10 Steps to Be Ultra Successful in Whitewater Kayaking

Photo Sam Fulbright, Pilot Collective MediaIt got your attention, didn’t it? Of course it did! We all want to find the easy way to reach our goals, and there are countless articles out there stating “10 Easy Steps” to reach the stars and back. It is of consequence to know that there is no dream list of “to-do’s”  to achieve anything worthwhile in life. OK, maybe a few, but very few. I am reminded by a couple of quotes that I have overheard in conversation when discussing whitewater kayaking and the learning curves that need to be overcome to reach a competent level. First, “it’s nothing short of a miracle that anyone ever sticks with whitewater kayaking.” If you think back to the bumps and bruises to your body and ego, you can start to track the miraculous progression. But the burning desire to do something so scary and fun simultaneously is a motor fueled by the purest grade of adrenaline and only the cool waters of the river have the ability to quench this thirst. The second quote I have heard is, “What other sport can you paddle for three years and still only be average?” It’s true, the capacity for growth mentally and spiritually can literally never reach a plateau as long as you remain creative and passionate about this lifetime activity.

So I guess the first step to being ultra successful in whitewater kayaking is knowing:

1. There are no 10 steps to being successful. There are absolutely no limits to what you can learn on ANY river.

_MG_26802. Don’t be a snob, nothing is beneath you. I have met many people who get bored with a particular run or who refuse to paddle rivers below a certain level. In the words of an old friend, “just cause it’s low water, don’t mean it’s no water!” For crying out loud, Jeff Snyder was known for swimming the length of the Gauley River, just to know what it was like! Take out sea kayaks on a familiar run, try out river boarding, swim your local creek without water, in and around many of its hidden hazards. Push yourself in every imaginable way both physically and mentally until your level of understanding humbles you. A river eventually will humble you, whether it’s voluntary or involuntary is your choice.

3. Love it!! I don’t think there is an explanation needed. But nothing is worse to a person who is trying to get into a sport than hearing an elitist talking about how cool it is to do what they do. Instead, show them how it makes you feel and how giddy it makes you feel when it’s time to go kayaking! We all choose to do this sport for varying reasons, but I hope  that the one unifying factor between us all is that we love it.

4. The best gear won’t make you better. The best gear is the gear that you have and gets you out on the water. Although, the highest quality gear will make you more comfortable, it is by and large, not necessary. It’s all about time in the boat, and if you are adequately prepared in terms of fit and safety, that is plenty. I got my start in Ohio winters with synthetic long underwear, a 3mm wetsuit, and a semi-drytop. I swam a lot, and it was cold, but when I was first learning I was never far from the car.

5. Learn how to do everything! Creeking, playboating, squirt, long boating, river boarding, SUP, swimming, rescue, climbing on rocks, walking through the river bed. Become a master steward of your environment. Know everything there is to know about it and share that knowledge!

6. Don’t listen to anyone, including ME! Let me rephrase, don’t just listen to ONE person. Take everything, analyze and decide for yourself.

7. Take it easy and don’t give up. You’re going to get knocked down a lot, to the point where you may want to quit. The river is unrelenting and does not care where you want to go and how you want to get there. You have to understand how the river works before you will find the flow. Each mistake is your opportunity to learn.



9. Nothing replaces time on/in the water. There are many things you can do to supplement your paddling off the river. Instruction videos, articles, books, club meetings, etc. But the only way you learn about your environment is by immersing yourself into it. This includes the full immersion aspect. You should spend just as much time in/under water as on top of it. Don’t treat the river superficially, that is only 1% of the river.

10. Know your crew, but be a free agent. It’s important to have a good crew that knows one another. Communication, understanding, dynamics and friendship all depend on it. That being said, paddle with another crew from time to time. Not necessarily on a unfamiliar run, but paddling with different people gives you the opportunity to learn different dynamics, styles and even fears. It’s all about being well rounded, and every persons experience forms their style. Learn what makes people tick.

11. Be in the moment. Nothing demands more attention and focus than whitewater kayaking. Still caught up on that errant flip or swim upstream? Or maybe you are thinking about the big rapid downstream. Nothing matters more than what is directly in front of you. Be in the moment.

12. Is that more than 10 so far?

IMG_397213. Come back physically and mentally every time. The best advice I have ever received from one of my mentors, Billy Harris, was about teaching our students. We are responsible for providing a safe environment both physically and mentally and bringing each one of them back in both facets each time. This is the question you should ask each time before peeling out of the eddy or leading someone down a run. The physical is obvious, the mental, not so much. But that mental scar turns into stigma which for some ,will face hell and back before they have that ability to relinquish it. Number 10 can have a lot of bearing on this as well.

14. The best paddlers have taken their time acquiring experience and skill. Acquiring experience, although different than skills, can be a skill itself. Mentors can be great in helping you acquire skill. The best mentors LET you acquire experience.

15. Paddling is a personal experience that is shared. Remember that before imposing on others, no matter how thoughtful you are being.

16. There is no ego underwater.

16.b. Let me repeat, THERE IS NO EGO UNDERWATER!

17. Teach someone how to kayak, but make sure when you are teaching, you are taking the time to DO IT RIGHT! There is nothing worse than a student who feels like they are a burden. Share your enthusiasm and make it fun for yourself as well!

18. Appreciate those that took the time to pioneer our sport, many of them still are involved or work in the industry. That being said I would personally like to thank my first instructors, Chris Cindric and Adam Matisko. Also, a guy that took a college kid under his wing and showed him there was more to kayaking than just in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Eric O’Brien. Those three guys may never read this, but if they ever happen upon this then they will know they had the most important impact on me, they kept me fired up on a sport that I had no idea was going to completely envelop me. They took the time to show me the importance of safety and fun, and that the two can co-exist with one another.

I have had many mentors along the way, some good, some bad. The good ones you can remember, the bad ones are hopefully easily forgot and are far and few between. Those that mentor you rarely have the choice in doing so, as WE choose who to have as mentors. Remember this and remind them how grateful you are for sharing this wonderful sport with you.

See you on the river soon!


Revised on April 27, 2020

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