Active Outdoors: A super-fun whitewater paddling school
Corey Heath, the novice paddler in our group, sets up to enter âSweet Toothâ, the biggest challenge we faced on the Sugar River. He came through perfectly. I carried my boat around . . . (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
AMC Whitewater Instructor Mike Hazeltine sits comfortably in a âholeâ as student Dave Corbin paddles hard to get his boat upstream into another hole where he can relax, too. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
AMC Whitewater Instructor Mike Hazeltine plays in a rapid on the Sugar River in Newport, NH as "Safety" John Jenkins looks on. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
AMC-NH Whitewater school student John Cuneo ran Sweet Tooth like heâd been paddling whitewater all his life. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com photo)
Do you love the adrenaline rush of roller coasters? Getting tossed around by big waves at the beach? Have you ever stood in front of a front-loading washing machine and wondered what it would be like to be inside? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you need to try whitewater kayaking among the rocks and waves of a swiftly flowing river.
Whitewater is pure challenge. The more water, the faster it flows, the more obstacles you have to avoid, the higher the waves, the more exciting it becomes. That doesn’t mean you have to start with something big, mean and dangerous. You can (and should) start easy and ratchet up the challenge as you feel comfortable.
I spent this past weekend with 26 other students (seven canoeists, 19 kayakers) in the Whitewater Paddling School run by the paddling committee (nhamcpaddlers.org) of the New Hampshire Chapter of the AMC (amc-nh.org). It was more adrenaline-charged fun than I’ve had in a long time. Nice people; good, capable instruction; and a genuine bargain. The whole class, including an introductory session in a Nashua pool, a full day of instruction and practice, and a day of guided paddling on a genuine whitewater river with instructors and “safety boats” was only $140 for AMC members. They rent boats with paddles and PFDs for $10/day. Incredible bargain.
The pool session was a total hoot. I was playing with my new (to me, anyway) toy, a lime-green Wave Sport Diesel 70. It’s amazing how much paddling practice you can get in a pool. With volunteers from the AMC giving instructions and standing by in case we got into trouble, we all had to demonstrate a “wet exit” (getting out of an upside-down kayak). It’s an essential skill for beginning whitewater kayakers, one I’m good at from lots of practice. While in the pool with the instructors, I tried (and failed) to do a roll. More practice needed on that skill.
Day One: On the Contoocook
On the first morning, we broke up into groups of four or five students with two volunteer instructors (ours were Mike Hazeltine and Bill Voss) with each group, and started on flat, flowing water, learning how to maneuver our kayaks using basic paddle strokes and the “edges” of the boat (which act much like ski edges) against the current. The instructors were very good and I ended the morning a better paddler than when I started, as did all the students in my group.
That afternoon, we moved to faster water with some rocks, and practiced “eddy turns” into the quiet water behind a rock and “peel outs” – leaving those eddies and getting back into the flow. We also played in a couple of tiny “holes” where conflicting currents hold your boat almost still, with the river flowing around you. We ended the day paddling a couple of miles of river with some easy whitewater sections.
Whitewater paddling is a social sport, and, that night, all the instructors and students gathered for a wonderful dinner (included) prepared by a couple more volunteers.
Day Two: Wash and rinse on the Sugar
Sunday’s “graduation present” was a trip down several miles of Class II and Class III whitewater on the Sugar River in Newport. The water was high, fast, and very challenging. But with two instructors and two “safety” boats paddled by John and Nancy Jenkins, we were well cared for.
The four students in my group managed with varying degrees of aplomb. Corey was our newbie, with very little kayaking experience but a great attitude. He flipped his boat twice and had to wet exit and swim while others rescued him and his boat. He came out smiling both times. Dave was a very experienced kayaker and had no troubles at all. Norm and I were somewhere in the middle. Norm got hung up a couple of times on rocks but never flipped his boat. I, on the other hand …
The “crux” of our float was a Class III rapid called “Sweet Tooth” where most of the river flowed between two giant rocks with churning whitewater above and below. We stopped to scout it out, watch other people run it and decide if we wanted to try it. Norm and I carried our boats around; Dave and Corey ran it without incident.
I handled the early part of our float with no troubles, congratulated myself for having sense enough to portage around Sweet Tooth, and continued down the river. Then “it” happened. I neatly dodged around one big rock, only to find another hidden immediately behind with a BIG curling wave alongside. With time for one more paddlestroke, I think I’d have made it, but I hit the rock sideways. That tipped the boat, the wave grabbed the upstream top edge and I was suddenly upside down. The water was surprisingly clear and the golden bubbles sparkled like fireflies. I remember thinking how pretty it was. Gathering my wits, I executed a textbook wet exit and my PFD bobbed me to the surface.
Holding onto my paddle, I floated with feet downstream through the maelstrom, bouncing off a number of rocks. Nancy, in one of the safety boats, paddled over, I eventually grabbed onto the stern and helped kick myself to shore about 100 yards below where I’d flipped. When I crawled out of the water I was shaken (not stirred), but none the worse for wear. Mike and John rescued my kayak another 100 yards downstream.
Remember that front-loading washer? That’s exactly what that swim through the rapids felt like. I regained composure as I walked down the riverbank to my boat, drained it, climbed back in and finished the float (including a couple more tricky sections) without further incident.
The whole day on the Sugar was a total adrenaline rush! I can’t wait to do it again! In fact, the AMC has guided whitewater paddles scheduled for almost every weekend this spring. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
(Tim Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)