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Indiana James here….

For the last few years, from when my son Sam was 5 or 6, I’ve been casually asking him if the “mighty Yosimmity Sambo wants to run some whitewater?”  His answer has always been “meh”.  He likes it, just has that natural fear that being upside down would suck.  Its a natural reaction, most often all my students feel the same way.  Its also the first of a handful of hurtles we face with every student in teaching whitewater.  Well, this last weekend we busted through most of them in one fell swoop.  How, you ask?  Abby.

“Wha?” you ask.


Rule 1 – Find that inspiration that makes it more FUN than daunting
Abby Holcombe is a 10 year old dynamo from Boulder, Colorado and she, like all other whitewater “muses” got Sam off his butt and into whitewater in the blink of an eye, literally.  This is the first step for all of us.  Whether its a friend who makes it look easy from a Facebook post, to a buddy encouraging you from a beach or your wife calling you a ‘pansy’, everyone has that way in and past their fears.  Many thanks to Abby and her parents Peter and Kathy Holcombe who, while visiting, took Sam to task in getting him inspired to take the next step… well… steps!

Sam coming out of his wet exit

Rule 2 – Get them past that Wet Exit … a first ‘its-all-in-your-head’ step
In Sam’s case it was Abby inspiring him by making it all seem easy.  The first phase for Sambo, and everyone learning to kayak, had to be his wet exit, the act of knowing how to get out of an upended kayak.  Looks easy, IS easy, but for a 10 year old, sometimes not something they wanna try:  “what if I get stuck?”.  Once done though, everyone realizes just how easy it is to get out of a kayak.  Sam did too.  By the end of their first session, Sam had many wet exits out of the way and was ready to tackle the whitewater.  He doesn’t need to know the roll yet, cause, well, we’re on the Ottawa.  But this is just a start when getting someone past all those mental blocks that a new sport like whitewater can throw your way.  As a teacher, recognizing whats ahead in the progression and having cool, easing ways to help them through these blocks is what is gonna help you be successful in teaching someone to kayak whitewater.  Experienced instructors know the games, the tools and the words to use all the way through the learning process.  Just recognize that there will be continual moments where you have to get them past what their head wants to tell them.







Ottawa River ease… super fun for all






Rule 3 – Make it a safe feeling environment
Many classes are held on difficult rivers, or rivers that have elements like cold water, bony rock sections and pushy rapids.  These can all be both daunting to a newby, but can also put a strain on the instructor.  Instructors in many cases do very well taking these elements out of the minds of their students.  Its a talent.  But in Sam’s case, the Ottawa river is NOT one of these challenging learning environments.  Deep water, easy Middle Channel rapids, awesome eddy lines and big ole lakes at the end of each rapids makes this an amazing learning environment.  Again, this cannot be said for every location.  My task teaching was made easier by being able to literally paddle next to Sam in case he flips and to talk him all the way down.  I can point out features, dangers, opportunities to play, paddle techniques and much more right at his side.  Bottom line, my secret weapon is the river itself.  Find an eddy, easy current, forgiving elements and more that ease the teaching process and portray like a safe learning environment.  Take environmental stress out of the picture and all you’re left with is the skills to learn.







Sam blasting through Blacks






Rule 4 – Encourage progression
As soon as Sam accomplished his ferry from one side to the other, I had him do it again.  Once done again, I showed him the s-turn, moving into the current from one eddy, going downstream then out the other side of the river into a lower eddy with one or two strokes.  We rarely spent a single rapid doing the same strokes, taking the same lines etc.  Mix it up cause the harder rivers will mix it up for ya.  Playboating is another skill set that encourages progression.  Not only does it teach you to get out of holes, through waves etc., but it causes you to flip and roll, over and over.  Nothing is better to learn the combat roll (whitewater roll) than playboating.  Sam spent the latter part of this trip charging for any wave/ripple/boil in the river to surf.  The more the progression continues, the higher the confidence surges.  I highly recommend a pro instructor if you are not one yourself.  They know the progression, the river and all the pitfalls in the learning process.

Rule 5 – Have FUN!
If you are stressed, teaching stressed, angry, frustrated, confused, bored, uninteresed etc. you are not having fun.  If you are not having fun, you will not want to learn.  There’s no drive.  Fun drives any learning process.  Kids who like it at school, kids who like their teacher, kids who enjoy their other classmates, kids who like the subject they are learning are all having fun. Those kids all learn well.  If you, as a student do not have fun, you should stop.  Same goes for teaching your kid to paddle.  If they show signs of not having fun, stop.  Many times it is just temporary and circumstantial:  could be they are cold, they are hungry, tired or just got a bit of a scare.  Listen for the signs and end on a positive note.  This way you can most likely continue at some other time.  More effectively, if you recognize any resistance, feel free to stop or at least give a “we’re almost done” ray of hope.  They can get a few more tries out of your child.  Sam got tired right at the end, so we hopped out of our kayaks and floated for a bit.  He loved that as it took all of that negative away.  God bless Hell’s Half Mile (greatest free float in the world).

So Sam finally got through day 1-2 of instruction and I lead him down the Ottawa.  Side by side at first then at Blacks he blasted ahead of me trying to catch all the waves he could.  Sniff… super proud of my boy, super excited to have a new paddling partner.

This is a video of his first ever run in a kayak of the Middle Channel of the Ottawa River: