I could just pick up any outdoor sport and take to it like a fish in water (pun intended), but that was all before I tried white water kayaking. 

Some Back Story

Prior to my second year of working for UTC Outdoors, I went on a staff training trip down the Hiwassee River near Cleveland, TN. One of the things we do with our program is teach students how to exit whitewater kayaks (those are the types where you’re strapped in) in a pool on campus. Up until that staff training trip, the only experience I had in a kayak was in that pool. I was pretty proud to have taken to kayaking so quickly–but as I would come to find out, being on the river is way different from being in an indoor lap pool.

In the world of whitewater kayaking, there’s a wide range of boats and gear suited for different levels of experience and type of river. The general rule is that the bigger the boat is, the more stable it is. I’m sure this principle is somewhat true for all water excursions (someone should tell that to the guy who sank a cruise ship!).  The bigger boats are commonly referred to as river runners. These boats are much harder to flip due to the way they’re constructed. Their round, smooth, edges make the water brush under the boat instead of flipping the participant and boat together. Like play boats.

Play boats are made to well, play. They’re much shorter than river runners and much more fierce due to their sharp edges and extremely sensitive handling abilities. These are the boats that the experienced paddlers use to do crazy backflips and other nuts trucks like this. After I tell you that my first time kayaking was a very scary, unnerving experience, I’ll let you guess which kind of boat I grabbed as the staff all loaded up and for the Hiwassee.

That’s right, I grabbed a play boat. This play boat:

But don’t be fooled by the picture, I didn’t look nearly that cool on the river.

We put out boats into a little creek which winds under a bridge and onto the main river…

It took me all of 3 minutes to realize how uncomfortable I was on the water. The crazy thing about being in a kayak on a river with current is that you really don’t have much say when it comes to where you’re going to go. You have to learn how to play the currents and move with the water, which I’ve since learned. But at the time, being strapped into a 6 foot piece of plastic sitting in the current of an extremely wide river was just about the most terrifying thing I’d ever done.

The group was setting up to ferry across the river when I first got separated from them. I pulled out into the current without really knowing what I was doing meaning I floated a good twenty feet downstream on the wrong side of where we wanted to be. So Brandon (the most experienced paddler of any of us) waited for me to get to the shore line and paddle back towards him and then the two of us set off to cross the river.

It’s kind of hard to describe the way it feels to be in a play boat and have zero boating skills other than to say that you never really get settled. I felt like the current (which at this point, was not strong at all) was going to flip me at any given moment. And sure enough, it did.

Brandon and I had been on the water for less than ten minutes when my boat “caught an edge” and flipped into the freezing Hiwassee water. It was probably around 65 or 70 that day and the water was realistically probably around the same temperature, but anyone with river experience can tell you that the first time you get dunked, it’s really scary.

I knew how to buddy rescue and I kind of knew how to roll (flip myself without the help of another paddler), but as soon as my face hit that water, I pulled my skirt (the thing that keeps you in the boat). I felt all the air being forcibly removed from my lungs by the shockingly cold temperature of the water. I came up looking like I’d just seen a ghost while scuba diving.

It’s not unusual for people to flip on their first time kayaking, but it is unusual that they flip twice in the first fifteen minutes of being on the river. I just had to be the exception I guess.

As I was swimming in the water trying not to freak out, Brandon coached me into getting back in my boat. Once in my boat, I set off for the first set of quickly moving water. Then I flipped–again. 

This time I grabbed onto my buddy Jacob’s boat so that he could pull me into an eddy (calm spot of water without current) where the rest of the group was waiting for us. We somehow overshot the line and ended up desperately paddling/swimming against the current trying to get back into it.

The giant river was so loud that I couldn’t hear anyone’s voices or the sound of their boats. As Jacob and I floated downstream I realized how little I had control over. It was all at once overwhelming to know that this river had the ability to thrash me about as much as it darn well please and all I could do was to float through hoping to catch a break. Everything from the rocks beneath me to the boulders in the stream seemed to be flowing in a beautiful sort of unison. I was the only exception. I was the eyesore in this world of natural wonder. I was helpless.

Life Lesson Learned: No one successfully paddles up river. 

A few minutes later we successfully met up with the group and I got back into my boat. We got to an eddy and I held on to a tree root from an island like it was the only thing keeping me on earth. Shaking so bad my teeth were literally clicking, my boss asked me if I was even having fun. Then I lied. I lied really hard.

I told her I was.

Part of working in the outdoors is discovering the ability to see beyond the immediate situation, to become a steadfast optimist. Despite the fact that I never wanted to touch a kayak or see a river again, there was nothing I could do about it then. So the only option was to paddle harder.

Luckily, I was able to do just that. I didn’t flip again for the rest of the journey which involved paddling all the major rapids. I even smiled a bit during the last big one.

I’ve since fallen head over heels in love with paddling and I do it as much as I can, even though I didn’t touch a kayak for a year after my first experience. As long as you keep with it, you can enjoy anything.


2 responses to “My First Time Whitewater Kayaking

  1. So fun to relive/read about that day on the river! I remember paddling as hard as I could trying to drag you into that eddy, it really is hard to paddle up river with some one on the back of your boat, haha! You were shivering like a wet puppy, but you hopped right back in that boat. I have to admit I was proud of you. It takes a lot of heart and determination to get back in the boat that first day.


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