Learning to Kayak - the hard way

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Flag of Chile  , Lake District,
Friday, October 31, 2008

Every time I go whitewater rafting I enviously watch the kayakers in their little brightly colored boats run the rapids - it seems like a blast!

Originally I thought do another whitewater rafting trip; however, Pucon has one of the top kayaking shops in Chile and they offer a week-long training course.  I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to give kayaking a shot.  But with only one day left in Pucon, I opted for just the first day of the course - lessons 1 & 2.

The season just started so my guide, Adam, arrived from London last week.  We loaded two kayaks in the back of a pickup and headed to a lake to practice basic maneuvers such as paddling and rolling.  

The setup for a kayak is pretty cool - you basically wear the boat. 

After donning neoprene overalls, I squeezed into a "dry jacket" with water-tight seals around my neck, wrists, and waist.  Next, I squeezed into the "deck", which is a big oval waterproof neoprene disk with a chimney-like opening in the center that you squeeze through Santa-style.  The deck seals onto the hull so if the kayak rolls, no water can get into the interior of boat.  I was basically sealed into the kayak. 

This presents a slight challenge when you do roll over - being trapped in an upside down boat while going through rapids is ill advised.  So, on the front of the deck is an emergency release handle - pull the strap and you are released.

"Seems straight forward" I said.

After practicing the basic moves, Adam said "let's go get some lunch, and hit the river for lesson two."

"What class rapids will we be doing?  Class II?" I asked.

"Well, we don't actually do any rapids until lesson 4.  I was going to take you to a quiet section of the river to practice paddling."

"No rapids?" I asked with genuine disappointment.  "I thought we would at least do a couple little ones today.  Is there any way we could do some whitewater?"

"Well, you seem to be controlling your kayak well - maybe we could skip to lesson 3 or 4 so you could get a taste of  whitewater."

"That sounds grand!" I said with enthusiastic naivety.

With hindsight, this was probably a bad idea.  Adam took me to a stretch of river with six serious class II and III rapids.  Since summer is approaching, the river was swollen and moving fast, but absolutely crystal clear.  You could easily see down 15 feet.  

After paddling for about 10 minutes, we rounded a corner and I came face to face with my first big rapid.  It looked like a tsunami from my little tippy perspective. 

"Oh shit - what did I do?" 

"Follow me!" Adam said with the enthusiasm that can only come from a whitewater guide.  With that, Adam headed up and over a three foot standing wave, and crashed through the next one.

I held my breath, and paddled hard into the same wave - it shot me up and then I went nose first down into the hole behind it.

"I did it!" I thought as I started going up the second wave in my tiny boat.

At the top, I somehow spun sideways and hit the third wave broadside flipping me over so fast I didn't have time to close my eyes.

So there I was.  Upside down, sealed into a kayak that was now going up a second standing wave most likely created by a massive boulder under the water.  My first thought was "I wonder if my travel insurance covers knocking out all my teeth while sealed upside down in a kayak." 

I reached for the emergency release handle and ejected down.

After surfacing, I found myself in the middle of an exceptionally long class II rapid.  "Hang on to your boat and paddle and ride it out!!" Adam yelled. 

You have no idea how hard it was to hold on to the kayak and paddle while slamming into waves, sometimes getting sucked under water, then popping back up.  It felt like an eternity before I hit calm water again.  In a raft the size of an SUV, these class II rapids are simple and somewhat boring.  It's amazing how much more thrilling a class II rapid is from this perspective. 

"Hmmm" Adam murmured "maybe we shouldn't have skipped lessons 2 and 3."

We had to drag the boat up to shore to get all the water out and Adam was less than thrilled. 

"OK - I'm going to redeem myself on the next one."  I said.

And I actually did.  The second rapid wasn't nearly as big as the first and (although terrified) I made it through! somehow...

Unfortunately, the third and fourth rapids were repeats of the first one, and I somehow got my kayak sideways at exactly the wrong moment - and I let go of my boat on the fourth one - Adam had to drag me to the shore then paddle fast down stream to catch it.

"This is going to cost me a big tip" I thought.

"The fifth rapid is the biggest one yet - class III.  I recommend we walk around."  Honestly, at that point, hiking around the rapid of death sounded like a pretty good idea...

But, I did have redemption on the sixth rapid - it was as big as the first, and I made it through!

"Adam, I'm thinking about trying this again tomorrow - what do you think?"

"I don't think that's a good idea."  He said gravely.

"Was I that bad?" I perplexed.

"Oh no - it's not that.  You just aren't going to be able to lift your arms.  But we can do it again on Sunday."

Unfortunately this was my last day in Pucon - so my first attempt at whitewater kayaking was less than graceful, but I did have a blast... even though it took two days to get all the water out of my nose.

Adam's Thumb
Adam had a seriously bruised thumb that day.  "How´d you do that?" I asked.

"I dropped off a 20 foot waterfall yesterday and slammed my paddle on the deck."

"20 feet!!  What's the highest you've ever done?"

"50 feet is the most I'll do, but the guys at the shop run a 75 footer just north of town."

"Can you teach me that tomorrow?"

Adam contorted his face, not sure if I was serious or not... "I'm kidding"

Next up... four days cruising the Chilean Fjords on the Navimag Ferry.
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