Editor’s Note: This post covers the Womxn’s Holistic Paddling Clinic offered by California Women’s Watersport Collective in tandem with Sundance Kayak School of Galice in the Rogue Valley of Oregon that took place on June 18 – 21 this year.
2020 is my third year attending this event, and I’m so glad I showed up! I initially hesitated to go because of the pandemic but emails arrived outlining plans to address the issue and knowing these womxn like I do I had faith and trusted in my friends. They did not disappoint.
Regarding protocols, we had a large campsite, actually a number of adjoining campsites, so it was easy to self-isolate and stay yards away from each other if we chose. There was plenty of room to place camp chairs so we could socialize while being physically distant. There was also lots of space for the yoga classes. On the shuttle everyone wore masks. Normally, food is served buffet-style and we wash our own dishes, but this year we received 5-star service, getting plated and our dishes were done for us. Not that we mind doing dishes but after a long day on the river it was nice! And there was tons of hand sanitizer.
So… the clinic! It was AWESOME! On Thursday after a physically distant evening with friends enjoying a light dinner and wine on the deck, I headed off to the river. Around 8 pm I arrived at Almeda Campground where we stay, set up sleeping arrangements, met a couple of other students who had also showed up early, and went to bed.
Day One: A really good day. This year for the first time I was assigned to the advanced group. I had a roll and a new to me boat, an old school Perception Pirouette Super Sport. There were twelve students total and seven in our group: Joann who I knew from last year; Kim from Colorado; Jet from Redding, CA; Sarah from Coloma, Ray from Camp Lotus who was also part of the Cali crew, Krystal from Bend, OR, and me. The primary instructors for this group were Ashlee Rice and Brooke Hess. So stoked to paddle with my buddy Ashlee again and it was great to meet Brooke, a freestyle paddler and coach whom I had not met before but who I am very happy to know.
We started out with warm ups. On the water Brooke led us through high and low braces, edging, forward stroke practice, T-rescues, and rolling. For edging practice Brooke had us hold our paddles on our palms like drinks on a tray and then put us through 5 levels. Level 0 is a level boat – no lean. Level 1 is basically level but lifting one buttock like you’re going to fart. Level 2 is a lean to one side, keeping the head centered over the boat. Level 3 is engaging the opposite knee. Don’t spill the drinks! Level 4 is rolling the boat onto its edge with or without a brace.
For forward stroke practice we did 10 slow strokes, 10 medium strokes, then 10 strokes hard and fast, then repeated the same progression while backpaddling. T-rescues refreshed the concept of grabbing the rescue boat and pulling it to you to get set up and get your head on the bow. Sometimes the maneuver requires a bit of manhandling. And I successfully rolled twice, first time in any amount of current. After ferrying and a safety talk we headed down river. On this day our group paddled from Hog Creek to just below Galice.
Pretty soon I went through an eddy fence and flipped. First combat roll! It was good to hear the girls cheering as I rolled up. The Pirouette is a lot different from the Mambas I used the last two years. It has a low profile, low volume, and it’s long and slim, really an elegant boat but I found it squirrely in the eddies. However, it did great in the rapids. The entire back deck swamps in the wave trains, but that doesn’t affect performance. Rather than bouncing over the waves the Pirouette spears through them. It was cool.
We stopped to scout Carpenter Island and I chose a line just off the shoulder of the larger waves. The plan worked great but at the end I hit a boiling eddy fence and flipped again. First experience getting beat up by an eddy. It felt like being slammed between a rock and a hard place, body and blade jerked and pulled in all directions. I tried to roll twice but ended up bailing. Sarah was there for the rescue and I kept hold of both boat and paddle so that was good. Back at Almeda at the end of the day I rolled a few times just to get back in the saddle.
Excellent feedback was forthcoming. Sarah, a paddler who rolls beautifully in rapids even without a paddle, told me that I didn’t break through the eddy line. Had I taken two or three more strokes I would have been okay but the boat was turning upstream and I didn’t stay on track. Because the boat wasn’t all the way through, the fence caught the stern and flipped me. Adjustments were required: it’s a longer boat than I’m used to so more strokes are needed to get the stern clear of the line and I have to drive the boat with more intention. That was Melissa’s feedback: be the boss, even though it’s important to let the boat do the work. Later, instructor Laura, who knew me from the previous year, pointed out that the Mambas I had paddled before had more stability than the Pirouette. I have to hone my skills, be alert and stay on top of things.
This is one of the things I love about the Holistic Clinic. Everyone is helpful. Everyone wants everyone else to do well. Without push or judgment, both instructors and students offer support. Like Krystal said, everybody did something we could all learn from and be inspired by. Some other tips: Krystal shared she thinks of herself as a mermaid at the top of a rapid. Activate the leg muscles and get as much contact with the boat as possible, so the boat fits the paddler like a mermaid’s tail. This was a good reminder because I hadn’t been using my lower body effectively. And from Laura: when rolling in boiling water be sure to get the paddle high so the blade skims the surface of the water and the boils can’t grab it. Also, GO FOR IT!!! As TR Admiral Kuk had told me previously, roll like your life depends on it. I needed more commitment. It reminded me of when I ski down a big bump run and I chant to myself: “Attack, attack, attack!”
Day Two: This day I learned so much I started to get brain fry, a thing that hasn’t happened to me since the time I used to train from 7 am to noon with my martial arts teacher Sifu Le. It’s where you learn so much your brain starts to have difficulty taking it all in. My skills were improving but I flipped in another eddy where I came in too high with too sharp an angle and took a long swim through the rapid. Still, I kept hold of both boat and paddle until Ashlee told me to let go of the boat so she could corral it and I could swim to shore. Same as before, when I tried to roll I got maytagged in the boiling water.
When we stopped for lunch and I got out of the boat my legs were shaky. I was cold and tired, so later while the others practiced ferrying back and forth across the river I rested and warmed up while taking photos. That afternoon both Melissa and Ashlee helped me fine tune my strokes for better boat control. This day we paddled from Ennis Riffle to Almeda, and as the day progressed I rallied.
It was helpful to remember that I was bumping it up. One, I have a boat that’s new to me, faster, narrower, lower volume, and twitchier. Two, I’m being challenged to do combat rolls. Three, I’m learning more complex skills: wrist movements; bow draws; setting paddle angles; and more about current and water action. Some of the drills we practiced were rocking side to side and then holding an edge for a certain count; spinning in circles with a sweep stroke from bow to stern, then switching to a reverse stroke from stern to bow on the opposite side, using torso rotation and gaze to facilitate the switch. We also practiced bow draws by paddling forward to get some speed, setting an angle to place the paddle for the draw and then turning without taking the paddle out of the water.
It was a lot of information to absorb, but when we got off the water after a bit of a rest I found myself strangely exhilarated. It had been an exciting day. The Pirouette was performing beautifully especially in the wave trains and I was starting to trust myself and it. Plus Brooke pointed out that it looked like the foot pegs needed to be moved up, so later on Laura helped me move them up about 2 inches. What an improvement! Even on land I could feel a better connection to the boat. When I rocked from side to side it felt solid. Now I was really looking forward to Day Three.
So much of kayaking is mental. After the long swim when tired and cold I’d thought about going with the less-experienced group till I got more used to the Pirouette. But after moving those foot pegs everything shifted: the difference between wearing a sloppy shoe that’s too large and wearing one that fits just right. Thank you, Brooke!
Day Three: On this day we paddled from the campground at Almeda to just below Argo rapid. It was a great day, but when I found out we were doing Argo, a Class III, anxiety set in. The two previous years I’d done fine, but then I was paddling Mambas. I needn’t have worried. With the foot peg adjustment, paddling the Pirouette was a whole new experience, and a better one. My legs and core were more engaged, so much so that when I tried to roll I went under all right but then hung there parallel to the surface and had to slap the water with a free hand to push myself completely upside down. That was weird. But the hip snap was snappier and everything felt better because I had more control.
Another thing, the Pirouette was so fast I had to give the person in front of me more space when we followed each other through a rapid. Even so the Pirouette kept catching up so I took fewer strokes and used more stern rudder. Previously I’d just paddled forward to get through the wave trains so it was an exercise in relaxing and fine-tuning. I still wobbled in some eddies but didn’t flip, and I paddled more aggressively to get speed and punch through the fences. Rolling in current also went well. Ashlee gave me some drills for future practice: rolling over on my off side and switching to my good side under water; flipping and letting go of the paddle, then grabbing it again and rolling; flipping and counting to 5, 10, or 15 before rolling up; rolling over and flailing so that I have to work the paddle up to the surface; and teaching myself to roll on my offside. Whew! I’ve got my work cut out for me this summer.
Although anxiety kept me from being really aggressive, at the end of Day Three I was happy with my performance. It was instructive to watch the others, especially Sarah and Ray. It was also inspiring to watch Krystal, who till this clinic had never done a T-rescue because she didn’t like to be under water (just like me!) She went from T-rescues in flat water on the first day to blithely flinging her paddle into the water, flipping, and getting T-rescued in the middle of a wave train. By the end of the clinic she’d performed her first roll. In the evening we had a fun party with dancing and costumes, and Deb, our camp host, made us banana bread which we ate with Laura’s homemade pineapple coconut ice cream. Yum!
Day Four: This was an easy day on the river. No drills, and only about 3 or 4 hours on the water. For the first time both groups and all the instructors paddled together. We put in at Almeda and on the way to Argo paddled through a beautiful canyon and stopped at a big rock for lunch. Those who wanted to jumped off the rock. Argo was great, and since this was my second time running it in two days I took a line more to the middle and was rewarded with a big face splash. As we paddled down to Graves Creek for the take out we paused for a sweet ceremony. Melissa offered us all flowers which we held to our hearts. Silence. Peace. Letting go. We dropped the flowers into the river and paddled on. Then professional photographer Liz Miheve took the traditional Flower Photo as well as the traditional Dead or Drunk Photo from the bridge and we finished the clinic in style.
I love this clinic and encourage you to sign up next year. The pandemic protocols detracted nothing from the experience. I felt safe and supported. As always it was good to see familiar faces and meet new people. For me, this clinic was the best yet. I learned so much that a month later I’m still assimilating. The Pirouette demanded that I rise to the occasion. The food, the yoga, the conversations in camp and on the water, the encouragement and enthusiasm, it’s just so great! Also this year I met Jackie, who lives in Ashland, and we went to Emigrant Lake for a rolling session. I’m incredibly glad I attended the Holistic Clinic this year. It was a rewarding and motivating experience and now I’m a better paddler. Thanks to everyone who contributed and to Sundance and Cali Collective for bringing this event to the Rogue Valley. You are appreciated!
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