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Class II gets a bad rap a lot of the time. It’s hard to find people eager to rally after-work laps on the local “beginner’s” stretch. Take the Powerhouse section of the Snoqualmie for instance: a half mile of the best pool-drop class II around. With a wide riverbed and relatively easy-to-make moves, the Powerhouse is one of my favorite places to bring beginners. What so many of us forget, however, is that class II is arguably the best place to learn class III, IV, and even V skills. In my last post, I wrote about the importance of regular exercise outside of kayaking. Here, I’ll expand on one of the easiest, fastest, and safest ways to get a great workout AND push yourself in your boat: attaining.

Attaining in your kayak involves starting at the bottom of a rapid, pointing your boat upstream, and working your way back upstream. Looking up at a rapid from the bottom can be intimidating. Little pour-overs become near impenetrable walls, eddy lines become force fields, and wave trains become your worst enemy. While you can use river features like eddies and small waves to help you, you’re bound to experience at least some all-out, pedal-to-the-metal paddling along the way. This is where the magic happens.

Paddling against the current forces you to exert yourself far beyond what you normally would if you were coming down the same rapid. Because of this, attainments are a fantastic way to boost your kayaking fitness. During an attainment, both the volume and the intensity of paddling increase dramatically. As your body works against the abnormally large load, it starts to adapt to this new level of activity. Multiple systems throughout your body slowly become more powerful and efficient. Soon, attainments become easier and you can push yourself to paddle up longer, more challenging rapids. If you think it feels good to progress in your attaining skills, just wait until you turn it back downstream. As you practice, you train your body to push harder than it used to be able to. As a result, you start to notice downstream moves becoming much more manageable, even the ones that gave you the most trouble before. The benefits of attaining, however, don’t stop at the physical.

Beyond the benefit of whipping yourself into great physical shape, attaining forces you to practice technical skills at a level well above class II. When you’re paddling at your max, your gear performs differently than it would at a lower work rate. Learning how your boat and paddle respond to inputs from your body while you push to make hard upstream moves can be really helpful in stepping up to more challenging rivers. The way the hull and edges of your boat perform as you rip across an eddy line going upstream feels remarkably similar to how they will as you charge from move to move on bigger rivers. The weird combinations of paddle strokes you utilize to charge up around a rock while attaining can also be applied as you line up for a drop or work your way around (or out of ;)) big munchy holes. Skills like slamming your boat from one edge to another while paddling as hard as you can and using little draw strokes in combination with powerful sweeps are HIGHLY applicable to running harder whitewater. As you push yourself on more difficult rivers, however, the level of risk incurred increases. Perhaps the greatest thing about attaining is that you can learn all these new skills without ever leaving the comfort and safety of class II.

Regardless of your skill level, it’s easier to mitigate the risks of whitewater on class II than on class III and above. In the wise words of Clay Ross (Coach of the University of Puget Sound Kayak Club), “you can always make an easy rapid harder, the opposite…very seldom true.” While there’s not always a class II line through a class IV rapid, you can almost always find a class IV line through a class II rapid. Being able to push your skills on easier whitewater is an incredibly valuable skill to have. Moms rest easy, you CAN become a better kayaker without running harder, more consequential whitewater. My favorite part of attaining in class II is knowing that if I mess up, I’m not going to be swept into a sieve or pinned in the middle of a gnarly rapid. The inherent risks of whitewater are still present, mind you, but mitigating these risks is far easier in this setting.

People often forget that there is PLENTY of work to be done in class II whitewater. Have you caught EVERY SINGLE eddy in this rapid? Can you do it backwards? Only paddling on one side? Can you attain the rapid? I’ve spent countless evenings at the Powerhouse working every imaginable angle of that half mile of class II and still, every time I go back, I find something new to try. It’s important to note that attaining and pushing yourself on class II doesn’t automatically make you a class III, IV, or V boater. Inherently, there are some skills required for harder whitewater that you can only gain as you paddle more challenging sections with increasing regularity. That being said, I’m a firm believer that attaining is one of the safest, most efficient ways to build physical fitness and technical skills, all while keeping risk factors as low as possible.


By J.T. Hartman