Teaching your friends to paddle…so they don’t quit in their first season.

Teaching your friends to paddle….so they don’t quit in their first season!

One of the best ways for someone to get into kayaking is to have a friend teach them. Many of the boaters we know never took a lesson from a kayak instructor, they just tagged along with friends. I’ve taught lot’s of my friends to kayak, some who became as addicted to the sport as I am, and others who quit their first season. I learned a lot from those friends. Before I became a kayak instructor and learned how to teach, I had trouble remembering what is was like to be a beginner. So when I took friends out, I thought they would pick things up easier. After years of teaching kayaking professionally, I learned the value of gradual progressions. Start with the most basic concepts and gradually add complexity as they master the basics. Just because I am excited to have another friend get into kayaking, doesn’t mean they should start their learning on whitewater. I see this all the time in our playparks and popular rivers. Kayakers think of a particular run as “easy”, so it should be no problem for a beginner to paddle, and they take their newbie friend down an “easy” class 3 run and he swims the whole thing. Some people think this is awesome and they become great kayakers, but most quit after the first day. So here are some of the important pieces of advice that I learned the hard way.

1. Always, always get your friend paddling around in a lake or pool to start. Don’t start on a river, unless you have a nice BIG pool to use that is basically like paddling in a lake. The first thing they should do is flip over and wet exit. Everyone has a fear of being trapped upside down in the boat before they actually try it, and realize it’s no big deal.

2. Teaching someone to roll is not the same as teaching them to kayak. This is one of the most common mistakes I see. A beginner learns to roll, then hits the river and they don’t even know how to paddle a kayak. Also, most beginners who learn a pool roll can’t combat roll yet anyway. So when they are on the river, it’s as if they’ve never even been in a kayak. their roll is useless and they have no other skills to get them down the river. I teach the roll AFTER I’ve taught them the other basic strokes, braces, t-rescues, etc. Once they’ve done all that, they are more comfortable in the boat, and rolling is much easier to learn.

3. We all know how hard it is to get a whitewater kayak to go straight when you are a beginner. Let’s face it, these things are designed to turn easily. So I always start by teaching them to balance the boat and sit with the proper posture. Then I start teaching turning and corrective strokes like sweeps and stern draws. Then when you get to the forward stroke, they already know how to correct their direction when they veer off course. I also don’t emphasize perfecting the forward stroke as a beginner. I think it develops over time. Think about it. In a whitewater rapid, how far do you generally need to paddle in a straight line? maybe 10-15 feet or less at a time. Whitewater paddling is basically connecting short bursts of forward strokes and turns to link all the moves you need. Rarely does a whitewater kayaker need to paddle in straight line for a long distance in a rapid. Mastering turning and correcting strokes as well as balance and bracing is more important for a beginner than having a beautiful forward stroke. Not that a good forward stroke isn’t important, it’s just something that they need to work on over their first couple of seasons.
4. Teach the sweep roll. It’s easier to learn and more reliable in aerated water.
5. Once your friend is ready to hit the river, choose the river wisely. Class 2 rivers with lot’s of eddies are best. Class 2 rivers that are lined with strainers and bushes are not very good. Class 3 rivers are never suitable for the first time on the river. Fast learners may be able to move up to class 3 after a few runs on class 2. The point isn’t to make our friends swim, the point is for them to learn how to maneuver on a river so they are safe and have fun. To a newbie, class 2 is a complete adrenaline rush. It may be boring to you, but not to them. Also, it may not be possible, but try to choose a section of river that you are familiar with. That way you know where the good “learning” eddies are. The three main skills that you should focus on for beginners are ferrying across the river, peeling out of eddies, and catching eddies. Those three things are the foundation for most other skills we learn on the river.
6. As your friend progresses, let them lead you down rapids from time to time. So many beginners and intermediates have done nothing but follow everyone else down rivers. They never learn how to read water and choose their own lines. Also, have them scout rapids and use hand signals to explain to you how to run the rapid. This helps build the foundations for scouting and communicating with a group. I’ve met paddlers who are 5 years into the sport and have never picked their own line down a rapid. That’s not cool.
7. Teach your friend about safety from the beginning. Teach them about throw ropes and rescue vests, and how to swim in rapids. This stuff seems simple to us, but it’s important for beginners to know about it.
8. Boat selection. Maybe I should have mentioned this earlier, but the proper gear for a beginner is crucial. Usually it’s best for beginners to be in river running boat such as a Remix or Mamba or something similar. Creek boats are okay too. Playboats are usually not the best choice unless the novice is super athletic and gung-ho to learn, and they don’t mind swimming a bit more. I’ve had some good luck with students starting in playboats, and also some bad experiences. Make sure the boat is the right size and volume for the person’s weight.
9. Once they are pretty comforatable on class 2, get them surfing waves and hitting harder ferries and eddies on class 2. In my opinion, a paddler shouldn’t move up a class of whitewater until they can hit EVERY eddy on a river of the class they are currently comfortable on. Just because you can float down a class 3 river without incident doesn’t mean you are ready for class 4. You should be able to hit every eddy, surf every wave, and nail every ferry on your favorite class 3 run before moving up to class 4. Same goes for moving from class 2 to 3 or class 4 to 5.

If you follow all of this advice, teaching friends should be easier and safer, and I can guarantee that more of your friends will stick with the sport instead of quitting in their first season. Of course some will probably still quit in the first season, but hey, kayaking isn’t for everyone.

-Nick Wigston


Season warmup trip to the San Juans

Andy, Sean, and I had rendezvoused at Andy’s house in Denver, and were packed up and ready to roll out of town and beat the traffic. Then we got the timely call from Forrest saying he was in for the trip. So, we waited. He rolled up in his Lexus SUV with a gigantic smile on his face. Gotta love it.

We burrito wrapped all the boats together and hoisted them onto Forrest’s roof. Off we went. On the way, Forrest said he had a great mexican restaurant in Colorado Springs that we could eat at. We walk in to find a glorified taco bell with some B grade mexican food. “This place is awesome!!”, exclaimed Forrest. We had our doubts. It didn’t take long for the stomach pains to set in after chowing a steak burrito smothered in green chile.

We camped that night just outside of South Fork Colorado, so we could be in a good position to run the South Fork Rio Grande on the way to Vallecito. On our morning scout, none of us were super motivated on the run. It looked like a mile of roadside mank. “Get your gear on you pussies!”, says Forrest. “We’re here now and we are all running this shit.” So we did. The South Rio turned out to be a lot of fun. There were several great boofs and some interesting boulder gardens. It ran a lot cleaner than it looked from shore. I recommend it for anyone on their way to the San Juans.

After the South Rio, we headed for Vallecito. Forrest and Sean got the waterfall itch when they saw the drops on Wolf Creek were going.

sean lee wolf creek waterfall

Sean Lee on the lower wolf creek falls

forrest noble wolf creek waterfall

forrest noble wolf creek waterfall

After the boys dropped wolf creek, we loaded up again and headed straight for Vallecito and started hiking. It was getting a little late and the gauge was at just under 2 feet. The run was great. everything clean, and we had a lot of fun.

forrest on entrance falls vallecito

forrest on entrance falls vallecito

andy blakeslee entrance falls vallecito

andy blakeslee entrance falls vallecito

sean lee entrance falls vallecito

sean lee on entrance falls

After that day’s run on vallecito, we took out right at our campsite in the campground. After some elk fajitas, and a few beers, we were all ready to hit the sack. Brad Higenbothem was planning on meeting at our campsite the next morning at 9 am for a second run.

forrest in trash can

forrest in trash can

andy blakeslee in trash can

andy blakeslee in trash can

After the second run on Vallecito, we loaded up again and headed over to the upper east fork san juan. We had no idea where the waterfall section was, but after some bushwacking, we found it. It looked super sweet other than a log half way down. We decided to run down to the log and then take out and head home. It was a fun low volume creek with a bunch of waterfalls from 4 – 20 feet.

yeah bitch!

East Fork san juan shuttle


mountain sunset on the drive home

USB and Alto-Alto visual guage

I just installed a small visual guage on south boulder creek. it’s under the railroad bridge on river left just above Trainspotting. this guage works for USB and Alto-Alto. yesterday at 9am it read 7.5 inches. The confirmed flow was 230cfs at noon the same day. I’m thinking we’ll be looking for a guage height of 8″ for reasonable minimal flow on both runs. ELF levels down to 7″ or even 6.5″ maybe. Oh, and I did clip off the excess cable ties after I took the photo.

South boulder creek guage

Downstream Edge River Rescue Class

The Downstream Edge river rescue class was a huge success last weekend! We had a total of 16 people and 3 coaches, Tommy Hilleke, Evan Stafford, and myself. Evan taught the Level 2 group, I taught the Level 3, and Tommy took on the Rafting crew supplied with the official Team America raft. Overall it was a fantastic class. We saw immense improvement from all of our students on their rescue techniques, river running strategies, group organization, and response times. Everyone got to learn and practice using and releasing their rescue PFD’s, which is an important thing to practice.

going for the unconcious floater

a student practicing a live-bait rescue of an unconscious person

rescuing the unconcious swimmer

student goes in for the rescue

recovering the unconcious

grab the swimmer around their torso and get hauled in

he's alive

Phew! he's alive

A big part of the Level 2 class is getting comfortable swimming in whitewater. We practice a lot of swimming drills. It’s important not only to be able to self rescue when swimming, but also be able to swim out to rescue a person. We teach that when there is a person in danger, a human hand is needed whenever possible. Just using ropes doesn’t always cut it. Also accessing people in your kayak is often a great idea, however, sometimes it’s just easier and more reliable to swim to them.

rescue swimming

Practicing the live-bait rescue swimming techniques

rescue on the move

The most common rescue situation in Kayaking is the typical swimmer and yard sale of gear. It's also one of the most dangerous rescue situations.

We’ve all been on the river when someone swims. It usually works out fine, but I feel that this is one of the most dangerous situations to be in. You have a person, their gear, and a bunch of kayakers all moving downriver…fast. Group organization and communication become difficult, and typically people don’t communicate. It’s because of this that communication is so important. Too many times have I seen people just chase after an empty kayak down river, by themselves. It doesn’t take a genius to see how that could result in bad things happening. We work a lot on dynamic rescue situations like this in our classes. We want everyone to be prepared for these situations.

accessing a rock

Access is a huge part of a successful rescue

accessing from upstream

Live bait access from upstream. this drill was considering a pinned kayaker on the rock. Live bait comes in from upstream, grabs the person, and the shore team hauls them out.

The first step in rescuing a person is getting to them. There are many ways to access spots in the river…Kayaking, rafting, swimming, zip lines, etc. We prefer to keep things simple and safe. A single line tethered swimmer is often a very effective way to access. It’s important for the rescuer to start swimming far enough upstream to get to their destination. The position of the man on shore holding the line is also important. They must be downstream enough to be able to bring the swimmer and the victim in without fighting the current. Sometimes one rope isn’t enough. A v-lower can be used to have more control over the placement of the rescue swimmer. Two lines from opposite sides of the river allow the rescuers to be more accurate.


A v-lower in action

The Rafting group had an exciting class as well. The Team America raft provided some excellent scenarios. The group actually got to free a wrapped raft. That is a difficult feat sometimes. Rafts are usually much harder to rescue than a pinned kayak. Z-drags are much more necessary with raft rescue than kayak rescue.

rigging it up

Rigging for the rescue

wrapped raft

Now that is a wrapped boat

freeing the raft

freeing the raft

raft rescue

raft rescue

Thanks to everyone that was a part of this class. It really was a great experience for everyone. We all learned a lot, and we were super impressed with the motivation of the students to learn.

ACA Instructor Certification class with Nick Wigston

We had our first ACA instructor certification course of the year last weekend. The students learned a lot and improved their paddling skills dramatically.

In this first image. Sarah is working on mastering the Stern Draw, which is one of the most important strokes for kayakers. It is a quick and easy way to correct your direction and it can be used for super dynamic eddy carves, surfing fast waves, and helps to save energy on the river.

sarah working on her stern draw

Sarah working on her stern draw

Students in our ACA certification classes teach each other to roll by following a gradual progression. They start with mastering the hip snap and eventually learn how to help someone master the entire roll. It’s important for students to be able to easily hip snap using only a PFD before learning to use the paddle.

teaching roll

The class learning and practicing how to teach a student how to roll

Instructor candidates need to demonstrate effective paddling technique. Many kayakers go for years without ever having any instruction. Over the years we all develop many bad habits that waste energy and make us less efficient and more tired when boating. In order to get rid of those bad habits, you have to break your paddling technique down to the basics and re-learn. Most of the students in this class started with relatively sloppy technique, and became crisp, smooth, and efficient by the end of the course. We start by going back to the most key concepts of beginner paddling strokes and build to advanced strokes, skulls, draws, and more. The first two days of the course are spent on flatwater to provide ample time to master these skills.

sam practicing forward stroke

Sam practicing his forward stroke

A huge part of our certification course is learning how to teach kayaking. This encompasses many things including kayaking skills, running a class, safety, logistics, teamwork, organization, and much more. We spend a lot of time practicing our teaching methods that are designed to address the needs of people of all different learning styles. We give our candidates teaching methods that help them to formulate their lessons effectively in order to make kayaking easy for people to understand. Most students of this class have never taught using a format. Having a format to follow allows you to easily organize your thoughts so you come across clear and confident. Learning to kayak can be easy if the instructor knows how to teach.

Luc teaching the class how to scout rapids

Luc teaching the class how to scout rapids

craig irwin demonstrating boat tilt

craig irwin demonstrating boat tilt

One of the advanced skills we work a lot on is carving in and out of eddies. This is a much more effective way of hitting eddies and peeling out. Most kayakers, skid into eddies. After a DSE cert class, you’ll be carving like a pro.

dave frank practicing eddy carves

dave frank practicing eddy carves

finish position of the roll

finish position of the roll

All of the students started from scratch with their roll. I was amazed at the crisp, quick, and effortless rolls I was seeing on the last day.

Check out this roll sequence.

roll set up position

roll set up position

preparing to sweep

preparing to sweep

sweeping out across the surface

sweep out across the surface of the water like you are spreading peanut butter on bread.

almost up

rotate to the stern as you sweep around. look down the paddle shaft

finish position

finish in this position, rotated back, looking down the shaft, blade flat on water, and upper hand tucked into the shoulder.

Ready for 2010!

I hope everyone is having a great winter. Pray for more snow. I just want to let people know what is in store at Downstream Edge this year. Keep an eye on our schedule for upcoming courses. We will post river rescue courses and ACA instructor certification courses. We will also be scheduling some weekday specialized clinics this year such as creeking, freestyle, and strokes clinics. As always, if you want to set up a group lesson or a custom river rescue course, just let me know.

The most exciting new course we are offering is the Wilderness Whitewater Rescue and First Aid class. This is going to be an intensive four day course that focuses on difficult rescue situations involving injuries and exposure. Students will learn many skills and practice them in realistic scenarios that test group dynamics, rescue skills, first aid skills, and leadership. The lead instructor will be Zach Springer, who is a Wilderness First Responder instructor, Crested Butte veteran ski patroller, and DSE Swiftwater Rescue instructor. He is very experienced and a great teacher. I urge all class V kayakers to take this course. You will not be disappointed.

Evan Ross
pinned boat drill

A drill rescuing a pinned kayak in a DSE Swiftwater rescue class