Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Kid Kayakers

It's that time of year again here at NOC; the time when we batten down the hatches, move the instruction crew to DEFCON 2, and remove the sugar packets from the dining room tables. Yes, it's time for our bi-yearly Kid's/Teen Week. For many instructors, the two summer weeks in which we close instruction to adults and just focus on teaching kids is our favorite time of the year. Many of the kids come back year after year and we've had the privilege of watching them progress from tentative beginners to class 5 creekers. If you've got kids and are looking to get them into boating then here's a few suggestions we've picked up over the years:

1. Kids rarely place the same pressure on themselves that adults do. I've seen many novice adults disappointed in themselves after flipping at Nantahala Falls their first time running it. I have never met a kid who was disappointed about flipping at Nantahala Falls. They get the same satisfaction (if not more) from doing a successful wet-exit when they flip as they do from running the Falls upright. I cannot count the amount of times I've seen a kid do a wet-exit on the river and come up smiling. Which brings us to the next point...

2. Kids love swimming. And we encourage it. Our first few days are spent doing wet exits and swimming rapids. Sometimes we'll spend a couple hours swimming rapids just to get them comfortable in that environment. (This is particularly important for the younger kids) I've even had kids that wanted to swim Nantahala Falls before they kayaked it. Adults view swimming a rapid as a consequence for their mistake - kids view it as just a fun part of kayaking. Their comfort out of the boat, and in the water, increases their learning curve exponentially.

3. Kayaking is one of the best sports I've seen for teaching responsibility. It never ceases to amaze me the amount of responsibility and good decision making I see from 9-15 year old kids in regards to kayaking. Sure, we put them in safe environments in which they can succeed, but we also allow them to make many of their own decisions on the river - which rapids they run, which lines they'll take, which rapids they'll lead, etc. The results are often amazing. For example, when we ask the kids to choose their own line at Nantahala Falls very few of them actually choose the standard left to right line, eddying-out in Truckstop Eddy, like 95% of boaters do. They often choose completely different lines going down the right side of the Falls which they correctly deduce will give them a greater chance of success than the standard line.
For more information on our Kids/Teen week programs click here
Photos courtesy of Jon Clark: Advanced Kids Week

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

What's the best beginner boat?

We’ve been fielding a lot of questions regarding this topic recently on the Boatertalk skills development page. The short answer to this question is the Jackson Fun; the long answer is, well, longer. Because everyone is different, a great beginner boat for one person may be a horrible beginner boat for another. This is the dilemma we face every morning as we outfit our novice kayakers in their boats. Here’s a few suggestions, remembering of course that there is no substitute for paddling the boat before you buy it. (We have free demos of all these boats at our Outfitter’s Store)

Best Beginner River Runner: Dagger Mamba
If this boat was a car it would be the: Ford Taurus
You’ll probably like this boat if: you’re a bigger person, you want to focus mostly on river-running, you want a boat that’s easy to roll
You probably won’t like this boat if: you want to get into playboating, you’re a fast learner, you want a responsive/sporty boat

The Mamba is a comfortable boat that floats the paddler high on the water and has ample volume, thus making it more forgiving than some of the other boats. We instructors like the fact that it gives the novice paddler some room for error – a novice’s shaky edges do not automatically transfer into time spent upside down. Thanks to a more rounded chine, this boat is also a little easier to roll than some other river-runners, for example the Liquid Logic Hoss/Little Joe. It’s a great boat for those that want to bomb down the river in comfort in a fast boat that’s easy to paddle.

Will you outgrow this boat? Yes, if you think you want to get into playboating. No, if you think you want to get into big water runs or easy creeking.

Best Do-Everything Beginner Boat: Jackson Fun Series
If this boat was a car it would be the: Subaru Outback XT
You’ll probably like this boat if: you’re a smaller person, you’re a fast learner, you want to get into playboating, you want a boat that’s easy to roll.
You probably won’t like this boat if: you’re a bigger person, you want a more forgiving boat, you’re still nervous about flipping in whitewater

The Funs are a jack-of-all-trades boat. They’re sporty river-runners, yet still somewhat forgiving. You get the feel of a playboat without the hard chines of a true playboat. These boats are lightweight, comfortable, surf well, can do bowstalls and cartwheels, and are very easy to roll. This is the perfect boat for the beginner that eventually has his/her eyes set on playing their way down the Ocoee.

Will you outgrow this boat? Yes, if you want to do more advanced playboating moves. (You’ll want to get another boat all together if you’re going creeking) No, if you think class 4 will be your river-running limit and basic surfing and cartwheels are your playboating limit.

Easiest Boat to Roll: Jackson Fun Series
Regardless of your size, flexibility, or strength of hip snap, the Jackson Fun boats are the easiest to roll. The Funs are great boats for the C-to-C roll because as the paddler arches out to the second position the boat already starts to come up before a hip snap is even initiated. Paddlers that learn a sweep roll will have an easy time of rolling when they commit to leaning back a bit in the boat. Bigger people that may have a difficult time rolling other boats will find that they can sink the stern down of the Funs and do a “wheelie” up. It may not be the best boat to take down the river for the bigger person, but its certainly the easiest to learn to roll in.

Review of the 2 Fun
by Emery Tillman
"The Jackson 2Fun is a great boat. It fits nice and snug, and has the stability you need. The boat is very easy to roll. Doing your handroll is a little difficult so you need to come up on the back of the boat. It comes in many colors and is very easy to match gear to. The 2Fun edges nicely and makes catching eddies a breeze". Emery is 13 and one of our paddling school regulars. She has been paddling for about a year on the Tuck, the Nantahala, and the Chattooga.

Honorable Mention: Pyranha Ammo
If this boat were a car it would be: Honda CRV
You'll probably like this boat if: you want a stable river runner that's more maneuverable than the Mamba, you're a smaller/medium sized person
You probably won't like this boat if: you're having a tough time rolling, you're a bigger person

We've had a lot of success with beginners in this boat. They like the fact that it has a lot of volume and is stable, yet still very maneuverable. Probably not the easiest boat to roll, but definitely not the hardest either. Check out our review of this boat here.

Will you outgrow this boat? Yes, if you want to do more playboating than just surfing. No, if you want to get into easy creeking and have a reliable river runner.

For more info on these boats including specs, click here. Check out our reviews of the 2008 boats here.
Photos courtesy of NOC Photos: Learn To Kayak 4-day Course

Friday, May 18, 2007

Scouting Concepts

Twice in my kayaking career I have uttered these words while scouting, “I’m not sure where to go, I guess I’ll just fire it up down the middle”. The first time I gave myself a concussion. The second time I broke my neck. Some lessons I seem to have to learn the hard way. Thinking back on the past seven years of boating, I realize that I’ve learned a lot of lessons the hard way. I’ve also been fortunate enough though to boat with some of the best boaters in the country on a regular basis. The lessons I learned from watching or talking to them were lessons that I learned the easy way. The following advice on scouting is a combination of my experiences and the experiences of boaters far better than myself that I’ve paddled with.

So when do you scout? For many people, the decision to scout is directly correlated to their vision. How much of the rapid can you see? Is it completely blind, partially blind, or can you see the entire line from the top? Advanced boaters will feel confident eddy-hopping down a partially blind rapid, getting information and vision in piece-meal format. Beginners will want to see the entire rapid before they attempt to catch any eddys that will commit them to the rapid. The only way they can achieve this is by gettting out of their boat and bank scouting. The willingness to boat scout instead of bank scout is one of the greatest differences between beginner/intermediate boaters and advanced boaters.

Suggestions for getting more comfortable boat scouting: We see people all the time on on the Nantahala that have run Nantahala Falls one or two times yet still want to get out of their boat to look at it before they run it again. There is nothing wrong with this approach. If you want to become a more comfortable boat-scouter though you’ve got to fight the urge to get out of the boat, and instead trust that you can catch the eddies required to open the field of vision as you get closer to the final drop. This often means that you must paddle slower than you’re used to. Similarly, to catch eddies easier you need to identify them earlier . To do this you will have to expand your vision to not just include your direct line of travel, but also your periphery and whats downstream.

Remember, the advantage to bank scouting is that you get to see the entire rapid before you commit. The disadvantage is that the rapid will not look the same from boat level as it does from bank level (especially at Nantahala Falls where the scouting platform is fifteen feet above the water). It is therefore important to pick discernible landmarks that you will be able to recognize from your boat.

So let’s assume you are bank scouting a rapid. There's a term in psychology called “thin slicing", which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience. There’s a great article on this in the newest issue of Rapid Magazine which I would encourage everyone to check out. To paraphrase, we are capable of taking immense amounts of experiential knowledge and condensing it into a manageable chunk for decision making. We often don’t even realize that we’re doing it. How many times have you looked at a rapid and decided to run it or walk it just because you had a “gut feeling” or felt good/bad about it? That gut feeling is your brain taking all previous boating experience and knowledge and repackaging it into a simpler, more condensed form. Beginner boaters don’t have a lot of experience which makes it difficult to “thin-slice”. The brain has nothing to draw upon and slice up. Intermediate boaters have the experience but get hung-up on every little piece of information they see – what’s that tiny rock going to do, is that hole sticky, which one of the five eddies should I catch? Advanced boaters can often decide within a matter of seconds whether they will run or walk a rapid – that’s thin slicing.

Suggestion for quicker/more confident decision making when scouting: Obviously the more experience you have the easier it becomes to make the decision to paddle or walk a rapid. While you’re building that experience though, try to focus less on every piece of the rapid (paralysis through analysis) and more on the one or two moves that you will be required to make. Look at the big picture.

Fear is always a part of scouting. Face it, you wouldn’t be getting out of your boat to look at the rapid if you weren’t to some extent fearful. Most people agree that some nervousness is good, but how do you decipher between what’s fear and what’s just butterflies? It’s a difficult question, and one that I can only answer for myself. When I’m scouting a rapid that makes me nervous/fearful I’ll first ask myself if the required move is one that’s in my wheelhouse – one that I’m good at. Making a driving right boof is not something I am always confident doing, which is why I walk “Go Left”. Making a driving left boof is a move I can make 99% of the time, which is why I run “Sunshine”. You’ll be less fearful if the rapid’s crux move is one that’s in your wheelhouse.

Suggestion for determining fear levels: Before I get back in my boat I’ll shut my eyes and see if I can still “see” the rapid, and the moves that will be required to execute the chosen line. If I can’t see the rapid with my eyes shut then I’m not just nervous – I’m scared. My brain cannot filter the fear and fixate on the task at hand – and so I walk, even if everyone else is running it.

Scouting is about experience and confidence. One of the best ways to gain experience and confidence is to go first or lead rapids you have not run before, assuming they are within your skill level. If you feel that your boating has plateaued or stalled out, leading rapids is a great way to take your boating (and scouting) to the next level.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Other Gear Essentials

Everybody knows about the five essential pieces of gear – boat, paddle, skirt, pfd, and helmet. There are of course other pieces of gear which are nice to have – noseclips, fuzzy top, splash jacket, shoes, etc. This secondary list is mostly “niceties”, or “amenities” as I once said in my brief stint as a hotel receptionist. On a side note, that was the second worst job I ever had, coming in closely behind the two weeks I worked in a bridal shop. Every day was a wedding day and I was the only person there without ovaries. But I digress…back to the list of essential gear. There are a few other “essentials” that the beginner boater should own to supplement his/her five pieces of mandatory gear.

1. Throwbag, or as we say in Swain County, “that thar throwstring”. It’s also necessary to practice with “that thar throwstring” to become competent. Driveways and frontlawns are good practice areas – areas with lots of trees and/or powerlines are not. We like the NRS bag for it's nice swing weight and ease of stuffing.

2.If you’ve got rope, you should probably have a knife. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it but at the very least you’ll have a pointy weapon to fend off hippies with sticky fingers. A blunt tip knife is recommended, as well as a knife with a serated edge.

The Kershaw Knife is well balanced and spring loaded. We also like the fact that it has a very visible red handle and fits perfectly into the shoulder "pocket" of the astral rescue vests we use.

3. Extra drainplug, because yours will always blow off on the interstate. (Drainplugs are of course boat-manufacturer specific)

4.Ducttape, wrap a little around a stick (or your paddle shaft)and tuck it in your pfd. You will need this to cover your drainplug hole when you lose your spare drainplug. (Ducttape on a stick is also my first-aid kit)

5. Carabiner, to strap in shoes or other gear so it doesn’t wash out when we swim, oops I mean, when our skirts implode and we somehow get sucked out of the boat.

This Kong Anodized biner works well for our needs as it's big enough to hook around a paddle shaft. Of course, you'll want a locking biner for more advanced resuce scenerios, ie. z-drags and rescue swimming

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Boof

We get a lot of questions regarding boofing in our upper-level clinics. I often have a difficult time concisely explaining the boof stroke for the simple reason that there are multiple kinds of boofs, each one requiring a slightly different technique. There are sideways boofs (Cave Rapid, Linville), driving boofs (Sunshine, Green or Seven Foot, Chattooga), rock boofs (Tablesaw, Ocoee or Boof or Consequence, Green), lip boofs (Horns of God, Nantahala Cascades or Tanner’s Launch, Tallulah) or water boofs (Hydro, Watagua or Bear Creek Falls, Cheoah). While each of these boofs is executed slightly different, the underlying principle is the same – the boater is trying to land the boat flat, or somewhat flat, to carry as much of their speed from their approach to their landing, avoid holes or piton rocks, or set up an ensuing move.

Of these boofs, I have always found the water boof to be the most challenging for the fact that the boater doesn’t have a solid rock or lip to help him/her raise the bow. The boater must elevate the bow “unaided” so-to-speak, relying solely on his/her edges, body position, and paddle strokes to accomplish this feat. I define a water boof as any boof that is done without the aid of a rock or well-defined lip. Hence a water boof could be any boof that is done on a sloping rapid before hitting a hole (even Nanthala Falls) or something that looks like a waterfall but has too much water going over it to create a lip that the boater could “grab” onto. The following is one techinque that can be used to execute a successful water boof.

1. Realize that you don’t need a lot of speed on your approach. Many people paddle as fast as possible towards the horizon line only to miss the actual boof stroke because either a) they were going to fast, or b) their stroke timing is off because they’re finishing a forward stroke when the time comes to put in a boof stroke. Some speed is good but concentrate less on speed and more on “waiting” on the boof stroke.
2. As you approach the lip, edge and angle your boat slightly towards the side you will be taking the boof stroke on. For example, if you’re going to take a boof stroke on the left, point your boat slightly to the left and also slightly weight the left edge by pushing down on your left butt-cheek.

3. Sticking with the above example, with the boat edged an angled reach forward to the lip and do a slow forward stroke on the left. The boof stroke is not a choppy, quick stroke – it’s controlled, slow, and deep. (Often times, the forward stroke is just the beginning of the boof stroke. Link a forward stroke into a stern draw for extra power or more precise angling. This is particularly applicable to rock boofs or driving boofs such as Seven Foot on the Chattooga, as shown in the picture)

4. Drive up on the left knee shortly after you plant the stroke and continue to lift the knees as you fall.
5. The boof stroke often causes the paddler to lean back. Be sure to adjust your weight forward again as you’re falling, so as to not land with your weight back in an unstable (and backender-prone) position.

Couple Extra Thoughts
- Lip boofs and water boofs often use this similar technique
- All boofs are different; this techinique doesn’t apply to all of them – it doesn’t even apply to all water boofs
- On sloping rapids with small to medium sized holes I’ve found that taking a slow, verticle stroke earlier than you think and “holding” that stroke throughout the entire move works well.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

35 Years of Instruction Excellence: A brief interview with Jimmy Holcombe

New 2007 Instruction T shirt

2007 marks NOC’s 35th anniversary. We’ve seen a lot of boaters pass through our doors in that time, many of which we still call friends. Of course, if you’ve ever spent any time here at NOC, whether that be sleeping in the parking lot at GAF, browsing around the store, swapping stories over a Sherpa Rice at River’s End, swimming Nanty Falls, or warming up with a hot chocolate from Slow Joe’s, then you know you’re more than just a friend – you’re part of the family.

As part of our 35th anniversary festivities we thought we’d interview one of the patriarchs of our family, and the first employee hired by NOC, – the legendary Jimmy Holcombe. Jimmy has been an instructor here for three decades and pioneered many of the classic southeastern runs. He has numerous first descents to his name, and is an expert in C-1, open boats, and kayaks. Being the encyclopedia of knowledge that he is, we thought it would be interesting to find out from his insider perspective how kayak/canoe instruction has changed since 1972.

First though, I had to satisfy my curiosity on a few points. I asked Jimmy what his favorite all time boat was. He responded that he liked the Hahn C-1, a 13’2” fiberglass boat which he used to bag first descents on Stekoa Creek and Slick Rock Creek, plus early descents on the Green Narrows and the Cullasaja. With all the rivers Jimmy’s paddled though his favorite river is still “the river I’m on”. After pressing him a little bit though he said that if he only had one more day to paddle he would choose the Santeelah, hike to its very headwaters, and paddle down with his son Andrew. Jimmy laughs and says that Andrew is “good at getting me out of stuff”.

Jimmy said instruction at NOC started in the summer of 1973. “We were teaching three day courses for Outward Bound in 17 foot Grumman canoes. The first two days were spent on the Little Tennessee and the last day on the Nantahala. We taught our first kayak course in the summer of 1975.”

I interrupted Jimmy here to ask a question in regards to a rumor I’d long heard surrounding Nantahala Falls. I had heard that this benchmark class 3 rapid used to be rated class 4/5. Jimmy remarked that the original whitewater guidebook written in 1955 by Randy Carter had indeed listed Nantahala Falls as a class 4 rapid, not so much because it truly was class 4, but because the author had purposely rated rapids one scale higher than what they were to dissuade the inexperienced from getting into trouble.

I then asked Jimmy what he thought the biggest change has been between our early whitewater clinics and our current ones, besides the gear/equipment. The biggest change according to Jimmy is “the clinic guests” themselves. Kayaking today has entered the mainstream but in its infancy, whitewater boating was a sport viewed as something “on the edge” and a “little wilder”. People that signed up for whitewater instruction reflected this sentiment. “Skirts leaked, boats leaked, and you were always a little cold, but that’s what was expected.” Back then, our whitewater instruction clinics were catering to the adventurous souls that were attracted to a new sport surrounded by a sense of the unknown. While undoubtedly we still draw some of those same types of people, kayaking itself has become “a little more comfortable” and a little more well known, and hence we also draw families, camps, and retirees looking for a new medium to experience the outdoors or stay in shape.

I was curious as to the reasons for the shift from teaching mostly canoe courses in the 1970’s to teaching mostly kayak courses in this decade. The obvious answer relates to the gear. During the early NOC years, kayaks just weren’t as readily available, and the plastic boats were still a few years away from rolling off the assembly lines in Easley, SC. Canoes had been something that was recognizable for the layman wanting to get into the sport – they’d probably been in one at some point in their life, either at summer camp, or fishing on a lake, or perhaps even had an old one sitting in their back yard. The same could not be said for kayaks.

A kayaker in the 1970’s probably didn’t start their whitewater career in a kayak – they started in a canoe. Jimmy interestingly remarked that he thought that rafting was an equally important factor in the switch of popularity from canoeing to kayaking. People began to have their first river experience in rafts, and not canoes. It seems that rafting now is the gateway to getting in a kayak, and not canoeing as it used to be. Furthermore, Jimmy believes, the change in canoe design (making them shorter/smaller) alienated a large portion of the canoeing population that wanted to paddle the larger, faster, more stable canoes.

Lastly, Jimmy remarked that are simply more good kayakers today than ever, and the progression from beginner to expert is much quicker. In short, more people are becoming better paddlers in a shorter amount of time. He credits this phenomenon to the change in boat design and the introduction of the playboats. The skills learned in playboats are transferring over to the river-running/creeking realm. As an example, Jimmy stated that back then, people tended to avoid playing in holes, not because they didn’t have the competence, but because it was boring side surfing a 13 foot boat. Nowadays, side surfing is a stepping-stone to a variety of other tricks, and more paddlers are spending more time in holes. This has led to an increase in comfort level and confidence which has transfered to the downriver realm of boating.

Obviously, the pure number of boaters has increased exponentially as well. Through a smile Jimmy remarks, “I used to know every paddler on the East Coast, now I don’t even know every paddler in the county”. Nonetheless, he repeatedly refers to paddlers as a family, an idea which has been a foundation of the NOC vision for 35 years.

While I get the sense that part of Jimmy misses certain aspects of the early years of whitewater boating, he undoubtedly still loves boating just as much as he did in 1972 when he cashed his first NOC paycheck. When asked how long he plans on teaching, Jimmy responds, “Till my body breaks down”. Looking at Jimmy sitting on the couch next to me, I can honestly say that thankfully that won’t be for a very long time.