By Paul Brower
There are times I don’t like being a beginner at a sport and this was one of those times. The first time I remember feeling this way was when my kids talked me into giving up skiing and taking up snowboarding. Going back to falling when I got off the chair lift and having to stay on the bunny slopes is hard when you yearn to be up on the diamond runs on your skis. Fortunately, once I put in the time, I left the bunny slopes behind and now I can choose skis or snowboard depending on the snow conditions.
So here I am, a beginner again, having abandoned my Cataraft and inflatable kayak for a flippy hard shell kayak made out of the same stuff they make traffic cones from, in the WKC Down River Play Clinic. I’m hoping to move from “bunny slope” river running onto a level where my rafter friends stop inviting me along just because they enjoy watching carnage. Seriously though, I’m actually quite conservative and have been looking for someone to guide me safely into the play world of kayaking and I knew it was the perfect opportunity when I saw the WKC offering a Down River Play Clinic on the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River (aka Middle Middle). The write up said the clinic was designed as an introduction to working known river features throughout rapids instead of just going straight down each rapid. It's always best to practice new skills in a friendly environment, so when ready to step it up to more challenging rivers, the transition will be more manageable.
With an instructor to student ratio of 1 instructor to 3 students, there was plenty of guidance and the instructors were doing enough bow stalls and cartwheels to make us confident that the club had provided us with instructors that knew what they were doing.
The clinic started with basic balance exercises and practicing edge control, then moved onto initiation strokes and weight transfer. As we left the first eddy to head downstream, our first rock was waiting for us. We practiced lining up, timing the perfect stroke to lift our bow and SPLAT on the rock!
Shanna trying to figure out the whole splatting thing!
Almost as though the river had been set up for the class, there were practice boof rocks and eddies waiting just around every bend as our skills progressed. One by one the line of 10 students would each boof, splat, or squirt followed by a quick critique and line up for the next cleverly placed river feature. I recall seeing a fly fisherman watch as 10 kayakers in a row each lifted their bow, splatted up onto a rock then slid off the side. He must have thought “surely those idiots must have seen that rock, yet each one ended up running into it anyway”.
Zak points "Boof This!"
Lora lines up and boofs the rock perfectly
As we continued downstream, we worked on catching challenging eddies to break the rapids into boat-scoutable chunks of fun.
After a lunch break, the clinic became more of a free-for-all as we practiced finding our own rocks or surf waves to play on, with the instructors darting back and forth helping out wherever they were needed. We even hiked back up to rerun particularly fun boof rocks and I have to admit, I have a lot more confidence in my river roll now that I was given the opportunity to use it somewhere other than a swimming pool.
Michael showing us how to get it done
I don’t know how much planning went into the clinic, but the explanations were clear and the class progressed in a way that made sense to me. I’ve definitely become a fan of the Down River Play Clinic and I’d like to thank Michael Peele, Zak Wall and Seth Fitzsimmons for moving us into the river play world, oh and notable mention to Shanna Gachen for the class set up and some awesome chocolate chip cookies. If there is any doubt that this class was a success, I can also post pictures of the blisters on both of my hands from all the paddling, and by the way, if you see me run into a rock on the river, you can assume it was an expertly executed splat that I learned at the Down River Play Clinic.