Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Whitewater Philosophy - The Things I've Noticed

I'd like to preface this with two statements: 1) This is not a cut at anyone, just a general observation from my short time paddling whitewater in different areas. 2) Take everything I write lightly, your opinion may differ but in the end we're all boaters.

It's only been since April-May of 2009 since I started boating, but not only has kayaking been a big part of my life, it has begun to take over my life in a healthy way.  The first few months of my boating career were spent on the Lehigh River, Muddy Creek, and learning how to surf at Scudders Falls on the Delaware with the aspiring hopes to do the Lower Yough and Tohickon Creek that year.  I tried to put my butt in a boat as much as possible.  My first boat, purchased before I even started kayaking was a Savage Skreem, saw very few river days and collected dust as I purchased a ZG 48 and paddled that for most of my first year.  Unfortunately, I never made it out to the Yough that year, due to a ruptured ear drum surfing at Scudders which put me out of kayaking for four weeks.  I did however manage to go to the Tohickon, and do my first real class III.

What was frustrating for me my first year was seeing other beginners progress at a much faster rate.  Once I sat next to someone and heard them receive a compliment that they would become a good boater.  I saw other boaters getting chances and opportunities to run the rivers I wanted to run, yet somehow got passed up.

Spring of 2010, I viewed as my chance to catch up and finally start to paddle.  Especially, due to my inexperience, I was not able to attend trips and paddle with my friends that were more experienced than me.  Hearing their stories and seeing pictures of harder runs really made me want to get out there and get at it too.  So, the only way I saw to improve was to log my seat time on rivers I was paddling to hone my skills so that I would then be invited on those bigger trips.  If you get to know me well, you'll learn a simple fact, I enjoy challenges and I saw proving that I was able to paddle was my goal.  On a side note, being discredited or made to feel inadequate really sets me off, and sometimes I take things to personally and graduate college a year early just to make a point...but I digress.  I really, really want to do the Cheat Canyon during Cheat Fest, that was my goal, and when I was told I wasn't ready it only made me want it more.

I ended up doing the Cheat, a few weeks later I graduated from UD in three years, and moved to New England to start the next part of life's journey as a graduate student at WVU.  I chose WVU not only for the opportunities they offered me academically (working on my first publication at the moment) but also the opportunity to improve my skills in one of the best kayaking regions in the county.

Upon moving to West Virginia, I ran the Upper Yough for the first time under the guidance of one of the few people at the time who told me I was ready for something, instead of telling me that I needed to relax.  Things kinda went out of control since then, but this is just getting to the meat.

So, I started paddling in the Delaware/Philly area and have since moved to West by God Virginia and I've noticed a lot of differences between the two.

People here tend to progress a lot faster than people back home.  I attribute that to the fact that we have so many quality runs of different ability levels in such short distance that it is easy to develop skills because you do not have to invest so much time into traveling to go paddling.

Even the boats that most people paddle in the two areas are different.  I personally have a 3 boat quiver, the Pyranha Molan, Pyranha Everest, and the Dagger Greenboat.  When I lived in Delaware, I almost exclusively paddled my playboat and this was because it the runs that are in that area are all play rivers, and when people traveled out to the Lower Yough, it was to surf Swimmers or something else.  I never wanted to paddle my creekboat, it was too long, it didn't turn fast enough, and it didn't surf.

Living out here, I've seen a different side of things.  Most people's primary boat is a creekboat, and their secondary boat is either a long boat or a playboat.  When living in Delaware, it seemed cool to be able to take your playboat down anything.  Big water, creeks, rivers, anything, because it is so unforgiving "it will make you a better creeker if you paddle your playboat on most things."  From what I've noticed about that phrase it is also compares to "I like this creekboat because it paddles like my playboat."  People that tend to spend a lot of time in a little playboat also tend to prefer a smaller sized creekboat for the reason I just mentioned.

Here it is different, one of the best and well respected paddlers in this area told me once "whatever creek boat you think is your size, get the next size up."  Which for a while perplexed me.  If I am on a technical creek that involves making a lot of moves, why would I want something bigger?  Well, I figured that out pretty quickly after trying two Pyranha creek boats side by side.  The medium Burn and the Everest.  From what I could tell, both boats turned and responded equally, but why since one is much larger?  Simple, the increased volume and rocker of the Everest means that there is less boat in the water.  With less boat in the water, the boat is easier to turn.  So while I can maneuver both the same, the increased volume of the Everest means more ability to resurface and go through holes.  Sold, bigger boat it is on the technical stuff.

What about the run that you do regularly that are difficult, how do you make them harder?  Here is where I have noticed the two schools of thought really come out.  Playboat versus longboat.  Those that want to paddle a playboat on runs such as the Upper Yough, I understand.  The pushiness of the water, and the lack of speed and forgiveness a playboat has makes is difficult to make some of the moves.  If you don't do it perfectly, it ends up with with being upside down or getting beat down in a hole.  Understandable.

However, I have no desire what so ever to take a playboat down the Upper Yough.  I don't like being upside down and I don't like being in holes getting my ass handed to me.  However, I do like a challenge, and that is where the Greenboat comes in to play.  Before moving here, the only time I had heard of anyone paddling a Greenboat was for the Green Race and my impression was that they were for racing, very difficult to paddle, and only pros used them.

I was wrong, and now I paddle my Greenboat almost exclusively.  The lack of speed and stability a playboat has on difficult things can be compensated for by gradient and a good brace.  My first run down the Upper Yough I was overwhelmed by how technical the river was, fast forward six months and I am surprised how open the lines really are.

I think a lot of people here, myself included, view Upper Yough runs as a way to hone creeking skills and keep them sharp.  On something steep, you've got moves to make, little time to react, and penalties that can add up if you miss them.  In the Greenboat, I feel that you have to be more proactive than in a shorter boat.  Though the lines are bigger than I once thought, you have to stay engaged.  You drive the boat through the current, you don't let the current take you which I feel has kept me pretty sharp so far.  Basically how I see it, if you want to get more proficient at maneuvering through technical whitewater, the more length you have, and the more speed you carry make it so that when those skills are transferred to a shorter, more maneuverable creeker, you are able to make the moves that count.

From what I can tell about safety is that it changes depending on the person, but in general I noticed many people when I was starting out were very concerned about me swimming.  People would get very worried to see a boater upside down to the point of blowing their whistle or yelling that there was a danger.  Many people tend to look at some dangers and concern themselves with things that are not necessarily things to worry about.  I blame a lot of this on internet descriptions of hazards that get people worked up.  Many of these hazards are played up and the likelihood of something going wrong is very slim to none, and these hazards are only hazards if you would choose to deliberately paddle into them.  On the other end of the spectrum, those who consistently boat class V tend to overlook moderate hazards on rivers because in the big picture, they too do not pose significant threat other than some bruised egos and scratched boats.

Where I notice the difference is preparedness.  It seems that most, if not all, the boaters that I have paddled with out here carry their unpin kit and first aid kit, and pretty much "shit hits the fan" gear with them at all times.  Maybe it is the nature of creeking in this area, that even on the easy stuff shit can go wrong so we're always prepared and I like it.  I feel that at any moment, you should be prepared to help your fellow boater out of whatever shit is about to happen and if you are willingly doing otherwise you are a detriment to the group and a liability.  Things beyond your control are excusable, but not being prepared frustrates me.  I've got my shit together for when something happens, and I just want to know that other people have theirs together if something ever happened to me.  The one time it did, a crew of great boaters saved my ass and I am thankful for it.

What I've written here has been on my mind since I really started boating in West Virginia and it really started to become obvious when the two sides started to mix.  It's just what I have noticed and that's about it.  Obviously, not everyone feels the same way and not everyone falls into the categories I described but as a whole it's how I see things.  You may feel differently about that, and I'd be more than willing to hear yours.



The next blog may be about cheese steaks.


  1. As a guide we used to call this the difference between private boaters and guides. I have since realized that a lot of really good WV boaters certainly fit into the "guide" group but it is an easy way to describe the difference.

    The easiest way to tell the difference between the two groups in my opinion is will they take you out somewhere where you will swim. Private boaters wont take anyone to class III without a very solid pool roll. "Guides" understand that swimming is not the worst thing that can happen to you and that the only way you get good at swimming and recovering quickly is by doing it often.

  2. All I hear is blah blah blah I'm a dirty tramp!!!

  3. Nik you definitely said it with that. Some people view swimming as the worst thing in the world and others see it as something that happens. The majority of the whitewater that gets paddled isn't too dangerous on the swimmer. Mostly it is more embarrassing and inconvenient if anything. Sometimes a swim is a good thing, as it keeps the paddler aware and prepares them for something bigger if shit should really hit the fan. Some people haven't swam in years, I've swam 6 times this year, and I am sure there are more to come. Does that make a bad or reckless paddler? I wouldn't say so, I feel that I'm a solid class IV boater who just like everyone else has a bad day every once in a while.

    Lines are something else I've noticed, many people get too caught up in knowing the line that they are tunnel visioned. When guiding new people down the run, it isn't important to give them beta on every hazard or place not to go. This is just too much information to absorb, they tend to get too caught up in staying on their line that they could end up blowing it do to lack of realization of the big picture.

    My thoughts on leading are: I'll tell you when you have to make a move in a certain spot, where there is a hazard you may not pick up on, and the rest of the river, your skills should be able to get you down it simply by watching others or reading the water. I wouldn't take someone down something if I thought they needed their hand held in the boogie water.

  4. Nicely said Radley. I made the transition from the NE/Mid-atlantic over this last year and see things very similarly to you. I haven't gotten the same number of days on the water like you have, but the same crew of boaters helped me push harder and swim a few more times than I had in a while--I'm thankful for both. This summer I'm going to get some swiftwater training so I can start pulling my weight a bit more (since I quit the bakery and can't get cookies any more). Safe paddling--look me up if you in the Maineland this summah.