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I’m going to talk about those plastic things you store in the stern of your kayak, hand paddles. Maybe you’ve used them on the river or at a pool session, but alas I’m going to encourage you to blow off the dust and take them for a spin. You don’t want your first time using them to be on class V. Or maybe you’re looking to challenge yourself in whitewater kayaking, but you don’t necessarily want to step up the difficulty of rapids you’re paddling (I -> II -> III -> IV -> V). Or maybe you’re learning paddling for the first time or you’ve fallen out of favor with whitewater kayaking due to challenges with wielding the kayak paddle. There are many motivations for using hand paddles to power a whitewater kayak.

Starting paddling in the southeast USA exposed me to multiple forms of paddling: kayaking, canoeing, surf ski, rafting, or stand up paddle boarding. Sea, touring, sprint, recreational, or whitewater. Solo or tandem. Sit-in or sit-on-top. Euro paddles, wing paddles, Greenland (traditional) paddles, or hand paddles. While I may not be the most gnar dude on the Jackson Kayak team, I love to try every type of paddling I can find. Of course I would eventually experience hand paddles along this journey. I remember watching Lunch Video Magazine (LVM) tapes showing kayakers paddling huge rapids with a piece of plastic or wood strapped to each of their hands. I remember in those same tapes seeing some of those folks racing the Green Race with these hand paddles. While some of my friends were obsessing over the Green Narrows from watching those videos, I was in awe of the hand paddles. I remember trying out a pair of hand paddles for the first time at a pool session with Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech (ORGT). For me, they were so intuitive. I cruised around the pool, feeling like I was doing a freestyle swimming stroke in my kayak. Bracing with hand paddles made me feel invincible. …and that was just using one hand.

It was only a short amount of time before I was encouraged to roll with hand paddles. The owner of the hand paddles said, “It’s so easy! Try a roll.” At this moment in time, I was early in my paddling experience and my normal kayak roll wasn’t bombproof yet. My hand roll was non-existent and the back deck roll confused me. I knew the general idea of a hand roll, so I figured I’d give it a shot as the worst thing that could happen would be swimming in comfortable pool water. I initiated a capsize, set up like I would for a hand roll, and I immediately rolled up. WHAT?!?! My jaw dropped. How could it be THAT easy? I flipped over again and rolled right back up. I was hooked on hand paddles! In subsequent pool sessions, I used hand paddles to help me to improve my hand roll and they aided me in working through the body positions involved in a back deck roll.

When trying to select a set of hand paddles, I realized there were a lot of different options. Wood or plastic. Small, medium, or large. Webbing, straps, bungee cord, or plastic grips. I opted for one set of plastic hand paddles with a minimal strap and plastic grip and a second set of wood hand paddles with bungee cord. I felt very uncomfortable having my hands strapped to hand paddles and being unable to assist with rescues or struggling to perform a wet exit. I highly recommend practicing your safety and rescue skills at a pool session or lake before heading to the river with hand paddles. Also, make sure you have a buddy with you just in case you run into any difficulties. Try performing a wet exit on dry land and a wet exit without the grab loop, and try again without losing your hand paddles. Try lining up for a T-Rescue or executing a Hand-of-God (unconscious paddler) rescue.

Like many of my friends, I stored a set of hand paddles in the stern of my kayak during river trips. I considered these part of my safety equipment, in case a paddle in our group were lost during a swim or broken. Silly thing though, I rarely used them to paddle down the river. So how reliable would they be as safety equipment if I didn’t know how to use them confidently. I wasn’t likely to lose or break a paddle on an easy river or rapid. I would be using them on the hard stuff. This realization caused me to invest in a 4-piece breakdown paddle to store in the stern of my kayak until I learned how to use the hand paddles on the venues I carried them as a back up option.

After several pool sessions, I started practicing with the hand paddles on easy class II rivers that I was familiar with. I was amazed at how connected I felt with the water. I felt like I could feel each rapid on a much deeper level. I was dialing in smooth lines through rapids and had plenty of power to punch holes. The boof stroke with hand paddles is so much fun, as you can use one or both hands to grab the water and lift up the bow. I did have some struggles as I progressed in difficulty, as I wasn’t always able to paddle the same lines as my friends, and I simply didn’t have the arm strength to do a lake paddle like that found on Chattooga Section IV. But I could always pack that 4-piece breakdown paddle to bust out on the lake portion. So I discovered my own hand paddling lines. And you know what? These lines went well! I had paddled so many rapids as if they were a routine. Paddling with hand paddles made the rapid feel completely new. I felt the same challenge that I did paddling a new river or a new rapid. I felt less pressure to paddle class V and instead I worked on mastering rivers with every type of kayak and paddle. It’s an on-going process…

After hand paddling for years, I started work with the American Canoe Association (ACA) on hand paddling curriculum with Mary Pedrick and other folks on the ACA River Kayak Committee. We want to provide an additional path to becoming a river kayaker. It’s so easy to think there is one path in the sport. Paddle this type of kayak, follow this progression of rivers, or use this kind of paddle (insert witty joke about blade angles). There is one path and it is YOUR path and there isn’t one quite like it. If you’re an experienced paddler and want to try something new, try out a pair of hand paddles on your favorite local river (make sure it’s easy enough). If you’re a new paddler and just don’t connect with the “stick”paddle, try out a set of hand paddles at your next pool or lake session and see if it helps your boat control and confidence. Hand paddles may be the key to unlock a deeper connection with the great outdoors.

I highly recommend the Antix 2.0 or Mixmaster for hand paddling, as a bit of slice makes everything nice. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest like me, be sure to wear a set of neoprene gloves to keep your hands warm in the cold water. If you’ve got a pair of hand paddles in the stern of your kayak, be sure that you know how to use them on the venue you’re carrying them on or switch it out for a 4-piece breakdown paddle until you are proficient enough with hand paddles.