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I know, I know. People often want to hear about the new stuff. But I figured I’d spend this blog post reflecting on 2015 Jackson Kayak’s Zen whitewater kayak. This kayak changed me as a paddler, my relationship with Jackson Kayak, and how I thought about sizing with kayaks. First off, the Zen was the first Jackson Kayak that I had purchased.

Prior to owning the Zen and prior to me joining JK’s Exploration Team, I was frustrated with my creek boat. It was slow, it didn’t track well, and I didn’t find the outfitting to be reliable (the seat screws kept falling out, thus a constantly moving seat). So I took a chance and switched brands. My experiences with representatives from Jackson Kayak had always been pleasant and I really appreciated the character of those on their teams and the initiatives they participated in. People like Wes Bradley, Zach Fraysier, and Colin Kemp inspired me to consider a Jackson Kayak as my next creek boat. But which kayak would be best for me?

My first experience in a Jackson Kayak. During a trip down to Chile, I tested out the Jackson Kayak Karma, size medium. I paddled a large variety of whitewater around Chile from the tight basalt canyons of the Rio Claro, to the steep creeking of the Rio Palguin, to the higher volume of the Rio Trancura. The Karma was stable, easy to roll, and predictable. I also absolutely fell in love with how quickly I could make adjustments on the fly to the outfitting. I was able to pop into an eddy, tighten the backband, and pull forward the foot plates within a matter of seconds. No more getting out of the boat, fumbling with and dropping caps for bulkhead screws, and taping over screws to prevent leaking. While paddling the Karma, I felt comfortable paddling difficult rapids, making tight moves, and trusting the kayak to keep me safe and protected.

My first experience in a Jackson Kayak Zen, size large. The Nantahala Cascades. I know you’re thinking that this is obviously the best test run for a brand new boat (…probably not), but I had a reason. While I was shopping for a new creek boat, I knew that I would be taking a trip within a couple of weeks to Colorado. I had researched the whitewater in Colorado and it seemed quite different than that of the southeast. I would be taking a brand new boat to a brand new style of whitewater. No, this was not the ideal scenario for me, but I wanted to get as much experience under my belt in the new boat. So I made a bold decision (for me) to test out a friend’s Zen on the Cascades, a section of whitewater that I had paddled multiple times and knew the intensity would best represent what I would find in Colorado.

I put on earlier than my paddling crew, to warm up on some flatwater, roll the boat, and just get acquainted with it. If anything felt off, I wouldn’t continue downstream. It felt familiar. Having paddled the Karma for a while in Chile helped me to gain confidence quickly in the Zen. The Zen tracked well, it rolled with ease, felt lightning fast compared to my previous creek boat, and I just loved the concept of creeking in a kayak with a planing hull. I was ready for the first rapid, Horns of God, the first test of the Zen. Smooth sailing and a lot of anxiety dripped away. Now the big one, Big Kahuna. Did I style this rapid? I wish I could say to you that I did, but I got a good boof, came off a bit angled, and needed to roll up. Being able to quickly roll up and catch the eddy below Big Kahuna is important, as the manky Junkyard rapid lies below. It was super easy to roll up. The trip concluded with a solid hole punch at Junkyard and a clean line through Chinese Feet. The test run had concluded, and while it wasn’t my smoothest day on the water, I was absolutely sold on the Zen.

Over the next couple of years, I took my Zen to a lot of different whitewater rivers and creeks. I instructed many courses in the Zen, as it was a great kayak for demonstrating skills, assisting in rescues, and carrying safety equipment. With a little advice from Clay Wright, I was able to outfit it just right with a 200% sweet cheeks and hip shims to make up for being a medium sized paddler in a large boat. But Clay and I were quite interested in using the Zen as a creek boat instead of a river runner. The Zen helped me achieve a personal best time in the Ocoee Race, paddle the biggest whitewater I’ve paddled to date, the Thompson River in the Jocassee watershed, and gain confidence on the Green Narrows. Those were my goals and the Zen helped me to accomplish them.

With having the extra volume with the large size, I always felt comfortable carrying all the safety gear I needed for the day. No excuses about not having enough room, or the boat riding a little too low with so much gear, etc. When I had a bad day on the water, swimming Zwick’s at the Green Narrows, and my kayak sailing off of Gorilla without me in it, Jackson Kayak staff were kind and helped me to get a new hull (it was my fault, I paid for it) and had the videos to guide me through the process of moving my outfitting over from the hull to hull. The kindness of the Jackson Kayak staff and team shined again, and that’s why I’m proud to be a member of their Exploration Team.

Thank you JK for making such a great kayak with the Zen!