I awoke in the morning with that sense of panic one gets when they are about to face the unknown. Dave and I are in Barry’s Bay, Ontario starting a five-day intensive whitewater kayaking course with Madawaska Kanu Centre.
We’ve done our share of kayaking around the world, but it’s always been sea kayaking. We never had to show anyone that we could flip our kayaks upside down and undo our spray skirts to perform a wet exit, and we never had to worry about proper paddle strokes to steer the boats because we always had a rudder and foot pedals to steer.
That's about to change.
Learning to Whitewater Kayak
When learning to whitewater kayak, the first day is all about going upside down over and over again and learning how to steer your boat on flat water by using proper paddle strokes. It’s hard to believe that by day 5 we’ll be paddling through class 2 and 3 rapids.
The Madawaska Kanu Centre is the first kayak school of its kind in Canada. Opened by Hermann and Christa Kerckhoff in 1972, it’s become the premiere kayaking school in the country. Their daughter Claudia went on to hold the Canadian women’s kayaking championship for 10 years and now advises for events like the Olympics.
If you are going to learn to paddle on whitewater, this is the place to do it. She and her husband Dirk Van Wijk run MKC and Owl Rafting along with their daughters Stefani and Katrina. Stefani was running MKC the week we were there and Katrina was out west competing in a kayaking championship. She currently has 3 Slalom Kayak Champion titles to her name!
Our group of beginner kayakers consists of nine adventurous souls ranging in age from university students to active seniors. Kayaking is a sport that anyone can do and I loved it when Cal, one of the oldest members of the group said, “I’ve noticed kids driving around with those sporty little kayaks on the roof of their cars and I wanted to be a part of that club.” Well, soon he will be.
Time to get started…
Our instructors Juroj and Fidel are with us for the week and today, they’re teaching us the basics. So, our first order of business was to try to paddle in a straight line. It sounds simple enough, but instead we found that with each paddle stroke, we would turn. As Dave pointed out “It’s like we’re a group of rubber duckies set free in a tub and we all just keep going ‘round and ‘round in circles.
But once we were shown a few moves, we started to get the hang of it. We worked on our strokes and technique to keep our paddles vertical and close to the boat. We then learned a sweep stroke, a backstroke and a reverse stroke. All of these strokes gave us the capability to adjust and keep our boats going in a straight line.
Soon we were turning the way we wanted and paddling in a ‘semi’ straight line. Dave and I practiced by kayaking towards one another and then once we passed each other, we’d do a sweep stroke and turn our torso to make a 180-degree turn. It was like a game of chicken on the kayaks and a great way to work on paddling straight.
Over time we all became more comfortable with our strokes above water, so it was now time to get that much needed control under water. It had to happen sooner or later, so it was time to purposefully capsize our kayaks and hang out upside down for a bit. The wet exit was on the agenda.
Time for the Wet Exit. Brrrr…
The Madawaska Kanu Centre, teaches the wet exit in a very relaxing way. Our first flip didn’t even require us to have our skirt done up. All we had to do was flip our boat and swim out. I volunteered to go first because I know myself. I hate water, especially cold water, so there is no reason to put off the inevitable.
Might as well face my fears head-on. I had no problem at all flipping over, but the cold instantly took my breath away and I coughed for air as I clawed my way up from under the boat. My usual reaction to cold water is I don’t like it. And when Dave asked me how it went, I said “I don’t like it!”
I was freezing and scared and worried that I couldn’t go on. I watched everyone else flip and swim and look completely comfortable in the cold. I asked myself, “Why do you always panic in cold water Deb?” As I contemplated my situation, I forced myself to stay in the water to work on catching my breath. Soon I was feeling better and ready to go again. I decided once and for all that it was time to conquer my fear.
With deep concentration, I took a few breaths to calm down, cleared my mind, and I flipped. While under the water, I concentrated on staying calm, and as Fidel flipped me back over, I was feeling fine. I miraculously wasn’t cold anymore and by the time we did a few more flips, rolls and wet exits, I felt strangely relaxed.
Can you believe this was all before lunch?
The sun was shining, the water didn’t feel cold anymore and we were ready to take on anything that came our way. It was a good day.
The rest of the afternoon was about practicing braces where we would lean as far as we could to the point of tipping the kayak, and just as we were about to fall in, we’d smacked our paddle on the water and use it as a brace to keep from tipping. It’s an amazing feeling to realize you have so much control over your kayak.
The Bow Rescue
With the day winding down, we had one last task to learn and that was the bow rescue. Up until now, if we capsized, we would do a wet exit. With the Bow Rescue, you flip, and then bang your hands on the kayak to alert someone to come to your rescue. Once they bump into your boat, you grab their kayak and use it to balance as you flip your own boat over with your hips.
The day ended with Dave performing the Bow Rescue perfectly. I was sure I was going to be great at it as well as my hip control (according to the instructors) is excellent. Dave didn’t have the hip control that I had, so I had no doubt that I’d perform well. But, as luck would have it, old fears can’t be conquered in a day. As I flipped over and waited upside down for someone to come and rescue me, panic set in.
The Fear is back…
I freaked out and clawed my way out of the boat instead of calmly flipping myself over. I knew If I ended my day with a panic situation, tomorrow would not be pretty. So I tried one last time as everyone else took their kayaks out of the water. I didn’t get it right, but I didn’t panic. So with I ended the day on a semi-high note with renewed determination to get it right tomorrow.
Day one of whitewater kayaking was a fun and exciting day. We packed a lot of skills into one day, but we still had four more to go. When going to sleep that night, Dave and I have no doubt that by Friday we'd be able to accomplish what we set out to do. Run some rapids and have fun doing it.
Visit http://owl-mkc.ca/mkc/ for whitewater kayak, canoe and rafting experiences.