The time to suit up and hit the water had come — I hadn’t been this nervous and excited in quite some time.
Once I had my gear on, I soon learned that the challenges for a newbie kayaker begin before you even take to the water.
The water-based part of my instruction began where the Ocoee meets Parksville Lake, so basically the only thing I had to battle was the current.
Kayaks, on average, can weigh anywhere from 35 to 65 pound, depending on the material they are made of. The Jackson Karma I would be using for the afternoon was 50 pounds, 9 feet long, and 28 inches wide.
While 50 pounds didn’t seem that heavy to me, I quickly figured out that picking up such an awkward-shaped 50 pound boat was quite a task. In fact, the only bruise that came from my kayaking adventure was an ugly greenish-yellow one from when I tried to lift the kayak with my forearm. I’m quite certain that this was a rookie mistake, plain and simple.
After finally managing to get the kayak up on my shoulder I followed my instructor, Joe Gudger of Ace Kayaking School, to the slightly murky river’s edge.
I adjusted the bulkhead to fit my legs as comfortably as they could be in that somewhat awkward froggy-style sitting position, and then had to take some of the padding out of the hip pad area. The lumbar support was then set so that my posture was correct.
Getting the skirt situated was initially a frustrating task, since the bungee was dry and not as easy to get into the right position around the cockpit rim. I was informed by Joe that it would get a bit easier once the skirt was wet. The most important part when putting the skirt in place is making sure that the grab loop is on the outside, where it can be pulled loose in case of a “wet exit.”
Learning how to pull off a wet exit would be the first thing I learned out on the water and it was also the thing I was dreading most. I had been warned that when kayaking there is always the chance that you will get flipped around in the water, which is perhaps why it took me so long to even attempt the sport.
Joe brought me out toward the still somewhat shallow part of the river and the time had come to practice a wet exit. I was instructed to keep my hands by the sides of the boat and not near the grab loop, because in a real-life situation I wouldn’t have my hand on the loop waiting to escape. If I had any problems finding my way out, I was to tap the sides of the boat and instructor Joe would come to the rescue.
“Don’t worry, gravity and the need for air kick in, and you find a way to get out,” Gudger said right before I willingly submerged myself upside down in the kayak.
A deep breath later I was underwater and attempting to find the grab loop to free myself. It wasn’t as easy to find as I had expected, and I discovered that you can definitely get out of the kayak with enough twisting and torsion.
I’m not sure how long it took me to get out, all I know is that it felt like forever before I was breathing air again. It must not have been that long because Joe didn’t looked concerned when I made it out.
With the wet exit performed it was time to begin learning a few basic strokes and maneuvers that would prepare me for our mile trip down some class 1 and 2 rapids.
I was shown the forward sweep stroke and power stroke first, but when it was my turn to perform I quickly realized that I might be one of those people who can only paddle in a circle. The thing to remember about sweep strokes is that you need to keep your elbow straight on the side on which you are paddling; no bent elbows allowed.
It was frustrating to say the least, but thankfully my instructor seemed to have the patience of a saint and was able to get me to the point where I could paddle straight for a few feet before veering off course.
The key, he told me, was to look straight at where I wanted to go while paddling. That sort of helped, but I was still kayaking a bit like I was under the influence of alcohol.
We switched directions and began kayaking downstream instead of up, and it was then that my paddling began to drastically improve. I learned the reverse sweep stroke and stern draw as well as rock spins, which are used when trying to get unstuck from a rock.
Rock spins I was able to get the hang of with relative ease. Reverse stroke with one side, forward stroke with the other. It figures that I would turn out to be decent at the activity that had “spin” in its name.
Joe was always quick to let me know when I was actually doing something right, but was even quicker to point out corrections that I needed to make to my form.
I was finally able to paddle upstream to the log obstruction that had been my initial target. Being able to reach it felt great; I had actually accomplished something!
I learned about the eddies in the water and how to use them to my advantage. An eddy can form on the side of the river or right after an obstruction in the water. The water in an eddy flows in the direction opposite from the rest of the river.
You can use eddies to peel out back into the river, which advanced kayakers can use to gain speed. Since I’m nowhere even close to a novice level kayaker, we just focused on exiting an eddy and not getting caught by the current and flipping.
When leaving the eddy you need to be at a 45-degree angle, relative to the current you are ferrying out into. Also, finding your edge is vital. For example, I was heading out into a downstream so I positioned my weight toward the right side of the boat, lifting the left edge.
Having performed well enough in the calm water, Joe said it was time to drive a mile up to the next takeout and get into the whitewater.
For some reason, I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be. I just knew that I was not going to get caught wrong in a rapid and flip. When you’re heading into the rapids you want to hit them straight on and keep paddling the entire time.
I cleared the first rapid and as I was heading into the second one found myself in the exact position I did not want to be in: sideways. My attempts at correcting weren’t quick enough and a flip seemed imminent.
I felt the kayak start to go over, at which point I leaned as far the other way as possible. Miraculously and much to my instructor’s surprise as well as my own, I was able to pull myself out of the near fail unscathed
According to Joe I had some “awesome balancing skills” because he had expected me to “eat it” once I had hit the rapid sideways. All I can say is that my only thought at the moment was “I’m not going in. No way. No how.”
I successfully made it back to the next takeout, and was even able to rock spin myself off of a rock in the shallow water.
No harm had come to me, and kayaking turned out to be as fun as it has always looked. The rush was better than what you experience on a roller coaster, because my ride on the river hinged solely on my abilities.
“The places it takes you — you see some pretty amazing places, some of the gorges that you come into you realize that you kayaked there for a reason,” Gudger reflected after the lesson was over. “I think some of my closest friends came from kayaking. My favorite thing about kayaking is when I’m out there creeking. I’m only focused on the moment right then, right there; the rest of the world doesn’t exist. You get to escape for a little bit.”
It was peaceful, it was exciting, it was fantastic! To top it all off, I felt like I had really learned and grasped the instruction that was presented to me. Although I’m still in the rookie leagues, I can no longer consider myself clueless.
While I hear that “boofing (raising the kayak’s bow during freefall and also the sound when you land) is awesome,” I think it will still take a good deal of lessons before I get to experience that for myself.
For further information about lessons offered at Ace Kayaking School, call 423-716-7666.