Levelling Up your Kayaking (without scaring the sh*t out of Yourself!)

This blog was cross-posted on the Kokatat Team blog on Oct 12 2020. link here

In this blog, I present some specific strategies that you can use to progress to harder water more safely. I don’t prescribe one 'right way’ because everyone’s life situation, mental states and experiences are different. However, I will present a framework that you can use to tailor your own progression to your own situation. My ultimate goal is to provide some insights so that everyone can have a lifelong, challenging, fulfilling and positive relationship with whitewater, where you don’t stop because you feel like you stalled out or because of a scary experience. This blog is a revised and more succinct version of the live webinar I gave for CaliCollective (access the recording here), May 2020. The ideas and essential skills I present are based on deep reflection into my own kayaking progression into harder whitewater, which included very few injuries and incidents, and fostered in me a very strong mental game. Elements and moments in my past that in retrospect have been important to me are highlighted in the photos.

First, I will discuss some foundational skills that will keep you safer as you make transitions to harder whitewater. You can become a really skilled kayaker by just running one local run, slalom course or playboating spot. However, if you seek to explore beyond your backyard, there is more to keeping you safe on whitewater runs than your skills. Experience and the people you paddle with are just as important for maintaining a positive and fun lifelong experience with whitewater. So secondly, I will introduce how your tripod of skill, experience and paddling partners will keep you safer if you work to keep it stabilized while you push yourself to new heights.

 
I got my start in the Whitman College pool in 2003 where I met my mainstay paddling partner and future husband, Leif (pictured here).  Before I ever paddled in the river, I was working on cartwheels and could do all sorts of different types of rolls on both sides. Paddling at pool sessions remains a consistent part of my life and relationship 18 years later

Foundational skills that will keep you safer


In the table below, I summarize what I think are the essential skills to master for each transition in whitewater. I separate these skills into a maneuvering skill that will allow you to avoid most mishaps, and a recovery skill that will help you keep a small mishap from becoming a scary one. Improvement of skills (both maneuvering and recovery skills) is best done when you are relaxed and can focus on the skills without worrying about consequences, so work on skills on runs/levels you are comfortable on.

Table: Foundational skills that will keep you safer on the water. Practice skills on whitewater that is easy for you.

Transition

Maneuvering Skill 

Recovery Skill 

Some ways to improve (non exhaustive). Coaches will help you improve faster and more efficiently with fewer bad habits.

Class I to Class II

Recognition of eddies and eddylines

Swimming in current and getting yourself to shore safely and expediently

Swiftwater rescue classes, raft guide training, paddling sit on tops in class II

Class II to Class III

Edge control, staying upright. especially crossing eddy lines

Bomber combat Roll

Refine roll in pool, every time you go out make sure you roll 10 times, playboat, downriver tricks, practice going in and out of eddies a lot.

Class III to Class IV

Ability to slow down using cross-current speed, micro eddies and waves/holes

Confidence in your ability to recover from being off-line or in sticky, non ideal situations

Try new/hard lines and moves on easy runs, playboat, put yourself in holes on class III runs where you think you might swim, make up challenge eddies that you might mess up, train slalom. If you aren’t flipping over or messing up, make it harder so that you do.

Class IV to Class V

Maintaining speed through drops (boofing is part of this but not all)

‘Awareness’*

(accurate evaluation of your skill in relation to your situation)

Slalom training, paddling a variety of runs and water levels with a variety of crews, teach people to kayak, run some new rapids blind, explore new runs within your ability without a lot of beta, explore, pick your own lines and try them before you see others paddle the rapid, paddle flatwater paying close attention the stroke technique, re-take swift water rescue classes, pay attention to outside factors external to you, such as the environment and the moods of your fellow paddlers.

*Awareness is necessary to be a safe paddler at any level, but especially crucial for class V because the margin of error for misassements become very slim. When stepping up into class V, awareness should be highly developed and thus everyone should practice awareness throughout their progression. Also, solid paddlers at any level can run into problems when they drop their awareness and become complacent, as often happens in mega groups or on a quick after work lap on your home run.


During my own transition into class V whitewater, I was very strong in my class I-IV recovery skills.  This allowed me to be a little weaker in my maneuvering skills.  I didn’t become so skilled that I never had mishaps, but I was skilled enough that the mishaps were not that scary. Thus, I got a lot of practice successfully recovering (or being rescued) from missed lines in various scenarios. Above all, I think it was my confidence in my recovery skills which made me comfortable with the consequences of trying harder moves and gave me the mental fortitude to handle a bit of beatering on the transitions.  I have also known people who have successfully made transitions by being very strong in maneuvering and weaker in their recovery.  However, you will feel the strongest and safest if you have both strong maneuvering and recovery skills.  Lately, I have been working on my foundational maneuvering skills. So, I encourage you to identify where you are weakest and work on that.

My decade of surfing waves, navigating big boily water and riding trashy holes on the Slave River (first trip was 2008) has given me the mental fortitude to be able to handle ‘getting worked’ and getting myself out of 'getting worked’.  It is only in retrospect that I am able to recognize my summers on this river as the backbone which has supported me, both in body and mind, through my progression into class V whitewater. Here is a link of a video re-posted by Teton Gravity Research that went viral in 2016 of me getting worked in the penalty box of Rockem Sockem.


A framework for levelling up: the tripod of skill, experience and paddling partners


Kayaking feels very fun and safe when you have the appropriate amount of skill and experience to safely navigate the whitewater you are running and you are comfortable with who you are paddling with. Levelling up your kayaking without scaring the shit out of yourself is a balancing act as you raise your tripod of skill, experience, and paddling partners. As you start to raise the legs of your tripod, one leg will be invariably higher than the others at any moment in time. Your tripod will be the most unstable during these transition. You are gaining the skills and experience needed to run the next level of whitewater, but you aren’t there yet! The trick is to make sure that the people you paddle with are helping you stabilize (rather than destabilize) any imbalances in skill and/or experience, especially when you choose to raise your tripod rapidly.

As I leveled up my own kayaking, I unintentionally, through circumstance and perhaps with some intuition, struck a nice balance between skill and experience (I didn’t lift one tripod leg too high above the other), and had good support from paddlers better than me. I paddled a large variety of boats, with lots of different people, down lots of different types of runs. This aspect of my progression was just as important (or more so?) as being skillful for building my confidence. The few scarier incidents that I did have were associated with paddling at flood stage.  In retrospect, I was overconfident in my very strong recovery skills and didn't have a paddling partner present to help me make a more appropriate decision (Leif was more skilled than me, but not more experienced and was not always the voice of reason). However, some of my best and most memorable paddling days have also been on runs at flood stage. My experiences have taught me to always approach flooding rivers, especially flooding class IV, with high levels of caution. It is very easy to inadvertently get yourself in over your head when paddling a run 'below your skill' that is flooding, especially if you are not that familiar with the run.  Hydraulics can be bigger and sticker then you expect, skills that you thought were solid can fall apart in the pushier boilier water, and the consequences if you are out of your boat swimming are very high (being pushed quickly into strainers, long swims, body recirculation in holes).

My rolling prowess and my comfort in whitewater from childhood rafting experiences allowed me to quickly progress through class IV in the California Northcoast.  For my first three years I exclusively paddled those short stubby playboats indicative of the times- pocket rocket, kingpin, crazy 88. Here I am in 2006 learning to boof a creekboat on Burnt Ranch Gorge, which I had previously run many times in my playboat (also see blog from 2009 photo shoot BRG for my mindset in this era of progressing my creeking skills)


When Your Skill > Experience

If your technical skill is greater than your lived experience, you may be prone to misjudging the severity of situations or the consequences of your decisions and actions. Basically, your technical skills will allow you to go out and paddle rivers of much higher consequence than your experience in assessment and rescue. This can lead you into situations that might scare you out of the sport. For more risk averse paddlers, lack of experience, rather than skill, may be keeping you back from progressing and challenging yourself onto harder whitewater because you are unsure and wary of the consequences and you have low confidence in your own ability to recover from missed lines, such as being stuck in a hole. The antidote in either case is to increase the breadth of your experience and to challenge yourself in new places and situations. Make sure when you challenge yourself you are paddling with and are supported by more experienced veteran paddlers who can help you learn to appropriately and accurately assess situations, especially regarding consequences relating to your decisions. These people may keep you from doing something stupid, but they might also be the encouragement you need to push your boundaries. 

When Your Experience > Skill

If your lived experience is greater than your technical skill, you may be very comfortable throwing yourself at runs with the mentality that you can 'fake it until you make it'. Diverse experiences, especially ones where you are challenged and overcome that challenge creates robust confidence that you can get yourself out of most scrapes. While this leads to confidence in your ability to make it down the run, however ungracefully, it exposes you to greater risk for injury and mishap- potentially resulting in turning away from the sport due to scary incidents. If you have had diverse experiences, including some scary ones, the knowledge of everything that can go wrong may keep you back from challenging yourself on harder runs. The antidote here is to spend some time practicing your technical skills on runs that pose little danger to you. The goal is to become more confident that you will always make those ‘must make’ moves that will keep you in your boat and on line. Increasing your skill will reduce chances of injuring yourself or finding yourself in a situation that becomes difficult to recover from. Finding some mentors or coaches will help you more efficiently progress your technical skills and will help you gain confidence so that you can run the type of whitewater you are pushing for.

Here I am in 2010 on Brandy Creek, northern California misjudging (overestimating) my skill and experience in relation to the drop. At this point, I hadn’t paddled very many tall drops (as evident in my body position).  However, I was feeling pretty darn good about myself as a boater (skilled enough, but mostly just really confident). Although I came through this moment just fine, looking back it is precisely this type of decision that could have easily played out differently.  I scouted on the right side of the river and saw a line and sent it. I was paddling with just my husband who had a similar level of experience as me.  Only after I landed did I realize how close I was to hitting some rocks on the landing zone to left of the drop that I couldn’t see from my scouting position. It was a wake up call to me. I was very grateful that Leif didn’t have to single handedly haul me out of the creek, and from then on I have always spent a lot more time scouting landings from all angles. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best time or scenario to step it up to running taller drops.


In the sections below, I provide more written detail and also include some diagnostic measures and tips for improvement for each of the three legs of the tripod (Experience, Skills and Paddling Partners) that you can use to determine where you might need to focus and how you might go about improving yourself.


Skill

you may want to focus skills if:

  • You find yourself self rescuing a lot and/or often have to rely on others to help rescue you

  • Your lines frequently turn out a lot different than you imagined them when scouting

  • People are hesitant to take you on the runs you want to go on

  • You are gripped and tense while paddling and at the bottom you just want to be off the river

  • You are fearful of all the hazards and want to make sure that you can always avoid them

  • You simply want to challenge yourself, but you don’t want to challenge yourself by paddling harder runs with higher consequences.


Improving your technical skills is about putting together a solid foundation upon which to grow. The more complete and solid your skills, the harder the whitewater you will eventually be able to run. One of the best ways to think about increasing your skill is to try and become a master at what you are already good at. Mastering skills decreases your exposure to high risk situations and increases your confidence that you will complete your maneuvers. A good rule of thumb is that mastery comes when you can successfully perform the skill ~100 percent of time when you intend to. I have more respect for a great masterful class three paddler than I do for someone beatering down class IV or V.

Soul surfing is not only good for the mind, but good for your technique. I have spent gobs of hours front surfing waves, especially on the Slave River.


I really dislike doing anything for the adrenaline or anything that makes me terrified or really scared. If I am feeling this way, I step back my kayaking and work with deliberate practice (see linked blog by Nick Beavis on the topic) to improve and become a better master at my underlying techniques. As you step up in whitewater, you will start running things where there are more “must make” moves and places you simply don't want to be - and your confidence in your recovery may not save you from injury or worse. You need to make sure your underlying skills are solid enough that the chances of you missing a must make move are negligible. Feeling butterflies is completely fine, but if you find that you are gripped and tense while paddling, and at the bottom you just want to be off the river, it is time to step back. You may also find that you are becoming more fearful as you start to understand and recognize more of the dangers that you were unaware of before. This requires you to become more certain you can avoid them. Having fear present is a good thing - it is your body telling you that you should spend more time working on your paddling foundation. As your skills improve, the fearful feelings may lessen or go away.

tips for gaining skill

  • Boat more often (boat consistently, with intention)

  • Make easy runs harder (change up your boats, pick harder lines)

  • Cross train in multiple paddling disciplines (flatwater, slalom, playboating, creeking)

  • Compete

  • Teach kayakers less skilled than you

  • Get instruction- limit habitualizing bad habits and more efficiently progress.

Competition and paddling various boats are great ways to improve without running harder whitewater than you are comfortable on by highlighting areas in which you should focus. I have done both throughout my paddling career. It is very humbling to lose to 10 -year olds from the local slalom club - what a great motivator for focused improvement! The fun factor increases if you don’t take yourself too seriously (e.g. 2009 Icebreaker)


Experience

you may want to focus on experience if:

  • You feel stalled out on a certain run and are having a hard time taking the leap to run the harder sections, even though you have the desire and technical skills. 

  • You can run class IV+ to V, but can also list the number of rivers you have paddled on your hands.

  • You are running hard technical whitewater but have had limited to no experience rescuing swimmers or pulling people out of holes

  • You are fearful to advance or try a rapid or run because you don’t know what will happen to you if you don’t make a line

  • You’ve never had to paddle out of a tight place, like against a wall

  • If stuck in a hole, you can’t tell whether it is a keeper or whether it will let you go if you hold on longer.

  • You never flip over when kayaking

  • You don’t know how to look at hydrograph, extrapolate future flow conditions or where to find flow information, even for runs without gauges.

  • You rarely alter your decisions based on group dynamics or weather.


Experience increases your ability to assess situations and handle the consequences of your actions and the actions of those around you. This will give you a stronger mental game when stepping it up and will keep you and the people around you safer. The goal for gaining experience is twofold; 1) to build your confidence in your ability to recover when things don’t go as planned, and 2) to be able to accurately evaluate your skill with respect to the decisions you are making and the risks you are taking. You can build experience at all levels. When you gain experience, you become more comfortable with the probable outcomes of your decisions and thus are more likely to be up for a growth challenge where you might ‘fail’’. The more you have mastered the technical maneuvering skills, the more you have to concentrate on creating opportunities to practice recovering from mishaps in controlled ways because it won’t just happen naturally - you are simply too good to get the practice you need at recovery without practicing it intentionally.

Both these photos represent times that I felt very aware of myself in relation to the whitewater. To the left is me, just this year in 2020, choosing not to run a rapid on Thunder creek, Washington that I knew was within my technical skills, but it had some consequences that didn’t feel right to me in my present circumstance (late in day, long hike, worried about my kids, hadn’t been boating much). To the right is me as part of the team to first descend Samba Deh Falls in 2014. I was nervous, but I was prepared and had the right crew with me.  It felt good to fight through the jitters and step up and send it.


Kayaking is a lifelong sport and it is important to keep your experiences positive. Mental and emotional setbacks from serious mishaps and experiences are really hard and can be near impossible to work past. Don't rush yourself; if you aren't having fun and building confidence, don't do it. If there is a certain place or rapid that gets built up in your mind, it may be more of a mental block than a skill block. You may just need to paddle other places so that you can gain skills without also dealing with emotions tied to a certain place. If you are feeling that you have no interest in moving up to harder whitewater and accepting the increased risks, don’t. Focus instead on gaining diverse experiences within the whitewater you are comfortable in. 

When you work on increasing the breadth of your experiences, you will find that you will also start developing more paddling awareness. If you want to be a safe paddler, awareness is crucial. An aware paddler is often able to recognize potentially dangerous situations and either plan for them, or avoid them before they happen. For example, if you are aware of your ability and how it relates to the water level, run difficulty, timing and the group dynamics, then you will be able to make good and accurate decisions about whether a particular run is appropriate for you on a particular day. Aware paddlers are also able to respond quickly and effectively when things go wrong, because they aren't just reacting to situations, they are anticipating them. Aware paddlers are often able to re-establish control quickly in situations that are going out of control because they preemptively noted all the tricky spots and hazards, and have scoped out plans B and plans C before their line or the situation started going awry. The more aware you can be without relying on others to do this for you, the safer you will be and the more other paddlers will want to paddle with you.

tips for gaining experience:

  • Increase exposure to variety- crews, runs, boats, etc

  • Run holes/rapids where there is a high probability of beatering, but the consequences from swimming or messing up are small

  • Practice and train your rescue skills

  • Make your own decisions, don’t just follow  (leading rapids, boat scout, run blind when appropriate, paddle new runs  no one in your group has done before but is well within your skill level)

  • Intentionally practice getting trashed and getting out of in holes or sticky spots, non ideal spots 

  • Go on stretch runs slightly above your skill and portage the hardest, most consequential rapids. You will learn a lot by watching others.

Lots of practice getting beat down in holes in low consequence scenarios, both in freestyle competitions and while paddling the Slave River, made it so I could actually enjoy challenging myself when water was high.  Here I am recovering out of a hole, during one of the all time best days of my paddling career, stepping it up to run Burnt Ranch Gorge at 10,000 cfs in 2011.

Paddling partners

you may want to focus on paddling partners if:

  • Your existing paddling crew has no interest going on harder runs with you
  • You feel that you lack a consistent crew of people (or just one person) to paddle with
  • You do not feel respected by your fellow paddlers
  • You have a hard time reaching out and paddling with new people
  • You get the sense that people don’t want to paddle with you.
  • You feel pressured by your paddling friends to run stuff you don’t want to
  • You don’t trust that the people you are with would be able to rescue you and you are unsure that you would be able to rescue yourself.
  • You don’t feel good about their decision making- they expose you to more risk than you are willing to accept.
  • You are worried about how others perceive you or your decisions.
Supportive paddling partners, coaches and mentors can help prepare you for a good experience when you step it up and can help give you the support you need to feel comfortable trying something harder (whether the support takes the form of a rescue or a pep talk). They can help you more efficiently master skills, accurately assess your skill in relation to your situation, and identify when it is appropriate to challenge yourself. When you are actively stepping it up, you will be putting yourself in new situations and learning new skills. Your focus will be on what you are doing. This will make it harder for you to be as aware of your environment and situation as when you are paddling within your skillset. Thus, you need to rely more heavily on paddling partners to help keep you out of harm's way. 



I’ve been lucky to have Leif be my steadfast, trusted and supportive paddling partner throughout my career (even if we do have different expectations for how much I should paddle!) However, because it has been so easy to paddle with one person, it has also limited the amount I have gotten out there and had diverse paddling partners and chances to learn from others.

My golden rule for keeping supportive paddling partners around you is to ensure that the actions and decisions that you are making don’t put your paddling partner in a position that exposes them to more risk than they are prepared to handle. Your paddling partner shouldn’t have to be constantly worried about your ability to make appropriate decisions or be forced to make these decisions on your behalf. It can be fun and gratifying to support a paddling partner when they make an appropriate step up. It can be harrowing and stressful to be around a paddling partner whose decisions disregard the group, potentially putting themselves and others in danger (real or perceived). Taking a step up isn’t just about how you feel about it, but it is also about respecting those who you paddle with and their comfort level with supporting you. If you are interested in paddling something harder but the people you are with are not prepared to support you, then you will need to find some different paddling partners for those times when you push yourself.

tips to attract supportive paddling partners:

  • Be fun to paddle with- show enthusiasm, commitment and consistency

  • Don’t  be too shy to ask, and don’t take it personally if you are turned down. Keep asking.

  • Be aware of and confident in your own skills (whatever they may be) and communicate this truthfully.

    • Don’t overstate your ability

    • Don’t marginalize or understate your ability

  • Respect your own limitations, but be up for a challenge.  

  • Recover from mishap with grace and grit- don’t dwell on it and make it a ‘thing’, move on.

  • Pay for instruction from a good coach to support you as you step up



This is a group photo taken before our descent of the Stikine in 2014.  At the time I think I was the third or fourth female to run the river. Although large (we ended up splitting the 11 person team into two groups on the water), we had a good crew and I felt confident in my ability to handle big water from the years of playboating on the Slave River. I didn’t know most of the people before the trip, but I felt comfortable paddling with Leif and Ash. The trip was amazing and I at no time felt pressured or in over my head.  Here is
my write up from that trip 

In conclusion...

Kayaking can be fun and safe at all levels from flatwater to V+. At times you will need to raise the bar and step it up, but that doesn't mean that you have to be unprepared when you do. Redefine your thinking. Levelling up isn't just a linear trajectory of paddling harder runs. Focus on building your skill set, gaining experience in tandem with those skills, and comporting yourself well so you have the opportunity to learn from others. We will all be safer and have more fun because of it, and you will be able to enjoy improving your paddling for your entire life. Also, there may be times in your life when it is appropriate to not be focusing on stepping it up, so listen to yourself and do what feels right for you rather than what you think you should be doing based on others expectations or actions.

Your kayaking progression is like building a drystack stone wall. How much enjoyment you get out of building your wall will dictate how long you will keep working on it or if you abandon it completely, so try to keep your experiences positive. Sometimes you may need support as you start to lay a new course. The shakier the course is below you, the more you need to rely on supports. If you rely on supports too much and you take them away, the wall will collapse.

It’s okay to have gaps when laying a next course and some of these can be filled in later, but the more solid the lower courses, the higher you can build your wall. There are often keystones within each course (see table) and without these your wall is prone to collapse when you start to lay down a new, higher course. 

You decide when your wall is high enough, and if it becomes precarious, you need to take a step back and beef up the underlying foundation. You can spend a lifetime perfecting and improving your wall without building it higher. Your wall will constantly be changed throughout your life as you tweak it and lovingly work on it. Each of our walls are unique. Some will be low and perfect, others will be higher with some gaps. What is important is that you build a wall that will support you for your life, and that it is solid enough to take you to the height that you want to go.

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