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What do you think of when you hear the words “team paddler”? Do you picture Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry at the lip of a huge falls in the heart of Africa? Maybe you think of Dane Jackson upside down five feet off the deck of a monster wave. Perhaps Sage Donnely, boofing down Brush Creek at only 10 years old, comes to mind. Whomever you picture, it’s probably not me front surfing a smallish wave out in the middle of Idaho’s Snake River.
Yet I’m lucky enough to be on Team JK. And I’m especially lucky to be on the team because, right now, I can’t push myself or the sport like the people mentioned above and the rest of JK’s team paddlers. You see, I’ve got a bum shoulder. One day last summer, after an awesome paddle, I was walking up the river bank with my boat on my shoulder, paddle in hand, and I slipped. As I fell my paddle wedged between some rocks, and, before I could let go, the force of the fall popped my shoulder out of socket. It hurt, but more than anything it sucked. I knew right then I had suffered a serious shoulder injury. After a few doctor’s visits and an MRI, the orthopedist tells me I need to have surgery or I will risk dislocating my shoulder every time I paddle. As a graduate student seeking two degrees, I’m not exactly rolling in cash, so an expensive surgery isn’t in the cards for the foreseeable future.
What’s a team paddler to do when difficult whitewater and serious playboating are out of the question? Go paddling of course! The hitch is that paddling with my bum shoulder means something very different than bombing down the North Fork Payette in my Villain or perfecting the latest big wave flippy trick in my Rockstar. Instead it means a lot of time in the gym, strengthening my core and shoulders, and a much less ambitious paddling routine. In short, it’s back to basics.
This season, you’ll find me cruising the seemingly endless miles of class III that pepper Idaho’s rivers, enjoying mellow surfs on moderate features, and generally looking at kayaking in a much different light. The best trick I can think of right now is a season of paddling with no dislocations. Taking it easy will protect my shoulder, but the biggest benefit will be rediscovering aspects of the sport that I’ve ignored for years. Old training routines—like attainments, catching every tiny eddy in a rapid, or paddling rapids backwards with style—are my new challenges. Plus, with JK’s new river-runner, the Zen, as my ride, I’ll have plenty of speed and control for all these old but new challenges. And that’s what makes this so-called sport great: The river, any river, offers a challenges if you’re willing to find it.
That’s why I’m out front surfing a glassy roller on the Snake River in the middle of February. I’m not here to hone my blunt-nasty or to see how much air I can get. My next class V multi-day mission is years away. Instead I’m counting how many cutbacks and clean spins I can do before this little wave greens out, goes flat, and flushes me off. These are moves I learned to do on command more than a decade ago, but they feel a lot more risky with my shoulder—and I feel a lot more lucky to be paddling at all. So, I’m not going to push it. Instead I’m going to enjoy the simple pleasure of gliding free on a big river with only a few good friends around. You should try it some time.