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On September 18, 2021, the Greater Seattle area paddling community gathered at Lake Sammamish to share our passion for paddle sports with community members. The fun and free paddling skills day was designed to introduce Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) to whitewater paddling skills. Participants were able to take lessons in kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding, and rafting with experience instructors and volunteers. No experience or equipment was required to participate. Participants were expected to wear non-cotton quick dry layers and rain gear (and of course a smile). The event was sponsored by Washington Kayak Club, Urban Teen, Kayak Academy, Paddle Trails Canoe Club, the American Canoe Association (ACA), and others. Gear was volunteered by community members and local businesses.

That morning, the weather forecast did not look promising. I woke up early, excited to introduce people to a sport I very much love. As I looked out the window, I saw buckets of rain pouring from the sky. Oh no! There had been so much anticipation and preparation for this event, and I’d hate to see a weather forecast wash away the magical event being coordinated. But I loaded up my gear and headed to the event. Rain would not dilute my motivation to attend the event and offer paddling instruction. The participants arriving later that day agreed.

The weather decided to cooperate….for a while. The paddling instructors, volunteers, and coordinators met up early to set up the event. We prepared as best we could for the likelihood of rain. One by one, we set up pop-up shelters to create a base camp. We kicked off the event by assigning roles and responsibilities, including who was going to teach what. As one of the most experienced paddling instructors attending the event, I threw my hat in the ring for both kayak and canoe instruction. Looking around, I saw a lot of kayakers and kayak instruction volunteers, including my good friends and fellow ACA Instructors Ayla and Megan. I saw my good friends Jojo and Clay heading up a Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) class, and Randy and Tom offering up rafts. …but what about canoeing? I don’t claim to be the best canoeist out there, let alone the best at teaching canoeing. I’m far more effective at teaching kayaking. And then I thought about one of the aims of the event, to diversify whitewater paddling. I had the opportunity to share one more way to enjoy the water. I decided to teach my first canoe class.

Cars parked and a steady flow of participants departed the registration tent and headed toward the water. These fine folks decided to brave the potential rain and enjoy some paddling with us. The instructors, volunteers, and coordinators all smiled and the energy of the entire event started to crescendo. The event was on and we were going to enjoy some high quality water time!

Then reality set in. Would anyone actually want to canoe? Kayaking and SUP are the sexy paddling sports these days. The morning session was split into 2 back-to-back classes, so participants could experience two different types of paddling or double down on one sport. And then my first participant walked up. In utter disbelief, I asked if she actually wanted to learn to canoe. She did. I filled with excitement. She shared her nervousness toward kayaking and canoeing felt much more approachable to her. She hopped in a tandem canoe with my instructional assistant Fritz. We introduced the equipment associated with canoeing, the different seated or kneeling positions, the single-bladed paddle, and how to properly wear a float vest or personal flotation device (PFD). Once the basics were covered, we launched onto Lake Sammamish in a calm area protected from lake fetch or boat wake. I introduced concepts around stabilizing a canoe, having good posture and edging a canoe.

Once stable, we moved onto canoeing strokes and maneuvers. Along the way, we talked about the rich culture of paddling. Stories of Greenland kayakers, families going on canoeing adventures, and people using paddle crafts for their own livelihood. When teaching about paddling, it’s so common to talk about mastering the craft with technical skills and maneuvers. But it’s easy to leave out the cultural aspect of paddling. We talked about the places we had been in kayaks and canoes, including Fritz’s trip to the boundary waters and my trip to Okefenokee Swamp, all navigated by canoe. What started as a participant’s apprehension toward paddling ended with confidence and a connection with the water.

In the next morning session, I had three canoe participants. I went through the same routine, hopped in my solo canoe and the three participants and my instructional assistant brought out two tandem canoes. Again, I covered the basics of equipment, stability, strokes, and maneuvers. But the rich conversation of the session was around sharing stories about paddling. The water allowed us to connect with the water and each other. I was so thankful that I stepped up to teaching canoeing classes.

After eating a delicious lunch, we raffled off a wonderful collection of donated prizes. The prizes included free professional paddling instruction, free paddling tours, gift certificates to local businesses, and other goodies. These were such wonderful ways to continue these participants’ paddling journey beyond this one-day event. Lunch and raffle time was purposely structured to mingle both AM and PM event participants (some of the AM folks decided to stay for the PM sessions as well). After the mid-day festivities wrapped up, I decided to give my knees a break and teach a bit of kayaking with some of my kayaking friends and fellow volunteers.

I’ve been teaching kayaking since 2009. I’ve taught small groups and big groups, usually in a half-day or full-day configuration. Well, this ended up being my biggest class to date and the most efficient class I’ve ever taught. Once everyone had PFDs on, we began the boat matching process. The effectiveness of our group to get everyone into a kayak from our random assortment of donated gear was astonishing. Somehow we mixed and matched folks until we got everyone in a kayak. A booted up my larger-than-life / camp counselor personality and offered instruction to the group all at once, with volunteers providing more hands-on assistance with the instruction. After only a few minutes of instruction, participants were zipping around, smiling and laughing. It was such an engaging atmosphere, seeing how quickly participants were learning and experimenting with their own kayaks. Before I knew it, the lesson was concluding and I heard a few folks say, “Aww man….”

One of the highlights of the event occurred during one of the canoe lessons. At the beginning of the lesson, I had a participant who was eyeballing a raft configured with an oar rig mounted to two inflated tubes. I saw THAT look. He made a connection with the oar rig, which wasn’t in use at the moment. I called over Randy and told him to take this fine gentleman on a journey to understand how to pilot the oars. While I lost a canoe participant, I facilitated another connection with the water. Before I knew it, he was cruising around after a brief introduction on how to use the oars. Such a quick learner! Then the rain we’d all expected decided to fall in full force, probably the heaviest rain I’ve seen since I moved to the PNW. But that didn’t deter our mighty participants. They kept charging on, proving to me the strength of their connection with the water and paddling. While some folks may cancel their plans due to rain, paddlers embrace the rain and welcome less crowds at their favorite spots.

All and all, this was one of the most enjoyable events I’ve done in the past decade. I’m thankful and inspired by the people who braved the rain and attended this event and my classes. I am thankful to the community for coming together to support the BIPOC community, and for volunteering their time, effort, money, and resources. I am reminded of the importance of diversity in paddle sports and the rich culture at the foundation of paddling. A culture I hope will strengthen and not fade. I look forward to the BIPOC Paddling Skills Day returning in 2022. I hope those residing in the PNW will be able to join me!