The inspiration provided by these athletes has motivated many would-be paddlers to hop off the banks and into a boat. In fact, whitewater paddling—in all its forms—has never been more popular. According to industry figures, some 2.4 million Americans partake in the sport each year.
But making the leap from beer sipping fan to rapid riding hero isn’t a simple one. The learning curve for whitewater paddling is steep, and at times requires forgetting deeply ingrained muscle memory. Understanding the gear is critical, and few sports require a better knowledge of safety. Even gaining access to the perfect run can be a daunting task. But for those who love it, the total immersion into a natural place that paddling offers is second to none.
To offer a peek behind the spray skirt of whitewater paddling, we sat down with Chris Wing of H2O Dreams. Wing's experience paddling all over the world and the years he’s spent exploring Carolina rivers is invaluable in demystifying the sport. Here, Wing shares insight into the proper mindset for a new paddler, the surprising importance of when to start, and why a couple $1 beach balls might help you keep your paddling buddies happy. It's everything you need to get started whitewater kayaking in Charlotte.
Seat time translates to skill building, Wing says. If you can spend 4 to 5 days a week in a kayak, your skills will obviously develop faster than if you paddle a couple times a month. Beginning with a lesson to learn the basics, like basic strokes and the wet exit (escaping the boat while in the water), is important. But it’s the practice afterward that really makes a difference.
“Kayaking motions in the water are sometimes counterintuitive to what we do on dry land,” says Wing. “Slow down, really pay attention. It’s like learning karate from Miyagi [the martial arts master from the 1980s classic The Karate Kid]. You might get super bored painting fences and waxing cars, but when it’s ‘go time’ you don’t have to think about it. (Paddling) becomes an unconscious act.”
Wing suggests a flat water location like Mountain Island lake as a great spot to practice the basics. He also believes that having the right network of paddling partners will help keep you in the game. The Foothills Paddling Club, based in Greenville, S.C. is very active, as is the Carolina Canoe Club out of Raleigh.
Getting in Shape
Being able to sit comfortably in your boat for an hour or more is a good sign that you’ve chosen the right equipment. But at the end of the day, Wing believes that the best gear doesn’t make a great paddler: “It’s a skill sport, not a gear sport," he says. And an important step towards gaining those skills is the right kind of fitness, especially core strength and flexibility, Wing notes.
Another area that is commonly overlooked is the lower half, including IT bands, hip flexors, and hamstrings, all critical components for good paddling fitness. “That’s the area that’s making contact with the boat. Any power your upper body produces has to be translated down to your lower half.”
Most kayak instructors will offer the use of a boat for beginners. A basic understanding of the types of boats commonly available will help you have that first conversation with your guide and can add to your enjoyment of the sport.
“I determine the type of boat to use based on the individual,” Wing says. “If you come in saying ‘I want to throw huge air on a big wave, I’m going to put you in a more aggressive boat. But if you come in and are shaking, I’m going to suggest a boat that’s 10 times to big.”
There are three basic styles of kayak. Creek boats have a rounder hull and are all about forgiveness. Some people like that style for learning, but it does dull the sensitivity to the river, says Wing. The second type of kayak is built to be aggressive. With a shorter, more squashed design of a freestyle boat allows the paddler to feel the river, but Wing says you may be spending more time upside down in this design. As a blended alternative to the two, a river running boat takes some of the performance characteristics of a freestyle design and adds more volume like a creek boat to give it some forgiveness.
There’s a great benefit in buying some gear used. Saving money on your first boat, spray skirt, and paddle is a great idea—especially until you’ve learned what’s really important to you. But buy your helmet and PFD (personal flotation device) new, if possible. “Your helmet and PFD are your lifelines," Wing says. "UV rays, mildew, and any number of other factors can degrade them over time. Plus, the fit needs to be exceptional for these."
And don't forget the float bags: “They make sure your boat floats high if you swim, making it easier to get to the side of the river and drain," Wing explains. "Your paddling buddies will love you for it.” But you don't have to drop a lot of cash on these handy items: A cheap option when you’re getting started is a few $1 beach balls, says Wing. They won’t last as long, but will do the job.
Where and When to Get on the Water
For a new kayaker, early summer offers an ideally moderate challenge. “Getting started in early May is ideal,” says Wing. “You're still going to have good water levels, but not as high as spring. The water won’t be as cold either. If you paddle all summer, by fall you may even be paddling solid class III like the New River Gorge or the middle Gauly by fall.”
For a spot that has it all, try the dam-controlled Green River. Three distinct sections offer a range of experiences for every ability. The lower Green is rife with class I and II rapids that give new paddlers some experience reading a river without the need for a confident roll.
The upper Green is the place for a beginner to transition to intermediate. Over the course of less than four miles, the river offers several options for learning and playing, including two challenging class IIIs.
And finally, when you’ve mastered your combat roll and had enough seat time to really understand a river, the middle Green—commonly called the Narrows—is a draw for some of the best paddlers in the country. Carved deep into the rock with little room for error, three steep drops create one of the most challenging sections of river in the southeast.
It may be a while before you’re paddling the narrows—and that’s ok. There’s a steep trail to the bottom where you can watch other boaters tackle the class V rapids—which should provide plenty of inspiration for you to get back in your boat and keep practicing.