Saturday, July 14, 2007

The next step in your paddling career…add breadth as well as depth

Sheena enters Nantahala Falls

As our students leave a clinic or a day of private instruction we are often asked, “How do I keep improving?” This is an obvious and appropriate question and I suspect that most of our instructors answer in much the same way. We say something about “Paddle as often as you can.” This is the obvious and appropriate answer. I would like to add a little more detail to that response.

I believe the competitive urge and the natural upward progression implied by the class 1 through class 6 scale of difficulty leads most people to seek to move onto more and more difficult rivers. I call this progression “seeking depth.” The new paddler believes that experience with more difficult rapids will translate directly into developing greater skill. While there is truth to this expectation I don’t think this is the only path to greater skill.

Lines up for the drop

If you want to increase your paddling skills consider seeking “breadth.” There is value in paddling many different rivers of similar difficulty. For example, many of you have run both Big Pillow on the French Broad and Nantahala Falls. These are both class 3 rapids but they teach very different lessons. Big Pillow offers the paddler a line that is pretty open but filled with very fast current and large waves. The line demands balance and comfort moving around in big waves. The class 3 portion of Nantahala Falls is really a quick precise move between two ledges that demands exact control and acceleration across the flat between the ledges. Two rapids of the same difficulty teach two very different lessons.

Takes a stroke through the hole

Yes, moving ever upward in difficulty will teach many of these same lessons but the learning occurs in an environment with an ever smaller margin for error. Consider the value of paddling many very different rapids, all within your comfort zone. You will cope with different eddy lines, different sizes and types of waves, and different maneuvering demands. Each run can be a lesson broadening your skill set.


If you live in a place with few paddling options then look forward to paddling your home river at many different levels. Remember, though the higher levels appeal to our “Yeehaw” instincts, those runs when the river is a bit low can teach lessons too.

Windy Gordon