For participants in a sport where peeling out at the top of a rapid almost inevitably results in arriving at the bottom, kayakers seem surprisingly indifferent to matters of style. Things can go pretty badly awry, and onlookers might roll their eyes at a particularly bad line, but someone would have to be radically over his head before anyone would be likely to say anything about it. In other sports, this is not the case. Compare surfing: at the world’s stoutest breaks, a surfer with only a few months or even a few years of experience would have virtually no chance of catching and making a wave. Nevertheless, even a surfer with all the skills to ride waves at Hawaii’s Pipeline would be blocked from catching waves, mocked, maybe beaten, if he were surfing with bad style or acting in a way that put other people at risk. For kayakers, though, bucking up to run something huge, even if it isn’t done with much grace, is a lot more likely to get attention and praise than putting down a pretty line on some anonymous class III. Kayaking is not surfing, and few people, if any, would want to see aggressive, territorial behavior find its way onto the river. But is that behavior meeting some social needs in surfing that are going unmet in kayaking?
If there is a place where kayaking’s collective lack of social controls is being tested, it might be the Green River in North Carolina. For how steep it is, the Green is an unbelievably forgiving run. But that forgiveness is routinely being tested by huge crowds of paddlers, some seemingly lacking the basic skills to run any river safely. In June, a video was posted on YouTube showing some gut wrenching lines on the Narrows: one paddler takes a header off Gorilla, another misses the eddy on the lip of Sunshine (a class III move at most) and drops off the center backwards, another paddler swims in the class III runout. Two of the Southeast’s best (and best known) paddlers, Isaac Levinson and Pat Keller, posted comments, in a discussion that meandered from Facebook to BoaterTalk to the YouTube comment section, calling out the video as an example of dangerous and unacceptable behavior. The callout was unusual, but it was the reactions that were perhaps more telling in what they reveal about attitudes in the sport, as well as the mentality that our collective indifference to matters of style, technique, and safety have helped to bring about with regard to how a paddler progresses in the sport.
One paddler in the YouTube comments section wrote, “I don’t know who died and made Pat and Isaac god, but they sure are a bunch of dumb shits!!! Tell me that they came out of the womb paddling class 5. Everyone has to start somewhere…” Much has been made about how advances in equipment and technique now enable paddlers to run whitewater in a season or so that once might have taken a career to achieve, but for paddlers who took up the sport in an earlier era, the implications of comments like that are jaw dropping: for some portion of the paddling population, the Green is now regarded as a place to start, and taking hair raising crashes as a stepping stone. That mentality has serious implications, though, for everyone’s safety and for the ability of new boaters to progress in the sport.
It is often suggested that the genesis of surfing’s aggressive attitude towards loose behavior in the lineup is the fight for scarce resources in an inherently dangerous environment, and it may be that changes in the sport of kayaking are pushing toward a similar dynamic. While growth in kayaking participation overall has largely plateaued, creeking is gaining in popularity, and moderately difficult runs like the Green are starting to see crowds that wouldn’t have existed a decade ago. But while a crowd of marginal paddlers at your local playspot is annoying, crowds on class V whitewater are undeniably dangerous.
That danger manifests itself in a way that is perhaps unique to kayaking, and in a way that might account for some antagonism toward boaters insistent on paddling over their heads. In kayaking, there are a lot of ways that things can go wrong. Most of them, though, lead to a brief and urgent window during which another boater can step in and potentially save someone’s life. A pin, a swimmer being recirculated, a long swim threatening a flush drowning… in all these situations, urgent action can be the difference between life and death. And in all these situations, too, that urgent action is likely to call on someone else to immediately put his own life at risk. In the surf, outside of the unique dynamic of tow-in surfing, someone getting beat down is basically on his own. If someone falls climbing, there’s either someone standing at the end of the rope, or there isn’t. But in kayaking, when someone is in trouble, someone has to act, boldly, and immediately.
One of the most admirable characteristics of the kayaking community is this: when someone is in trouble, anyone present will step up and in an instant put his or her own life at risk to save a complete stranger. On a more pedestrian level, paddlers are almost always there for each other when it comes time to help someone who’s swam or unpin a boat, even if it isn’t a life threatening situation. When someone is paddling over his head, he undercuts that dynamic, both by being much more likely to need help and by himself probably lacking the necessary skills to help someone else. Even when it doesn’t entail undue risk, stopping for an hour to deal with unpinning a boat or helping a swimmer across the river interrupts the flow of the run and of the day; nevertheless, most kayakers value being a part of a community where helping out is the norm and wouldn’t want to see the river become an environment where people callously blow by other boaters who could use a hand. If kayakers have to choose between preserving the all-for-one safety ethos on the river or preserving the everybody-come-along vibe in the parking lot, I think most people would unquestionably pick the former.
It seems at times, as well, that the community’s willingness to accept a high level of carnage as normal has lead to some mistaken ideas about how paddlers progress in the sport. Contrary to YouTube commenter opinion, most top kayakers did not start kayaking on the Green River Narrows. “I started kayaking when I was 10, and I started paddling more frequently when I was about 13,” Rush Sturges explained to me. “I ran my first real Class V when I was 14 years old. Leading up to that run (it was Cherry Creek Proper) I was running a LOT of Class IV. I ran the local grade IV section on the Cal Salmon many times that Spring and Summer to prepare. I was very nervous before putting on the river. I had certainly hyped up what Class V was going to be like, and when I finished the run, I walked away with a smile on my face. Rather than being at the edge of my limits on the run, I was actually super solid and didn’t miss a single boof…. I personally am thankful I spent as much time and effort [as] I did on Grade III and IV before finally stepping my game up. I was super fortunate to grow up around competent kayakers, and I think that had a lot to do with it. I didn’t even have a swim until I was 20 years old on Upper Cherry Creek. I’m not trying to brag by saying that, just pointing out that time spent preparing on easier stuff is time well spent when you decide to raise the bar.”
The best athletes in any sport are often those that started young, but consider this possibility: maybe in addition to all the other benefits of beginning at a young age, kayakers who start early turn into better boaters because they are often forced by someone—a parent, an older mentor—to paddle easy whitewater longer than they might want to or really need to. As John Weld put it, “When you’re 13 years old, you’re going to the Lower Yough whether you like it or not.” It truly is a common experience of the best paddlers that, whether through the influence of an older mentor, a lack of good or consistent whitewater, slalom racing, or some other factor, these paddlers have put in a lot of time working on hard moves on easy water.
More than just putting in time on easy whitewater, learning new skills requires pushing it hard on easy whitewater all the time, and it may be that this is an easier mindset to adopt for younger paddlers(for example). It isn’t just a matter of “feeling comfortable” on easier water before taking the next step; it’s about consistently pushing it on easier water—taking the hardest lines, catching the smallest eddies, boofing every rock; learning to make judgments about what moves are makeable and which aren’t; and learning to deal with the repercussions of missed judgments in whitewater with less consequence than in class V. That sort of learning is hard to achieve in a setting where a paddler is basically hanging on for his life.
Pat Keller explained the steps he took to get better when he was starting in the sport this way: “[C]linics clinics clinics, slalom, clinics clinics clinics, foamies…. freestyle freestyle freestyle, clinics clinics clinics (you get the picture)…. Every step on the way up that ladder is important. Take time to know with each one if you are ready to proceed. Willing is easy, knowing is what’s hard.” Runs like the Green are undoubtedly a key step towards becoming a solid boater, but there are surely quite a few steps to be taken before a new boater gets there. “[T]he Green has become the Mecca of honing the skills to become a solid creek boater,” Pat says. “More and more paddlers are climbing that ladder of skill, and the Green is certainly a cherished step for all those who take it. But it must be climbed to with much respect for the dangers along the way.”
All of this is a lot less sexy than just “firing it up,” though. Your Facebook friends are going to be a lot less impressed with that attainment it took you a month to finally make on the Lower Yough than they are with a picture of you rolling over the lip on Metlako. But paddling better, not just paddling harder water, is something that takes time. And taking beatings on difficult whitewater in the hope that one day the beatings will stop is not, for most paddlers, a viable path to success.
For most paddlers who’ve been in the sport for a while, the advantages of encouraging new boaters to progress incrementally seem obvious: fewer incidents to deal with, better safety on the water for everyone, fewer risks to access because of events on the river leading to negative attention or calls to search & rescue, a stronger sense of community. The less obvious issue is how, as a community, to achieve that. Most paddlers are understandably (and commendably) reluctant to insert themselves into other people’s risk taking decisions. As Rush puts it, “My gut feeling is that if someone is putting on the river with you, it’s his or her responsibility to know if that run is suitable for them. However, I am not afraid to tell someone that they should evaluate their skills before putting on a run, or ask them what types of similar runs they’ve done previous. Ultimately, kayaking is up to the individual and there is NO ego when it comes to making sure you are as safe as possible on Class V.”
It may be that the changes the community needs are as simple as recognizing your friends when they draw creative lines on the river or paddle well rather than just “going big.” Inclusion in the Rider of the Year competition of a “Best Line” category, recognizing “styled lines” alongside categories like Drop of the Year could be a step in that direction. A few less high-fives for surviving sketchy lines and being willing to encourage friends to take a step back when needed probably wouldn’t hurt, either.
In the end, the idea is to encourage community by cutting down on the sort of behavior that makes stronger boaters want to abandon weaker ones to fend for themselves or discourages new boaters from sticking with the sport. Hopefully we can all encourage up and coming boaters to progress in the sport safely and incrementally without resorting to slashing tires in the parking lot.
Then again, maybe surf-style aggression is on the way, whether we like it or not. The top comment on the YouTube video, “Carnage on the Nars”? “[F]ucking lame. Stay the fuck off the Green.”
Louis Geltman works as a lawyer in Hood River, Oregon, in between laps on the Little White Salmon.