Huck It and See: The Modern Approach to Whitewater Kayaking


I remember the first time I ever kayaked on a river; it was a Wednesday evening around half way through 2004 on a section of the Irwell that runs through Bury, known locally as ‘The Burrs’. I was lucky enough for this to be one of my school sports lessons, and despite being reluctant to take part in almost any other sport, I was more than happy to be sat in a Pyranha H2 on a cold English evening about to paddle my first section of whitewater.

At the time, I was oblivious to the features of a river or the risks they bring with them, so I can’t honestly say that I was scared, but I felt more than comfortable being supervised by one of the school’s outdoor pursuits leaders. Now knowing the relative calmness of The Burrs compared to other rivers, the venue for my first stint on moving water had clearly been well thought out, and the instructors were well-equipped and ready to deal with any situation; I can say this with confidence, as I actually neglected to pack any kit for myself and ended up wearing a mish-mash of spare kit!

Over the next few years of school, college and university, I paddled with various groups of people, but the constant during these trips was the sense of inclusion when we were on a river which made it unlike other sports; there was none of the constant one-upmanship, none of the petty arguments over who was the best, and regardless of your ability there was always something new to learn and someone willing to teach you.

The real beauty of kayaking to me was that there was something for everyone, whether you wanted to push yourself hard and become the next big thing or just relax and enjoy a day on the water. Most of all, there was no pressure to run things you weren’t comfortable with.

One Down

A cold day on the Upper Tees.

Recently however, things seem to have changed…

There’s a new disregard for how much control you have on a rapid, and a tendency for some groups to get rowdy about throwing themselves down things they have no business even standing next to.

Pushing your limits is another part of what makes kayaking what it is, but ignorance of the need to weigh up the risks of running a rapid against the rewards is just foolish. Worse still is the culture of mocking people for not ‘manning up’ and running something they aren’t ready for; to me, it’s far more embarrassing to pinball down a rapid or run it on my face than it is to walk around it.

Kayaking isn’t like football or rugby; the game doesn’t stop as soon as someone gets injured, the river will keep thundering over the rocks and the only people around will be those you are boating with (or even those who just happen to be nearby), and they are the people who will have to put their lives at risk to save yours.

This isn’t the only problem though; people outside of the kayaking community who encounter groups being reckless will assume that all kayakers are the same, giving us a bad reputation and strengthening arguments against us in terms of access so that they can keep us off the rivers ‘for our own protection’.

I once saw a DVD in my local paddling shop called ‘Whitewater Self Defense’ and that, I feel, is a perfect title; kayaking should use the awesome power of the river and turn it against itself for your benefit, using disciplined, carefully developed but powerful skills to find that smooth, controlled line through the chaos.

What do you think?

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