In an effort to improve my ocean whitewater skills last year I got into whitewater paddling on the Rogue River with the California Women’s Watersports Collective. I had so much fun and learned so much that this year I continued the whitewater adventure by signing up for two clinics with CWWC, one on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon, and the second on the South Fork of the American River in Northern California. This post covers the Holistic Paddling Clinic on the Rogue, from June 20th through the 23rd. Four full days of paddling back to back are good because of the skill progression. Day One is a warm up where we all figure out where we are. After that, each day is progressively more challenging as the students build on what they learned and practiced the day before.
This year I showed up at Almeda campground with my friend Melinda King on the afternoon of June 19. Gotsa get there early to grab the sweetest camping spot, and I scored! Thanks to the Tacoma, I drove down onto some cobbles near the river, got the truck level, and was set. This year our group campsite was right next to the river with our own private beach area. It was awesome! Melinda and Kathy McGee, another friend who I met last year at the same clinic, set up sun showers on the beach and I swam a few times before dinner to wash away the last four weeks, which had been intense. But more on that later. Let’s talk about Day One.
Our first day was quite chilly in the morning, and I opted for a full wetsuit. It was warmer in the afternoon, but I was glad I had made that choice. Our instructors this year were Laura Zulliger, Sarita Kay, Ashlee Rice, and Melissa DeMarie. Sierra Sans was our videographer and Liz Meheve the photo journalist. We divided into three groups. My group hit wet exits, hip snaps, and T-rescues first. Right away I learned I need to keep my head down better when being T-rescued. It’s that old fight or flight reflex that makes us want to pop our heads out of the water right away so we can breathe, but it’s counterproductive. I learned to keep my head on my hands on the bow of the rescue boat until my hips brought me up. Huge lesson and it leads to better rolling.
A couple of technical points: the hands grab the bow of the rescue boat like a sandwich hooking onto the bow handle as well. For the hip snap, once the hands are set, lean over and rock the hips. I learned to go lower, edge deeper so the boat rolls right over on top of me, and snap up with stronger hips and lighter hands. Something new to me in kayaking but not in martial arts is the importance of the C-curve. The C-curve is the position of the torso when you snap. What you do not want is to be arched over backwards trying to snap up; the C-curve gives you power and leverage. Contracting those abs pulls you right into position for the pop up.
After messing around with the hip snaps, we impressed the acronym TTTT in our minds for the wet exit. TTTT stands for Tuck (so you protect your head), Tap (the sides of the boat to alert the safety), Tug (on the pull tab if you need to bail), and Take off your pants (the action of scooching out of the boat). These drills concluded we went on to play some Stinky Fish. This is a great game for everyone, but it teaches beginners to disregard the small current and eddies in the flat water and focus on Getting That Fish! Our teams went 3 to 2, and then we went on to more drills.
We work on our forward stroke forever. On this day the cues were to keep the arms in the box (in other words, no flailing), and to keep the stroke vertical. This is different from a conventional sea kayak stroke but serves well in whitewater and rock gardens. One drill was to literally look under the forward arm to keep the paddle vertical, like looking through a window. Then we practiced the stern draw: “spearing the salmon” with the forward paddle blade at about hip level and then flipping it onto the back deck about 6” from the stern with a hip snap.
Then it was on to edging, rocking the boat, leaning and raising the opposite knee, and then rotating the torso and leaning on that inside edge to moon the current so the flow goes under the boat. For me this was another exercise in combating the reflex to stay upright. My back brain thinks that being upright is going to keep me from dumping so I tend to lean the wrong way when I start to tip over, but actually committing to the edge and leaning hard is what keeps a paddler out of the water.
Other drills were “Creepy Eyes”, in which the students circle the instructor in both directions while staring into their eyes (yeah it’s kinda creepy) and Figure 8’s (with two instructors) to improve edging and boat control, and Red Light/Green Light in which the students follow the instructor’s cues to paddle straight ahead, to the right, to the left, and forward on the diagonal in both directions.
For me this was a great day, easy but interesting and I felt like I was improving on all levels. I have to say, I love drills in all sports. Breaking things down and practicing them in pieces and then putting them all together is a process that really builds mindbody memory.
On this day my group practiced reading the water: identifying eddy lines, the green V in the rapids that shows you where to enter, and bumps versus clear/shallow water. We talked about bends in the river where you want to get a visual because it’s not safe if you can’t see what’s coming. We identified entrapments like snags and low hanging willows.
We played more Stinky Fish and ran the Red Light/Green Light drill again, which I liked because it allowed me to work on the shorter, more vertical strokes required for whitewater paddling as well as responding quickly to directional cues. Then we ran the river on Class I and II rapids, working our way down by paddling forward, eddying out to the right, then paddling forward and eddying out left where appropriate.
We broke for lunch along the river on a nice beach where we could look for the agates which come down from Crater Lake. Then after a rest we practiced more forward strokes and stern draws and played more Stinky Fish. One of the students, Savonn, was so gung ho she flipped trying to get the fish and actually rolled up with it in her hand! Yeah, Savonn! We also practiced high and low bracing. Before each skill the instructors talked, offered a demo, and then broke it down, making the skill clear and achievable.
On this day too we worked on eddying in and peeling out in faster, rougher water. Posture was emphasized with a great image: that of the Fembot (remember Austin Powers?) Tits up and out, and turn right or left in the direction you want to go. We practiced more Creepy Eyes, developed tighter turning skills, and got more accurate at entering eddies on the high side. We also had a little fun with jet boats!
Day Three was mostly river running Class I, II and II+ rapids. We ran the rapids first thing after warmups and worked our way from Ennis down to Almeda, including Chair and Widowmaker which was not as scary as it sounds. Watching Ashlee paddle backwards to observe the following students, I started paddling backwards from time to time myself. It’s a good skill. More ferries and eddying in and out, and we added the concept of attainment, which is simply upriver eddy hopping. The river was bigger and faster this year and I found myself getting tired. I had to remind myself that I was still recovering from a major health event that had landed me in the ER. We also surfed a few standing waves.
Watching Canela Astorga, an intern from Chile and our massage therapist, was inspirational. On this day the weather improved, and I was able to abandon the wetsuit and go with a farmer john I borrowed from Melinda and a spray jacket I borrowed from CWWC. The Playa provides! We also did some rolling practice, and I learned that there are lots of teaching methods and ways to break it down and practice pieces of the roll without having to do the whole thing right off the bat. Nice.
We hunted more agates on our lunch break, and then scouted our next rapid before launching again. We talked about another acronym: DORMS, for Destination, Obstacles, Route, Markers, and Safety. The first four are pretty obvious: D – figure out where you want to end up, O – find the things that might prevent you from getting there, R – choose your line, and M – identify markers such as trees or big rocks on the river bank that will help you know where you are on the run since things look different once you’re in your boat on the water. Safety applies to factors like buddies, what kind of first aid you have available, throw ropes, etc.
With regard to choosing lines, the instructors asked us to pick a line and justify it. I chose the line I wanted to take and explained why. There were more challenging options but I felt challenged enough just being in a boat at all that weekend and my goal was to be conservative. Laura took the “meat” line right down the middle of the waves so those who wished could follow her and Ashlee chose to lead my line. I went behind her and it worked out just like I thought – actually milder. I used this conservative approach on all four days because it allowed me to work on paddling less with more meaningful strokes and using the river to do the work. I also find getting behind an instructor and mimicking her moves is extremely helpful.
We saw mergansers, bald eagles, blue herons, and swallows along the way and it was warm enough to go swimming in afternoon. Then of course it was Party Time! On this our last evening together we pulled out the costumes and dressed up all wild and crazy. We had a very fun evening dancing and chatting and firming up our new friendships.
On the last night I had a weird dream which left me destabilized, literally. I felt pretty wonky in the morning but whatcha gonna do? We broke camp before takeoff so as to be ready to roll once we got off the water. We launched around 10:00 and paddled for about four hours. This time all the students were in one group and we hit four rapids, all pretty significant. I swam on one but self-rescued under Melissa’s watchful eye. When we hit Argo (Class III) Ashlee put me behind her and following her line the last and biggest rapid seemed like no big deal. Despite feeling a bit dizzy and weak all day I did well. It’s good to salvage those days when you don’t feel 100%. Only four weeks previously I had been in a state of total collapse after a massive anxiety attack. It took two weeks to pull myself off the couch and start functioning, and I still had some brain fog on the clinic weekend. So what, right?
A few final words about this clinic. First off, they offer Really Good Food, and CWWC now provides breakfast and lunch as well which is nice for those who come from afar. Melissa leads the restorative evening yoga, which is a lovely ritual in self-care and much appreciated by all. This year, Canela provided the massage. I didn’t get one, but the feedback I heard was excellent.
Good food, good company, and outstanding paddling with great instructors. It was awesome to hang with Kathy and Melinda, and I have to give a mention to Sarita’s mom who paddled the whole clinic in a pack raft and was an inspiration to us all. This clinic offers a flexible, open, supportive and safe learning environment, and I can’t say enough good things about Melissa and her team.
For more information about the California Women’s Watersports Collective and their events, classes, and clinics, go to https://www.cwwcollective.com/ Plus you can find them on Facebook and Instagram!
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