Sunday, August 17, 2008

Deerfield Whitewater Kayaking

About 3 years ago I bought a whitewater kayak with intent of surfing it. I selected a Necky Rip because of its length and shape and because Pete B. and Bill L. seem to breath a lot of excitement into their Necky Jives (a sister boat which is a slightly smaller). It turns out I’ve only surfed it once. A day where I really took quite a trashing! The truth is I have not surfed it again mostly because I have a three hour round trip commute for about an hour of surfing. I have used it a lot for rolling practice, both in a local lake and in the pool. It’s been worth the investment to me.

I noticed that the whitewater group was offering an intermediate white water clinic on the Deerfield River. My usual style is to not commit a weekend too far ahead of time. True to form I was late to sign up but fortunately there was still room. Mike Rock and Bill Luther were the instructors. I didn’t know much about Mike but I had met him on the 4th of July. Bill had been instrumental in solidifying my roll at a winter pool session.

I’ve avoided the whitewater mostly out of a fear that I’d put myself in conditions beyond my ability. It’s not hard for me to imagine saying “I can run that” instead of portaging around. With this in mind I was as interested in cross training as I was in whitewater exposure. We often put our sea kayaks in conditions where I feel some white water experience could be valuable.

There were ten students at the clinic. We were to meet in the Zoar picnic area at 8 AM. I considered camping out in the area Friday night but it is only about an hour and a half from my house (and the weather was forecast to rain) so I chose to leave in the morning. As I got on the road I realized I forgot Bill’s directions to where the picnic area was. I drove too far on Route 2 and my 30 minute cushion quickly diminished to zero. I stumbled across the spot just ahead of time. Fortunately I wasn’t late nor the latest.

We started out by driving to a spot just below the dam on Fife Brook. There Mike wanted to see a wet exit by anyone he was not familiar with. I tried to appeal to Bill’s experience but he wouldn’t go for it. Not wanting to waste a good inversion I chose to set up for a roll or two. I figured I’d rather get in a few warm up rolls before bailing. And if I blew a roll the bailout would just happen! I did roll and then I wet exited. The water was cool and the air was still cool but I was comfortable in my farmer john wetsuit.

Meanwhile Mike was eying suspiciously the $500 sea kayak paddle I was holding. He was very concerned about me trashing it. I was very concerned about using my ww paddle with its straight shaft. It was fine in the deep pool where we were warming up. I took his advice and used the much stronger ww paddle on the river. It was fine largely because the paddling is much less rhythmic in ww. The strokes are much more powerful and in shorter bursts.

Practice in the pool below the dam was not all that valuable to me but it did allow me to loosen up and get the feel for my boat. I played around getting the feel of current under the hull. I also skulled a bit and demonstrated my sculling roll which would clearly be useless in WW but has proven valuable when I’m out of position in the sea kayak. (As if being upside down is not out of position enough!)
After lunch we launched from the Zoar picnic area. We practiced ferry crossings. I found it difficult to get used to leaning away from the current. Then we practiced peeling out and grabbing an eddy. This was fun and valuable. I guess I just pictured bombing down the river. As it turns out playing in one spot was most of the fun. Anyway, peeling out is a little disconcerting as the current grabs your boat. Grabbing an eddy requires paddling aggressively. More aggressive than you’d expect.

Once I got the hang of those skills it became clear to me that grabbing a wave was fun. Some of the waves are rock related and you grab them in the same way as finding an eddy. Some of the other waves are in more open space and you need to either paddle aggressively into them or back down on them. I imagine that you could turn in the midst of them but that clearly was not a skill I had.
When I look at some of the photos of me surfing it’s a little disappointing how small the waves look. But I can tell you they were fun. I could lean forward and bury the nose of the kayak and get water to run up the bow and over my spray skirt.

Erik was performing the sweep duties for Mike and Bill in his open boat (aka canoe). The paddling quickly digressed into him and me surfing every little wave we could find. Sometimes I felt like I was hogging the good ones!
About half way through the afternoon I caught the back of my boat in the current. This was a destabilizing thing for me because my response was a low brace leaning aft which only worsened the problem. The result was I was upside down. For whatever reason I was fairly calm and I set up for my roll. Up I came. Honestly I don’t remember whether it was first try or second try. But I was up with my first real combat roll! Just to keep my head from swelling too much I’ll disclose that I went over again later in the day and on Sunday. Both times I blew my roll. So it goes…

After a day of paddling the majority of us met at a local campground. We all brought a pot luck item and we ended up with a wonderful meal. Yes we all contributed but Jay was clearly the key player. He did all the grilling, had all the proper equipment, and managed to get the camp fire going all at the same time.

On Sunday we (-2 people) repeated the section from the Zoar picnic area and then (-6) paddled the Fife Brook section above Zoar gap. I felt much more comfortable in my boat and had a great time. I thought I would be more tired. At the end of the day Elaine and I pulled ashore while Mike, Bill, Erik, and Brendon ran the gap. Mike and Bill made it look easy. Erik and Brendon made it look exciting!

It was a great weekend. It would not have been possible without Mike and Bill volunteering. And it would not have been as fun without everyone who came along.

Also see Eriks blog at
Deerfield River, Aug 16/17