Whitewater kayaking – Not as tame as flatwater, but thrilling | TheUnion.com

Whitewater kayaking – Not as tame as flatwater, but thrilling

Can’t resist the sound of a waterfall? Lured by the challenge of the wilderness? Do you like to get wet?

If you answered yes to any of the above, you might be a candidate for whitewater kayaking.

Last week I wrote about the beauty and accessibility of flatwater kayaking: the serenity of open water, the glide of the boats, the joys of exploration.

And then there is whitewater.

With this sport, practitioners talk about different feelings: the thrill of wooshing through rapids, the fun of playing in holes and waves, or the startling immediacy of the river. But mostly they talk about focus.

“It sounds like a paradox,” says Brent Davis of Folsom, “but river kayaking is the most relaxing sport in the world.” Davis, whose parents live in Grass Valley and who spends a great deal of time on rivers in the area, says that kayaking is the one thing that requires absolute and complete focus.

“When the only thing you can think about is the river, your boat and the people you are with, your mind clears and your body relaxes.”

Degrees of difficulty

Enthusiasts like to point out that kayaking offers plenty of opportunity for beginners and experts to enjoy themselves. Not all kayakers seek the extreme thrills so often profiled in outdoor magazines.

Rivers are rated according to a national standard of difficulty: Class I being fast moving water with riffles only, up to class V, designated as expert. (There is a class VI called “extreme and exploratory,” but only for those living on the very edge.)

Most kayakers spend a great deal of time – sometimes years – in class II water. For many people, class II is as far as they want to go. The base level for whitewater kayaking, these are rivers with wide, clear channels, medium sized waves and navigable obstructions. With solid instruction, most people can learn enough boat handling and technique to confidently navigate class II runs.

Stepping up to the greater challenges of class III requires skill and confidence. And the roll.

Ask any committed kayaker about rolling and the first thing you notice is the grin. Then the explanation starts.

“Rolling is key. It is the essential skill you’ll need to progress,” says Davis. “Plus, it is fun.”

Rolling a kayak essentially involves being able to use your body weight and paddle technique to roll a boat 360 degrees to the left or right, effectively dunking yourself under water and coming back up. Greater confidence and a wider safety margin are the big benefits, plus the skills to progress to more challenging water.

Not to mention it can save your life: if you flip over, you might just want to flip up again. Of course you can wait for a rescue, or possibly swim to safety, but better just to learn to roll.

Additionally, as the experts at California Canoe and Kayak tell us, rolling requires learning “bracing” strokes, which greatly reduce a kayaker’s chance of capsize in the first place.

And rolling is not just for rivers: sea kayakers need the skill to handle rough surf and to recover from capsize. So word to the wise: take a breath and lean!

Well worth a lesson

Experienced practitioners, professional guides and novices agree: if you want to learn to kayak, go take a class.

“This is not the sport to learn from well-meaning friends,” says Jeff Liggett of California Canoe and Kayak. “Good technique is too critical.”

Proper boat handling skills are essential. Most paddling schools can teach you the basics in a weekend course. These classes get you comfortable in a kayak and teach you proper paddling technique. However, learning the basics does not mean you are ready to run downriver quite yet. Plan on a second weekend of intermediate paddling instruction to build your skills and prepare you for class II water.

Technique and control mean better boating, not pesky things like age or physical condition. Kaykers come in all ages and it is not uncommon for people to start boating in their 40s and 50s. Watching a cadre of 12 year olds whoop their way down a river is just plain inspiring.

And once you are ready to roll, go for it. Most schools will teach you in a heated swimming pool with plenty of opportunity to practice. Plus, it’s fun…

River running or playboating?

Getting started means either taking a class or going to a demo. Choosing your boat means choosing your river style, but most people don’t know what they like until they try.

Playboating means parking your boat in a hole or wave and doing tricks – standing on end, carving, twirling, etc.

River running is for moving from place to place, occasionally surfing, but with the intent to get somewhere downriver.

Creek boating refers to more extreme river technique: big drops, big water.

Not surprisingly, different styles call for different boats. River runners make lousy creek boats. But don’t spend too much time agonizing over the first boat, says Liggett.

“Take a class, learn what you like, find something comfortable. That really is the most important thing for your first year in the sport.”


K. Ryan Hodgkin is a resident of Grass Valley. She can be reached by e-mail at ryanh@theunion.com or by telephone at 273-1801.

Get out there!

Local Classes and Outfitters:

Wolf Creek Wilderness

595 E. Main Street

Grass Valley


California Canoe and Kayak

12401 Folsom Blvd

Rancho Cordova



Current Adventures

Lotus, CA


Books and Web


“California Whitewater,” Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun



Local Clubs

Gold Country Paddlers


Books and Web Resources

“California Whitewater,” Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun



Local Clubs:

Gold Country Paddlers


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