When a person participates in an outdoor activity, they tend to appreciate wild spaces and become a steward of protecting our natural recourses. The best way to increase the number of people engaged in an activity, particularly one as technical as white water kayaking, is to build a community that freely shares advice, encouragement, and ideas. That is the philosophy that led Chris Wing to found the H2O Dreams project 3 years ago.
Wing is the physical manifestation of the duality that is white water kayaking. On the exterior his typical uniform of t-shirt and large brimmed ball cap is the outward, irreverent face of a sport that is basically about people playing on the water. Paradoxically, when Chris speaks, he resembles a college philosophy professor more than an adrenaline junkie who has ridden some of the gnarliest rivers in the country. Paddling white water is technical and complex, and Wing's thoughts on teaching, psychology, and breaking down walls to build communities are as complex and technical as the sport he is advocating. RootsRated talks with Chris and his partner at H2o Dreams, Lydia Cardinal.
RR: Where did you start paddling?
Wing: I started paddling about 12 years ago on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. I knew I wanted to instruct, so my very first paddling lessons were geared toward teaching me how to instruct others.
RR: How did that experience influence your project at H2o Dreams?
Wing: That area of the river saw lots of abuse, and at times, still does. Getting on the river taught me to appreciate natural places and how resilient they can be with proper consideration, and I feel every outdoor activity can create reverence for the outdoors. That largely is, has been, and always will be at the core of my philosophy and the guiding force for H2o Dreams.
RR: One of the cornerstones of your project to help create more paddlers and more environmental stewards is your Tributaries Tour. Can you explain your approach?
Wing: In some ways, kayak instruction fails after the beginning lesson because there’s nowhere for a new paddler to go after. You learn to roll and then what? If you don’t have a core group to kayak with or a way to move forward, you drop off. When you consider the cost of the boat, PFD, paddle, etc. it’s nothing short of a miracle that anyone sticks with white water kayaking. In kayaking, there are lots of little groups. It’s a segmented population separated by geography, boating discipline, and experience with limited continuity between. We want to connect these groups to each other and new boaters to these groups.
In every community that has a river resource, there’s several players involved. Paddlers, government, retailers, instructors, and hydro power that controls river flow. Each of these groups benefit by having more people enjoy and appreciate the river.
RR: How are you accomplishing that goal?
Wing: It’s very fluid. We like to look at places that have a great community. An example is the Saluda River in South Carolina. The paddlers, government, hydro power, and retailers work well together to improve the quality of the river and to grow the number of people who experience it. We want to help take that set of best practices to other communities. We do this in several ways. For example, we recently gave a talk at an Atlanta paddling club. We are beginning an ambitious goal of a 5 year study to show the effects of these best practices. Our mission is to be the conduit that helps groups and individuals do this on their own.
We’ve also created a free resource for information on our YouTube channel. We wanted to make sure that good, complete answers to important kayaking topics were readily available to communities all over the world.
RR: H20 Dreams provides personal kayak instruction. How does your philosophy of growing the size of the community fit into your instruction?
Wing: It’s said that kayakers tend to get to a certain point and then drop off. We want to help paddlers get past the drop off point so they grow into the sport and become life-long paddlers. I like helping the complicated beginner to intermediate paddler get past the drop off point and that’s where the psychology comes in. Looking at a personal cruxes can be emotional, especially if you’re thinking about something scary that may have happened before. Reflection and emotions are important but you have to learn to control both to move forward.
RR: What have you found to be the most effective way to get past the fears that some kayakers face?
Wing: When it comes to improving your paddling skills, seat time is most important. Just like learning a language, being immersed in boating is a way to break through your comfort zone. If a paddler can spend several days in a row on the river they can gain so much confidence.
When we hold our week long immersion clinics we see this. We also give the group a chance to try all sorts of paddling disciplines. This helps break down some of barriers between different kayaking skills and the small communities that are built around them.
RR: What’s next for H2o Dreams?
Cardinal: We’re working with the Catawba River Keeper on some Meet-Up Flat-water trips. We help promote the events. Paddlers bring their own gear (PFD, Whistle, Light, Kayak, Paddle). We provide instruction and information for free. It’s another great way to connect with a kayaking community and encourage them to enjoy and, in turn, appreciate our rivers. We are also hoping to work with more local groups to provide opportunity for those just getting started in our fantastic sport.