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My first experience kayaking in a river, I flipped over, hit my head, and received seven stitches above my right eye. That was when I decided I would learn from someone who knew what they were doing. Whitewater mentors are able to teach us to be safe, have fun, know our limits, and explore an incredible sport.

I have had many people teach me to kayak, raft, and explore whitewater in ways that are safe and fun. Dave Su, a Jackson Kayak regional team member and ACA Instructor Trainer Educator, was the first person to teach me to whitewater kayak and was there when I did my first wet exit as water sputtered out of my nose and he was there when I ran my first class V on the Raquette river in New York. I got pretty lucky with my first teacher. I learned to raft from veterans at my first guiding job in Massachusetts when I didn’t even know what an eddy was. Every company I have been at has had their share of veterans who have imparted their wisdom and knowledge so I could improve. Each person I have come into contact with on the river has taught me what to do and what not to do. They have all been influential in making my experience on the river a fun one and for the skills I have today.

Whitewater kayaking has been an influence on my life ever since I got in my first kayak and without Dave or all the other people who taught me, I know my kayaking skills wouldn’t be what they are. The mentors that had the greatest impact on me have had a few characteristics in common that were important. They have been patient, knowledgeable, kind, exciting to be around, safety conscious, and supporting. I have also had some mentors that were ill-equipped with their knowledge, easily frustrated, and in some cases unsafe. It was hard to know when someone lacked the necessary skills and safety when I was just learning, but whether or not they had these skills, every mentor left a lasting lesson.

A friend and fellow kayaker, Naomi Jaeger, shares what she learned from her whitewater mentors.
“ Throughout my life, mentors have shaped who I am and have guided me to become the person I am today. In my early childhood my mentors primarily were my parents, extended family, and a handful of teachers. Learning to kayak was a step away from the mentors I had always known. These mentors were new to me and I viewed them as friends, coworkers, equals, not as adults or strangers. It opened my eyes to the realization that friends can be mentors and leaders in your life too. The people who taught me how to kayak, Sarah, Megan, Higgins, and countless more, inspired me and led me to my passion. Without the kindness shown by these people, without the patience, guidance, and the drive they had for kayaking I don’t know if I would love it the same way I do today. They were always there to pick me up if I failed and continuously gave me advice on how to succeed in the future. They watched me struggling to learn my roll, flailing through my first rapids, and rescued my gear after my first swims. But they were also there cheering for the successes: as I caught my first eddys, made my first ferries, finally combat rolled, and surfed for the first time. It was them who first inspired me to apply to World Class Kayak Academy and to chase my dreams relentlessly.”

Naomi works at Wet Planet and learned to kayak from many kayakers here in the Columbia Gorge community. She is pursuing her passion next year at the World Class Kayak Academy where she will encounter new mentors who will challenge her to be the best kayaker and person she can be.

Not all of us have the luxury of working at a rafting or kayaking company where it’s our job to run rivers, so many need other options. Whitewater is a fringe sport, and when we are young we usually need to know someone who is in to whitewater to learn. We may be lucky to have a paddling club nearby or go to a high school or college with a kayaking program. There are also paddling groups and pages on Facebook or in local community groups that can help us connect with paddlers. The American Canoe Association creates classes all across the country to help people get out and paddle. Local companies such that teach kayaking or rafting can also provide a mentoship role. To learn to kayak, most of us have to work to find a group to go out with or have a friend that is kind and patient enough to stick with and teach us. There are many options for learning to kayak, but that doesn’t help us know if we have mentors that will have our best interest in mind.

Finding mentors that will safely enable you to be the best you can be is important for you and the sport of whitewater kayaking. We have all been in that position where someone tells us we are ready for a river and they don’t know the limit of our paddling skills. We may have even had a friend take us through a huge rapid without telling us anything about it. When I am teaching, I want people to feel comfortable, safe, and know that everything is challenge by choice. I learned this way of teaching by those who taught me the best. I felt comfortable when they were around, knew they were looking out for me, and knew that they would push me in ways in which I was capable. We can look for these attributes when we first join a group of paddlers. We want them to be supportive, make us feel like part of the group, and share their skills wholeheartedly. If we don’t find this, then it’s important to keep searching for that positive group or mentor.

Across the spectrum of kayaking stories, many of us follow a similar story line. Someone in a group we joined, a friend group, or relative taught us the beginnings of kayaking until we were proficient enough to go out and kayak with our own crew. These mentors come in many types of people and personalities, but they all share the same excitement for the sport and willingness to teach and support others.

If we stay in the sport long enough we end up in the position of becoming a mentor whether we want to or not. We do this by intentionally teaching someone or by those unintentional moments someone is watching us and learning from the encounter. We are all mentors and it is important for the sport that we hold ourselves to that standard so everyone can enjoy whitewater.

– Jair Cruikshank