Monday, July 16, 2007

Whitewater Kayaking Class

This last weekend I was repeatedly dunked underwater, crashed into a bridge, and thrown from a cliff into a river with a throng of drunk, cheering spectators looking on. What a great time.

I was in a kayak and was taking California Canoe and Kayak's Intro to Moving Water. This was on the American River pretty much within the general Sacramento metropolitan area (hence the drunken onlookers).

First of all, I've spent next to no time around a river that's part of a major urban area. I'm originally from LA area where the "rivers" are concrete so we went to the beach. As such, I was unprepared for what an extraordinary party scene it is. Small flotillas of floating house parties. Huge inflatable rafts that I started calling inflatable yachts. And then us kayakers. Fortunately even though there was an inherit clash of cultures (?) - the paddlers and the alcohol imbibing floaters, the river was plenty big enough to accommodate all of us and everyone got along fabulously.

We also did our part to provide entertainment. The dunked underwater reference was part practice in what to do if your kayak capsizes. This is good that we did this as I then proceeded to capsize my boat 4 more times during Saturday. Since doing the classic rolling is a more advanced skill, they taught us first how to exit the kayak when underwater (there's a "spray skirt" that you have to detach, and secondly a "T-rescue" where you can partly pull yourself up on the bow of another kayak and then can snap your hips (seriously - it really works) to get upright again.

I was apprehensive about learning to do this and admitted it so they broke it down into steps for me. The first time they rolled me over and almost immediately rolled me back. I had neglected to put on my nose plug and had water shoot up my sinuses and I was very disoriented when he brought me back up. This did not bode well, but surprisingly it got easier. While practicing the nose plug did help but I realized that if I dumped accidentally it might make me feel constricted and panicky so I took it off after practicing.

There were two rescue skills that they taught.

The first one was how to exit the kayak underwater. While upside down, you have to bend forward to pull on the strap on the spray skirt to pull it free from the kayak and then you place you hands on the gunnels and push yourself away from the boat and then let the PFD (Personal Flotation Device) float you to the surface. I found that when upside down I had no idea which way was up (I would close my eyes usually), but the PFD certainly "knew" and would lift me to the surface.

The second was a tandem rescue or T-rescue. You capsize and while upside down raise your hands outside of the water and tap your boat. I felt like I should be calling out "Garcon (Waiter). Oh Garcon!." Then within about 5 seconds an instructor will have raced at Mach 9 over to your boat and taps your boat with his bow. This tells you what side they're on. You then reach up and grasp the bow and pull up enough to where you can rest you hands and head on the bow. Then you snap your hips towards the side furthest away from the rescuer and most times you will find yourself upright and feeling quite surprised. If you were to start to run out of air then you can always exit the above way.

I later capsized 4 times and got plenty of practice. Ironically this did wonders for my confidence though I did trade in tippy boat (a Kangaroo Ammo which is not supposed to the tippy (I think I could more successfully have paddled an egg), and then on Sunday used a Kangaroo Burn which was perfect and I did not dump it.

Before all that fun we started with the more pedestrian, but essential topic of paddling technique.
There is the
- forward stroke - the paddle is held nearly vertical you should be able to see a watch if you had one on the higher positioned wrist)
- sweep stroke (to encourage your boat to change directions - the paddle is more horizontal and enters the water slightly further out from the boat.
- stern backwards stroke the adjust the direction that your boat is facing (I did this a lot and automatically since I remember it from canoeing)
- forward stroke at an angle (usually used with "edging" see below)

What is an eddy?
Where two different currents meet. Cause the water to act somewhat unpredictably. Current that are not part of the main downstream current often flow somewhat upstream or in a circle.

Entering eddies (crossing eddies)
from quiet water to main current
  • maintain Speed
  • enter at an Angle that points the boat towards upstream without being straight upstream
  • Look (downstream) where you want to go when it's time to enter the main current and the boat will start to turn.
  • lift the upstream Edge
Exiting eddies
  • "moon the current" (point your butt slightly towards the eddy current it by lifting the downstream edge
  • turn upstream as you enter the eddy
  • I think of it as like a ski stop
Edge control
  • lift you knee and drop your opposite hip and the edge on the lifted knee side will lift and the edge on the dropped hip side will engage the river.
  • use it to move down the river
  • use it to turn (I am not good at this)
  • use it to keep boat from spinning (semi ok at this)
  • forward stroke paddle on same side as edge (this is counter intuitive and has to be done at speed to work.)
Moving down the river
As I said I dumped the boat 4 times and learned a ton
#1 being don't panic
#2 ask for T-rescue first if feasible
#3 after about 5-10 seconds just exit the boat and swim it to shore

Once out of the boat, if you find that you're being pulled down the river, go on your back feet first to keep from crashing into rocks (didn't get to practice this. :)

[continuing on]

Out of the 4 times I capsized on Saturday 2 were exit the boat and thw other 2 were T-rescues. The first one happened as we were practicing preliminary T-rescues and I hadn't gotten the T-rescue technique down yet (I'd successfully done it only once before), so I got to do my first exit the kayak and I was so thrilled that I could do it with keeping my wits still working and without panicking. I told them that I was very happy that they had gone over how to do that before starting the T-rescue stuff. Taylor said "believe it or not there is an order to what we teach and that's why."

The next time was during our practicing of crossing eddy lines (from eddy to main current). I had done this successfully several times but let myself drive further down the river and had to work pretty hard to paddle back to the group so I may have been a little tired. I paddled out towards the current and the kayak turned sideways in the eddy.

Before I had a chance to fix it I was knocked off balance by a wave and found myself upside down in the water. I raised my hands out of the water, tapped the boat and in a matter of a couple of seconds I felt the tap of a kayak bow. I reached up and grabbed the bow and pulled my head above water with both hands. I then rested my head on the bow, and then was reminded that I should snap my hips and after a couple of tries, did so.

By that time I was fairly far down the river so decided to just hang out and wait for folks as they were about to start heading down themselves. This departure was delayed a bit as I wasn't the only one to "take a swim," but they eventually got going and I rejoined them as we paddled down the river for basically the first time.

I found that every stroke the Ammo boat would spin slighly in the other direction. Now these are river play boats and as such they are designed to turn on a water droplet. The Ammo is a bit wider which should make it more stable but now that I think about it, the width made it very difficult for me and my short torso to hold the paddle vertical for the forward stroke, and as such was in effect using a hybridized stroke that wound up pushing the boat sideways as much as forward. So I zig zagged down the river burning lots of energy and noticing that others were having an easier time of it, but I was still having a great time.

Now all of this is on class 1 water. Class 2 is some movement and splash over the rocks and we were coming up on some The key in this type of water is to keep the boat straight with the current and commit to paddling through it. I got through this ok but then capsized at an eddy line where the water was acting strangely. Fortunately Taylor was right there and with some work at getting the boat perpendicular to his, I was able to right the boat. I was thrilled that I was able to do this but noticed that the boat had still taken on a fair bit of water so we went off to shore to dump it out but the shoreline was pretty hard to reach due to trees so he managed todumpe it out while on his boat by holding mine over his head (this is a pretty wirey guy which made it all the more impressive.

This put me behind the others so one the way back I unintentionally had an instructor (Taylor) all to myself. So we wended our way down and he pointed out the "take out" spot which was just beyond a car bridge and a pedestrian bridge.

Bridges can bite

Now there are several objective hazards on the river that we discussed:
  • rocks
  • trees
  • other objects such as fishing lines
  • other boats and swimmers
  • other kayakers
  • and they belatedly realized they neglected to mention: bridge pylons
And they also talked about something that I know well from mountain biking: Object Fixation and Look where you want to go. This means that if you see something you don't want to hit don't look at it but instead the place you want to go. If you stare at what you're trying to avoid odds are very good that you will hit it. Now I may know this on the ground but it doesn't always translate to brand new circumstances that are sort of inheritly interesting (wow, look at that) and don't appear to be a problem at first glance.

The car bridge supports were large and didn't change the current at all and presented no problem. Unfortunately this left me completely unprepared for the pedestrian bridge 100 feet later. The pedestrian bridge was supported by pylons that were vertical steel griders about one foot square. The effect of this relatively small footprint support was that the water was rushing around it and I of course looked right at it (wow cool) and found myself being drawn right at the pylon though it hadn't occurred to me that this could be a problem, and was pretty much immediately sucked down into a capsize.

There is another precept when dealing with hazards that I accidentally did correctly. Fall into the hazard (rock, tree, pylon) as if you get pinned against a hazard the other direction your boat is just going to fill up with water and you may not be able to move which could potentially be a Very Bad Thing. So "Love the rock/tree/pylon." I had grabbed onto the pylon and wasn't letting go as it was keeping my head above water (I'm sideways at this point).

Taylor in order to get me out, pulled me off of the pylon and I was instantly upside down in somewhat turbulent water. I'd had enough, so didn't even try asking for a T-rescue, but just exited the boat. I came up several feet past the bridge. Taylor took the boat, and then I got to swim to shore which was fun for the first 20 feet or so (even was swimming faster than Taylor was paddling though it sure didn't feel that way), but eventually I had to stop to rest. Taylor came back to offer to tow me, but I decided to keep swimming (after all he's not always going to be around and I do have a PFD on so I'm in no danger). I finally got to shore and then had to carefully walk/wade back the 30 feet that I had overshot the take out point.

Ironically though quite a few tourists saw this happen none of my classmates did as they were looking elsewhere while waiting for us. Bruce and Chris were kind enough to help us carry the boats back to the van and I reassured that I was ok and had a new respect for bridge pylons. Taylor was saying - oh yeah and bridge pylons - did I mention that bridge pylons are objective hazards?

This was the end of Saturday.
Sunday is where we learned more finessing of strokes, entering eddys, judging white water, portaging, and entering the water from places considerably above the water line.


Today I asked to switch boats and was trying to decide between the Recoil or the Burn (all Kangaroo river kayaks). This prompted Brett to put the Recoil, the Ammo, and the Burn side by side and upside down to talk about them. The Recoil is actually a higher performance boat with less of the kayak in the water so it's quicker. Chris said he had one yesterday and is switching as it was too squirrelly. The Burn is a slightly longer boat that tracks in a straight line but it harder to turn. The Ammo is a wider more stable hybrid. More of the kayak is in the water than the Recoil and is even wider than that Burn (though shorter). I think the width of the Ammo combined with my short torso is what made the Ammo unstable for me. I had to lean over more to get the paddle properly in the water and it put the boat off balance.

So I went with a small Burn and was very happy I did so. There were 4 separate occasions where I was leaning as much as what would have dumped me over in the Ammo but the boat righted itself like I would expect it to. I did have to argue with it some to turn it so I wouldn't mind if they came up with a shorter Burn but the lack of width was a huge boon. I could finally paddle properly and I wasn't zig zagging down the river. I didn't dump the boat at all which is almost a shame as it's such good practice. But I figured that the 4 times yesterday was enough and I wanted to work on something else.

Before we left for the river we spend time with a whiteboard and Brett using a smurf kayaker as a model of entering and exiting eddies. The main thing when entering an eddy is paddle upstream at an angle and when your kayak enters the main current look downstream, keep the upstream edge lifted, and let the current turn the boat while paddling on the downstream side.
(We worked on this yesterday also).

They also introduced a way of crossing the river called a "ferry" where you face somewhat upstream and lift the upstream edge, paddle normally and let the river surf you across. (this was fun when it worked.)

Every so often my boat would want to go so well I would find myself in a position where I had to really work at paddling back to the group. Taylor mentioned to me that the easiest way to do this is to ride the eddies on the edges back as those currents are mostly going upstream. He was right mostly. It was still work, but it was easier.

We then headed down river and paused before a rougher water section. Brett said that when going through taller waves it's useful to put your paddle right into the wave and power the boat over the wave and ride it into the trough. This did work but I found myself wanting to do it several times to get the feel of it.

We then broke for lunch and watched the house parties float by. One even stopped to ask if we were part of the beer club. "What? Oh of course we are - what do you have?" A beer club what a great idea. Too bad they were only drinking Budweiser. I now have seen a "Beer Bong" in use. It's a rubber tube with a spigot on one end and a funnel on the other. The beer is poured into the funnel (spigot closed) and then someone puts their mouth over the spigot and it's then opened. Truly a class act (not). Quite amusing.

The rules say that everyone on the river has to have a PFD/life vest. Similar to dog muzzles in Italy, it doesn't say you have to wear them, so a lot of vests spend a lot of time tied to the raft. I don't know what the accident rate is there, but it's likely far lower than it deserves. :)

We're doing what?

Then we were back in the boats for a short while and then pulled over to the shore and people started carrying boats up an embankment (I was behind and hadn't heard the instructions - it just looked like we were practicing a portage - we were in a sort of twisted way). Now the Burn is longer than me so me carrying it the classic portage way with the seat back over your shoulder was a bit of a joke as the nose was dragging and I had to struggle with lifting it slightly sideways in order to carry it but I was determined to muddle through it.

I noticed Linda seemed to be struggling too and then I saw that she wasn't wearing booties, but instead was barefoot. She turned back to where we stopped saying that the small rocks were too hard on her feet and that she didn't want to do the jump off a cliff thing. What? I could see the folks ahead setting up in their boats on the edge of a 10' embankment by the river with a vertical drop off. Oh. My. God. I looked back at Linda considering. Clearly I could opt out and just paddle around. I looked back at the group on the mini-cliff. Now absurdity really does appeal to me. It was highly likely that I would survive this encounter (liability release non-withstanding) as I hadn't heard anything on the news about kayaker sacrifices on the American River. And most importantly, it will make a great story (in the "live to tell about it "sense.)

Giggling that nervous in-over-one's-head sort of giggle, I lugged the boat (which now felt like what a crucifix must feel like) up the rest of the embankment. By the time I got up there, the first kayaker, sitting in his kayak, paddle at the ready, had been ceremonially shoved off and came crashing down into the water to the cheers of many onlookers who would have surely been seated in a Roman coliseum in antiquity. I took careful note that the kayaker had landed perfectly in the water and was completely fine though laughing that I-can't-believe-I-survived stress laugh.

I asked "Why are we doing this?" and Brett said that sometimes there isn't a water's edge available and that this is the only way into the water." "Oh, I'm so sure" I thought. If I couldn't find a launch point then that means to me to keep looking. But I'm not going to wuss out now. 3 others went and seemed to be ok. Now it was my turn. I decided to just not worry about it any longer and just go with it. Brett shoved my boat out into the air and it and me hit the water perfectly level and then for an instant I was completely underwater (still level) and then just as fast was back on top of the water and paddling and I could just then hear a very loud crowd roar. I couldn't see a thing and pulled my glasses down so I could wipe my eyes. Well glad I could provide crowd entertainment. Brett then managed to push himself off and since he's much larger and his boat is smaller so he also when completely underwater.

All in all I was glad I did it (good confidence builder) and didn't chicken out but I don't see me making a habit of it.

We then stopped again to get a view of some rapids. Brett talked about how rapids were divided by rocks into channels, and he also mentioned that the shape of rapids was a V shape (at least this one was. Basic advice was to stay to the left of the V and then cross into it if you chose. It turned out that I was having trouble getting the spray skirt properly on and after several minutes of struggling (I should have pulled the boat further onto shore) and drifting closer and closer to the rapids I finally gave up and went down the easy way without the spray skirt on and then pulled to the side to dump the boat out. I sort of missed going through the rapid, but it was clear this was just about the end of the day and that if I wanted rapid running practice I should take the River Running class so I wasn't too put out.

We then proceeded on the the take out place and then waited for the van to come by.

All in all it was a great experience and I very much want to take subsequent classes and trips.

How into this do I want to get? I'm not quite sure. Unlike skiing or mountaineering the fit of the equipment isn't nearly so critical so I see no reason to actually purchase a boat and the small mountain of equipment that accompanies it. Renting a boat actually includes the paddle, spray skirt, over shirt (or whatever it's called), and helmet.

River kayaking unlike sea kayaking is also a large logistical undertaking as there is always a beginning point and an ending point. (Unless it's a very calm river where you can start by paddling upstream and then turn around and go down stream like the Big River in Mendocino). Which involves two vehicles, and at least one of them has to be able to carry the kayaks.
Personally, I'm all for someone else managing these details so while I want to do more kayaking (I can totally see skiing in the winter and kayaking in the summer), I think when it comes to river kayaking (instead of sea kayaking) I'll just pay to go on trips.

Another thing that surprised me is that while kayaking is great muscular exercise, it is not an aerobic exercise unless you're going fast. This is both good and bad. It's not going to help you keep in shape for other sports (except for perhaps arm wrestling), however it is something that someone who is semi fit could do in retirement. Terri pointed out that beside the 15 year old in the class, I was likely the youngest one there. I think a light fast sea kayak could be a good aerobic exercise - will have to try that in the estuary.

I also got to see how different subgroups use language (this is not exactly a tangent I swear). A woman was renting a sea kayak that weighed only 28 pounds which intrigued me. I was looking at the boat and I noticed the word "Epic" on it. "Who decided to call a kayak 'Epic'??!'" "Oh that's who makes the kayak." an employee said. I decided that I was in a different crowd and it would take too much explaining. In climber/mountaineer parlance an "Epic" is a serious climbing misadventure often including risk of personal injury or worse - though at least one person has to survive to tell the tale. (Think "Touching the Void"). I really like that kayak, but it would take a lot of mental gymnastics to get past that name, as I don't need help having misadventures.

I'm totally sold on a kayak vs a canoe. I've rented a canoe twice and was forever struggling with it zig-zagging and always having to do the compensating "J-stroke" to help it track in a straight line. Terri and I also went sea kayaking with my sister in law up in the San Juan islands and that was gorgeous. But I wanted to try whitewater and I think I want to do more whitewater too. (Sea kayaking vs. Whitewater is kinda like Cross country vs. Downhill skiing - I happen to like them all.)

All in all it was a great class. California Canoe and Kayak's website is:


Jennie said...

I was looking forward to the bridge story! Thanks for sharing this.

Elf said...

OK, you have completely and utterly removed any chance of me ever trying moving-water kayaking (as if I were ever going to anyway). Canoeing I can handle.

BTW, "gunnel": it's a variant spelling of "gunwale"; I've also seen it as "gun'l" which is probably how "gunnel" came about--all 3 pronounced the same way. :-)


Ellen said...

Thanks for the typo fix - the spell checker was of course no help.

In my limited experience, kayaking is easier than canoeing with flat water sea kayaking in sheltered water (not open ocean) being the easiest.

Jennie said...

Very, very cool. My thought about the 10' cliff was, "but how do you climb back up it?" I have a hard time with unclosed circles. :)

I do like lake kayaking, but that's about as exciting as I'm ready for.

Ellen said...

Kinda feels like an unresolved issue doesn't it? :)

Of course all of river kayaking feels that way since it has a start point a nd usually a different ending point.