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When most people think of afterschool, extracurricular activities, they picture such things as theater, chess, football, etc., but a middle school out of Asheville, North Carolina, decided to switch it up a bit.

While the French Broad River Academy (FBRA) offers the standard afterschool club experiences, it has also developed quite a strong whitewater program over its 14-year lifespan. In the fall and spring months, students are encouraged to join the afterschool kayaking program, taught by highly skilled, class IV-V boaters (who also happen to be their school teachers!), where they can develop skills ranging all the way from beginner to advanced. And if students want more, they can also sign up for the epic summer programs: a week-long beginner course, a 2-day intermediate course, and a week-long advanced course. During the summer programs, the students are taken down various different rivers throughout Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Pretty incredible for a middle school!

French Broad River Academy: Schooling the Future of Kayaking

I was given the opportunity this past spring and summer to co-instruct in both the afterschool and summer programs, and let me tell you, it was a blast. For 5 weeks, every Tuesday, in April and May, around 10-20 students and generally 4 instructors, including myself, paddled at the Ledges Whitewater Park on the French Broad River. The students got to master their rolls, practice surfing, learn stern squirts, and become more comfortable paddling whitewater in a safe, friendly section of the river. From the first week to the last, these young rippers made obvious improvements to their paddling, both big and small; it was quite impressive to watch!

running bigger whitewater

After returning home from traveling in June and July, I went to work with FBRA again, this time in their summer programs. I started out on their intermediate weekend, a 2-day course meant to bridge the gap between the beginner week and advanced week camps. Day 1 was spent on Section 9 of the French Broad, allowing students to re-up on their skills if they had not been in the water for a while and to continue working on new skills too. The second day was spent on the Upper Green, a class II-III+ run that leads into the renowned Green Narrows. This gave students a small taste for creek-style kayaking, a substantial change from their usual excursions on the wide, higher-volume French Broad River. The change in scenery served as a big relief to them, and the different style of paddling created its own set of challenges. Even for me, this was an incredibly special experience as the Green River Gorge has guided my paddling career from the start.

French Broad River Academy: Schooling the Future of Kayaking

I also co-instructed the advanced kayaking camp – a 5-day, overnight course taking place on a few different rivers in the region. This camp offered the students an opportunity to hop on a couple more new, harder rivers. The trip started on the French Broad again, went to the Pigeon for 2 days, and ended with two days on the Ocoee. The Pigeon and Ocoee, two of the most fun class III runs in the WNC/ET area, provide endless playspots, fun lines, and technical maneuvers, and as a result, the students never stopped playing at a spot until we told them we had to go. Every time we stopped at an eddyline or a wave, they would endlessly play until we, unfortunately, had to tell them to continue downstream. Each day ended at a campsite where we hung out, played games, and talked about kayaking. While the students most certainly enjoyed the Pigeon, the experience on the Ocoee was next level. These guys could not get enough of it. Most of the joy I experienced that week was purely from the joy radiating from the students; their delight was infectious. From the start to the end of the week, the students’ whitewater abilities improved vastly: improving their combat rolls, stern squirts, surfing, and working on cartwheels and enders!

The camp presented them with a glimpse into the greater world of kayaking, and, for the most part, all of them latched on or took a small piece. The future of kayaking lies not just with the progression at the highest level of kayaking – taking on the extremes or creating new freestyle tricks or combos – but also within the next generation, the young kids who will come at kayaking with new perspectives and new ideas and continue to pass down the magic of the river.