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An exhilarating way to experience wild rivers
“The thrill never ceases,” said kayaking enthusiast Monica Gokey of Missoula, Mont. “One minute you are at the top of a rapid, the next you’re hurtling through the crashing spray. The river moves around you.
“The exhilaration isn’t so much in the speed,” she added. “Mentally, you slow it all down. You learn to anticipate what’s ahead by looking down current and literally reading the river. I can see rocks a quarter-mile ahead. The thrill is the skill you develop at navigating the whitewater.
“I like to paddle fast, but unless it’s a competition, I usually don’t feel that exhausted. The better you get at kayaking, the more you learn to let the river do the work.”
The craft in which Gokey runs potentially dangerous rapids is called a kayak. It dates back many thousands of years and was created by sub-Arctic tribes from Siberia to Greenland. Originally, it was a simple ribbed frame covered in animal skins. More sophisticated designs slimmed and elongated the kayak and covered the deck to keep out splashing waves. Seal hunters sat in a cockpit, faced forward and propelled themselves through ice floes using a double-bladed paddle. Today’s whitewater kayak is typically made of semi-rigid, high-impact polyethylene and is four to 10 feet long.
Gokey, 26, learned to run whitewater on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania when she was in college. She became so addicted to the sport that, upon graduation, she set out to see the world by kayak. She ran dozens of wild rivers in Australia, Canada, Chile, India, Italy, Nepal, New Zealand, Norway and Uganda. Most of the world’s great kayaking rivers are also popular for whitewater rafting, so Gokey financed her travels by working as a seasonal raft guide, among other odd jobs.
“No river is the same,” she said. “Each offers new challenges. And the wonderful friends you make just add to the adventure.” Gokey met her Norwegian traveling companion, Nini Bondhus, on a river in Nepal. The two bonded and traveled together to explore the rivers of Uganda, Nepal, Norway and Canada. Gokey said kayaking in Nepal was her favorite.
She recommends kayaking as a way to add an exciting and unexpected dimension to world travel. If you’re planning to visit an exotic destination for several weeks, allow time to take a kayaking course. Gokey pointed out that excellent kayaking schools are nearly everywhere (see box). It’s not an extreme sport that requires a lot of brawn or high fitness–anyone in reasonable shape can learn the basics and quickly feel comfortable in the water.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, you have to learn how to use obstacles in your path downstream to your advantage in moving your kayak. For instance, the water flowing powerfully over and around a boulder creates a less-turbulent eddy behind the rock. If you try to halfheartedly paddle toward the eddy, the current might flip you on the seam of where moving water meets still water. To catch one of the eddies, which are a river’s built-in rest-stops, you need to be paddling aggressively and leaning toward the inside of your turn, a lot like you do when pedaling on a bicycle.
Kayaking feeds the natural adventurer’s fascination with wild rivers. Being in the water provides an aesthetic view and a perspective you’d never experience looking down at a river–or even walking along it. The modern kayak is a safe and sturdy waterborne magic carpet carrying you to extraordinary places where you wouldn’t ordinarily go.
Where to go: Anywhere there are mountains, there are rivers. And the more magnificent the mountains, typically, the more splendid the streams. If there is professionally guided river rafting, odds are good there are opportunities for whitewater kayaking.
How to learn: Kayaking outfitters, some rafting companies, community kayak clubs and universities offer two- or three-day courses ($300-$600), which are enough to teach you the basics. In the first day of class, you’ll typically learn basic strokes and how to safely exit the kayak if it capsizes. You should also learn to “roll”–righting the kayak using a paddle/torso maneuver after a flip–in flatwater before taking to the current. Kayaking lessons on the river are focused on techniques for navigating between moving water (the current) and still water (eddies).
Where to find help: The Riversport School of Paddling (www.riversportonline.com) on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania is first-rate. Among top schools outside the U.S.: Canada’s Ottawa Kayak School (www.ottawakayak.com) is well established as a beginner-friendly destination for freestyle kayaking and youth instruction…Chile’s Kayak Pucon (www.kayakpucon.com) is a small operation run by an Italian-Chilean couple. They teach whitewater kayaking to beginners and guide seasoned kayakers down spectacular rivers…Nepal’s GRG Adventure Kayaking (www.grgadventurekayaking.com) is operated by a British-Nepali couple who offer outstanding instruction, multiday guided trips down scenic rivers and rafting…New Zealand KayakSchool (www.nzkayakschool.com) is a superb outfit run by Mick Hopkinson (who pioneered many of the country’s famous whitewater runs) and his family…Sjoa Kajakksenter (www.kajakksenteret.no), located on the glacier-fed Sjoa River, is the best kayaking school in Norway.