Wondering how to get started whitewater kayaking around the Seattle area? Here's a rundown of some places that offer instruction.
My friend Megan Kelly offers personal instruction around Seattle and also on the east side of the mountains, around Leavenworth. From what I hear she is really good at teaching the roll and also the hand roll (I don't even have a hand roll yet so I should probably hit her up. :)
She runs the Facebook Group Whitewater Wild PNW, so to reach her you can ask to join that group and then message her via the group.
Northwest Outdoor Center (Seattle)
I took their Whitewater Fever Class waaaay back in around 2007 and I think it's a great way to start. It's 5 sessions that take place on evenings and weekends so a person with regular working hours can do it, and it includes two pool sessions, which I think is a big deal because in my opinion NWOC is really good at teaching the Eskimo roll and that's where they do it.
It looks like they're still running that class even though Covid has put the kibosh on pool sessions for their Eskimo Roll class, which was a good back-up if you couldn't do the WW Fever class.
If they ever start doing their Eskimo Roll classes again (which you get as part of WW Fever, but they used to also be offered separately) I highly recommend taking one to learn the roll, they have a really effective teaching technique and a very high success rate.
Kayak Academy (Issaquah)
Kayak Academy sometimes offers whitewater kayaking and roll classes, although they tend to specialize in sea kayaking.
They are also a great place to get virtually any kind of whitewater kayaking gear, they ship drysuits all over the world and often have sales or second hand suits available.
Washington Kayak Club
Washington Kayak Club is a great organization for beginners, even if you don't get in on their yearly class. You'll connect with a lot of newer paddlers and WKC organizes trips on Class II and III run by more experienced paddlers who are ready and willing to rescue and clean up a yard sale.
These aren't teaching groups, but you can post on these pages looking for pointers or to join on easy runs, etc. when you're getting started.
And this is a really helpful page that's not local, you'll find input from paddlers throughout the U.S. and the world:
A Few Thoughts, In No Particular Order
Here's what helped me when I took my roll class at NWOC, and not all instructors do the same stuff so this is what I'd keep an eye out for:
- Wear goggles that cover your nose, or at the very least nose pegs. I can easily swim underwater and open my eyes and not inhale water so I resisted wearing goggles during my first roll class, but I found that it was WAY easier to learn to roll when I didn't have to worry about water vacuuming itself into my nasal passages.
The goal is to learn to roll, and roll well - everything else is secondary and you can lose the goggles or nose pegs later.
- When I took the class, after you flipped over they would teach you to pause a second and then, while already set up for the roll underneath the water, tap your paddle blade down on the surface of the water twice to make sure the blade was above the water. This was super helpful in terms of not rushing the roll and not setting oneself up for failure by initiating the roll when the blade was still beneath the surface.
I observed a class a few years ago and I didn't see all the instructors doing that, there was one guy (the only guy out of five people who wasn't rolling by himself by the end of the class) who I think would have progressed better if they had done that with him.
- Use a paddle with some feather, meaning the blades are offset. My favorite offsets are 15 and 30 degrees. 45 degrees is a little steep these days, although it was the norm 15 years ago.
The guy who I just mentioned was having trouble was using a paddle with no offset, which meant that the way he was setting up with the extended paddle grip in the class his blade was not angled optimally on the surface of the water. I really think if he had been using a paddle with an offset and they had done the water patting thing I mentioned above that he would likely have been rolling by the end of the class.
- Make sure your boat is reasonably fitted to you. If you're stretching to reach the foot pegs or the boat is super loose around your hips, the deck is stacked against you!
Boats should fit nicely, like a comfy pair of shoes that don't slop around. At the very least, make sure you're getting some support from the backband and you can brace against the foot pegs, and your knees are able to tuck into the thigh braces without slipping out and there's some padding at your hips - without being so squashed in that it's uncomfortable or you're losing mobility.
Also, when it comes time for your first combat roll (which you will probably not be expecting, seeing as it's a combat roll :) - here in Washington this will take place in snow melt, so just anticipate that your first reaction when you flip in ice-cold river water and possibly bounce your helmet off a rock or two might be to FREAK OUT!!! a la Jerry Maguire.
This is totally understandable, but if you're already anticipating that reaction it's easier to prepare yourself mentally to instead think "Hang on a second", collect your thoughts and remind yourself that you're just going to do a roll like you've done plenty of times in the pool, and then set up for your roll.
Here are two posts with kayaking roll videos:
One More Really Important Thing
Learn how to paddle forward really, really well! This is the most overlooked and in my opinion the most important aspect of whitewater kayaking. I see beginners (and even Class III and IV paddlers) regularly who have a weak forward stroke and/or are doing all arm-paddling instead of using their torso, core and legs.
Imagine trying to carve turns on downhill skis on a hill with a 5 degree gradient! Being able to generate speed and momentum is crucial to everything else - carving in and out of eddies, getting to your intended destination in any kind of water, and eventually boofing - it all begins with the forward stroke. So this is not frou-frou stuff, it's something all the really excellent paddlers have mastered.
A great way to develop a good forward stroke is a) to watch this Michele Ramazza video, which is brilliant, and then b) to practice not just on flat water but practicing attainments (paddling upstream), which forces you to not paddle weakly. But getting the right technique via this video first will set you on the right path - here's the post:
If you have any specific questions about gear or other stuff you're welcome to send them my way via the Contact page on this blog and if I can help I'm happy to. See you on the river!