"I need first hand experience to sharpen my knowledge, and I hate feeling uninformed. When it comes to the business, I understand and can speak to kayak fishing, because I do it often. But whitewater kayaking is an area of weakness for me, and that makes me uncomfortable," I explained to my wife over dinner.
"Well honey, then you should go learn. And if you can learn in the next year, while I'm finishing Grad School, then we can go paddling together when I'm done," she replied.
This was a watershed moment. My wife is a well known whitewater kayaker, a highly skilled and proficient paddler, but 6Â years ago she tried to teach me and it didn't go well. We had some fun, but both of us are so competitive by nature that our relationship dynamic does not always lend itself well to instructor/student situations.
Â I was psyched on the idea of us sharing more time on the water together, especially doing something she loves.
And with that an idea was hatched. I'd learn to whitewater kayak by working with some of the instructional outfits in Central Virginia, highlighting both my journey to learn and the resources we have in this area for instruction.
First up wasÂ Chesterfield County Parks & Recreation.Â They have a lot of great classes and outings! Sign up for some.
I contacted Greg Velzy, Outdoor Adventure Programmer, Â and checked into Chesterfield Parks & Rec's next class.
We met at Dutch Gap Conservation Area for some flatwater instruction. There were 3 of us in the class, and 3 instructors, which meant 1-to-1 ratio! Elli, Shauna and Jack were the three instructors and immediately made me feel at ease.
We started with a quick name game and then segued into sharing our previous paddling experience.
Marin, Jack's sister, was there to fulfill her family obligation and test out the whitewater scene. :)
Her mom is Shauna, an instructor, and she explained that all of her children had gone through the class.
Jack, also an instructor and Shauna's son, hadn't been paddling a long time, but he'd been on the river about 360 days last year and had progressed very rapidly.
Ron didn't have a lot of paddling experience but some of his friends paddled a fair amount and he wanted to try it out. So he signed up for the class.
Elli, an instructor, had been paddling for a long time. I recognized her name as someone who's pictures and videos I'd seen coming out of the RVA paddling scene.
And me, Vince. My first time in kayak was on the Middle New River in a playboat. Class III, Surprise Rapid, was the highlight of that paddle. My next time was in a Jackson Kayak Dynamic Duo with my wife on the Lower New in the New River Gorge. My third time was running Fayette Station in the New River Gorge a couple times, and working on my roll. So I had some experience, but it had been about 6 years.
After hearing my story, Greg asked,"Who is your wife? Because that's some big water to take someone on."
"Harriet Taylor, now Harriet Taylor Vincent," I replied.
"Ah-ha, that makes sense now! I know that name," he smiled.
We started off with some dry land instruction on gear. After getting acclimated to our kayaks, we hit the water.
We focused on some T-Rescue work to get us comfortable righting our kayak with assistance from another paddler. Then it was on to a kayak polo hybrid game. This was pretty fun and served as a great way to get accustomed to the feel of our kayaks.
During lunch we talked about paddle strokes, and then went out to practice them in the afternoon. We also practiced rescuing each other, from T-Rescues, to wet exits and re-entry.
We adjourned for the day, with a plan to run Pony Pasture to Reedy Creek in Richmond the next day. It would give us a great opportunity to learn and practice eddying, ferrying and reading water.
Elli, Shauna, and Jack were expertly attentive to us on the river. All of us had a blast.
We learned a great deal about ferrying, eddying out, etc. Elli also explained scouting rapids and reading water. This proved to be of the most benefit to me.
I'm an ex-rock climbing guide and I remember the mindset that you have to keep as an instructor. Patience, and the ability to communicate complex skills into easily digestible nuggets of info, is paramount.
As an outdoor instructor, your clients are often immersed in sensory overload, which is then compounded with performance jitters and some fear or apprehension. This can make it difficult to distill and impart the necessary instruction. Elli, Jack and Shauna did an excellent job on all fronts. I can't recommend the Chesterfield Parks & Rec whitewater program enough if you are just starting out.
The James River, second day paddle, fell on September 11th. No one explicitly mentioned it, but I definitelyÂ felt the presence of that anniversary. And as I do for most anniversaries that mark the tragic loss of life, I tried to honor the memory of those lost by living as fully and with as much joy as I can.
Elli Morris, our lead instructor, had stressed to us the importance of caring for your fellow paddlers, coming to their aid, and celebrating the community. This all resonated deeply with me, especially given the date.
I tried to smile extra wide as I paddled through Choo- Choo Rapid, competent from my instruction, and confident that should anything happen my fellow paddlers would come and help.
As we paddled to Reedy Creek, I surfed another wave, got flipped and rescued for the first time of the day. As I smacked the sides of my kayak, head under water, I felt at least 4 kayaks come to my aid and knock into me. I grabbed the first one, got my head above water, snapped my hips to right my kayak, and smiled at my new friends.
"Thank you," I said.
It was a simple and routine T-Rescue, but as we floated on, chasing geese, punching over a few more drops and laughing with each other, it began to take on a little greater meaning.
In this big ole world, where we seem to be bombarded with warnings about risk and danger, it's important to celebrate the joy in communal activity and our inherent desire to help one another. Six of us started as strangers on the morning of Day 1, and by the afternoon of Day 2 we were laughing and sharing stories, as we paddled into the blissful sunshine of the James River.
Outdoor recreation does that. Kayaking does that.
Â In today's world we're inundated with attempts to drive us apart, and attempts to label 'us vs them' battles. Some seem eager to chose a side and wage a war of words, or worse. I have only one side, and that is the side of the human race. I'm reminded of that every time I recreate outside.
We are designed to interact. We need that community vibe to survive. It's what has gotten us this far, and it is what will continue to propel us forward, so long as we bring the love.
Six of us met during a whitewater course, and I never cared to ask anyone's "position" or societally imposed "label." Instead we banded together to have fun, to laugh and to help one another.
On the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, thanks to Chesterfield Parks & Rec, I joined another community that celebrates that camaraderie, and it felt fitting. I'm looking forward to more time with the RVA whitewater family in the future.
A big thank you to Greg, Elli, Shauna, and Jack for the instruction, and for welcoming me into the family.
Thank you to Ron and Marin for the good paddling companionship.
Â No matter if you want to learn to run the gnarliest gnar, or just want to feel more competent running smaller rapids, sign up for a class like the one at Chesterfield Parks & Rec.
P.S. Â Dear RVA,
I fall a little more in love with you on every visit. Thanks for being so rad.
See y'all on the water!