Getting Started Paddling (True Confessions of an Old-Time Boater)

Nowadays it’s easy to run down to a store, buy a kayak, or take classes at a local kayak school. But years ago starting out was different. This is my story.

It’s the summer of 1962, I’m a 14 year-old at Mowglis, a boy’s camp in New Hampshire. We’ve been floating down the Saco River for a day and a half now, and we’ve just arrivedWalker’s Falls. This rapid is really not more than a Class I or II, but to our group, it looks tough! We scout it carefully in the warm sunlight. Mr. Abbott says we’ll have to run down the right-hand chute, then cut to the left to avoid hitting a big rock at the bottom. I’m thinking that I really don’t know how to steer.

One by one we head back to our aluminum canoes. We have battered wooden paddles and no life vests. One or two of our boats make it through upright, but most broach against the rock at the bottom and capsize. I’m at the end of the line with my partner, Danny. He’s the best canoeist in camp. He’s also the smallest kid in the group. I’m the biggest, and he got paired with me because I’ve never canoed before. Mr. Abbot wants told him to paddle bow, where he has no control over what’s going to happen. He doesn’t like it. I’m too scared to steer as we slide down the chute. Before I know it we’ve hit the rock head on. The bow flies up, and we’re teetering on the rock. I throw my weight forward, and we slide down the other side, upright. The guys say that’s cheating. I’m tired of sand in my gear and soggy wet feet. I think I’m going to stick to backpacking.

Fast forward to the fall of 1966.  I’m in freshman orientation at Bucknell University in Central Pennsylvania. I’ve just run into this guy named Marty in the cafeteria. He’s tall and skinny, with wild red hair and slightly bugged out blue eyes. He’s way into Tolkien and has a zany sense of humor. We find out that we’ve both been working as camp counselors in New England for the past few years. My camp did lots of backpacking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains; his did long canoe trips in Northern Maine. Bucknell doesn’t have an outing club, and we think it would be a good idea to start one.

Move ahead to the Spring of 1967. The Bucknell Outing Club is up and running. I’ve been pretty distracted by freshman football, but I’ve also done enough hiking in the area to know that it’s not very exciting. Marty has been canoeing a lot, and he talks me into doing an overnight on Penn’s Creek with him. Dr. Nicholson, our faculty advisor, likes to canoe, and he recommended it. Somehow we scrounge up a couple of Aluminum canoes and a two-man Klepper Foldboat. By mid-afternoon we’re in Coburn, loading the boats.

I’m paired with Dave, only this time I’m in the back because I’m the one who’s canoed before.  I’m still not really sure how to steer. Except for a few minor rapids in New Hampshire, this is my first whitewater trip. Marty and Jim hop into a canoe and along with Bob, who’s paddling the Foldboat, they leave us far behind. But it’s a sunny day, and we’re doing just fine. We’re floating down a deep valley, and the trees are just beginning to bud. “This is wonderful,” I think, “you get to see all this great country, and you don’t have to carry a pack.”

We run into the rest of the group about five miles downstream, where the river makes a wide loop. The rapids are harder here, probably Class II. Dave and I start down and quickly get stuck on rocks. We hop out, pull it off, and quickly broach again. We decide to wade and drag our canoe along the shore for a while. It’s getting late, and the water is really cold. Eventually the river calms down enough and we can get back in. We make camp in the woods by a long pool.

The next day, disaster strikes. Bob and his foldboat get swept underneath a tree. We wrestle the boat loose, but he’s looses his camera and binoculars. Just below here Dave and I pin our canoe on a rock. The boat takes a while to get free, and all our gear is soaked. Dave and I are so rattled that we want to hike out. Marty and Jim split us up. Marty put me in bow, and after a few minutes I settle down. We reach the takeout at Glen Iron with no further problems.

The next year I got pretty sick and dropped out of the University for a year. In my absence the Outing Club got some student activities money and bought two aluminum canoes and some paddles. I hadn’t forgotten that trip down Penn’s Creek, and wanted to do it again. I even went out and bought an aluminum canoe for myself. There were no guidebooks, so we pulled out some highway road maps and decided to go exploring. My regular partners that year were Eric, a quiet, curly-headed blond guy on the verge of flunking out who was my tandem partner. Our buddy, Bill, was a very solid canoeist who preferred to paddle solo.

In the spring of 1969 we did some 50+ mile day trips down Pine Creek and Loyalsock Creek below Forksville. I’m still recovering from my illness, and it felt good to float those easy riffles and long pools in the warm sun! We ran tiny Baab Creek down into Pine Creek and stuffed three canoes underneath a downed tree! Later we tried to crash our way down the Loyalsock above World’s End State Park at low water. It was an honest Class III, or so we thought. The high point of the trip was running “The Sluice”, a break in a three-foot high dam that creates a swimming hole in the park. The big waves in the run-out could swamp your canoe in a second, but Sharon showed us all how to stay dry by back paddling as you headed into them.

There was a slalom race under way when we arrived at the Loyalsock a week later. We’d heard of kayaks, but we’d never seen any as sleek as these. And those racers sure knew what they were doing! We hung out and watched. I bought race programs and talked to people. A couple of the guys bought used kayaks right there. I wrote to an address I found in the Racing Program and joined American Whitewater. I also saw an ad for Klepper Kayaks. A few weeks later I went to New York, talked my mom into driving me down to Hans Klepper, and blew my summer savings on a shiny new red Trabant kayak, a nylon sprayskirt, and a wood paddle that I broke the first time I used it. I could barely fit inside!

That fall the Outing Club decided to run some pool sessions so we could learn to roll our kayaks. The fact that none of us knew how didn’t discourage us. After all, we had the AMC Whitewater Handbook! The first obstacle was Coach Reynolds, the Athletic Director. He was the swimming coach, and thought that this idea sounded pretty hare-brained. No one was going to take a bunch of dirty kayaks into HIS pool! But Dr. Nickelson, our faculty advisor, was the chair of a committee titled “The Place of Sport in University Life.” He was spearheading  an effort open up athletic facilities to non-varsity athletes. He told Coach Reynolds that if we didn’t get some pool time, he’d bring the matter before the Dean. We were grudgingly offered a slot from 7 to 9 AM on Saturday.

After several weeks of flailing around a few of us were able to awkwardly roll our kayaks back upright. It was pretty precarious. Then one night I got a call from my buddy Jim Love. “We’re doing it all wrong!” he said, “Come over here and I’ll show you.” Later I watched and listened as he contorted on the floor with his paddle, interpreting the sketches in the Whitewater Handbook. It looked improbable on dry land, but it worked great under water! Now our rolls started to have some snap!

I wrote to the Penn State Outing Club, sponsors of the Loyalsock Slalom, and asked for help in getting started in whitewater racing.  The letter was passed around and eventually answered by someone named John R. Sweet. I didn’t know it at the time, but Sweet was national C-1 champion and a very hot river runner. Sweet’s Falls on the Gauley is named for him. His group included a bunch of nationally ranked racers and US Whitewater Team members. But he invited us up to his pool sessions in State College, which, looking back on it, was an amazingly generous thing to do. After all, he didn’t know anything about us except that we were some college kids who said we wanted to race. I told him that we’d been breaking the paddles we’d bought from Bart Hauthaway and Stu Coffin, and he recommended the Norse Paddle Company. Those sticks were heavy but tough, exactly what we needed!

Jim Love and I made the one-hour drive from Lewisburg to State College together every Sunday, all winter long. Those PSOC-ers were impressed that we could roll, and took time from their training to coach us. Dave Kurtz invited us up to the Wildwater Boating Club boat building shop in Bellfonte to watch some people build their kayaks. I spent half a day helping one of them build a C-1. Later Jim and borrowed a mold and laid up a Prijon Special Slalom in his basement. During Spring Break I went to an Army-Navy store in Brooklyn and bought two shortie wetsuits for $35 each. I also ordered a couple of waterproof tops from the Dartmouth Co-op and bought some hockey helmets and inflatable life vests from Bart Hauthaway. We were ready for spring!

Jim had just finished building his kayak, and was anxious to put it on the water. I came home from spring vacation a day early in a hard, wet snowstorm. We geared up at his house and drove down to McKee’s Half-Falls, a rapid on the Susquehanna I’d seen on previous drives back to College. It might be a Class II. We put in and shoved off. Compared to an aluminum canoe, you can really FEEL the water in a kayak. The shifting currents spooked me, and I flipped in the second drop. I bailed, grabbed my boat and gear, and struggled ashore into 6” of snow. Jim did just fine. We spent the spring paddling together on the Loyalsock and Lehigh Rivers, learning to do eddy turns and ferries. We entered the Loyalsock Slalom and didn’t do so well, but our mentors from Penn State were encouraging. We knew we still had a lot to learn, but at least I could steer the boat pretty well by now.

In mid-May I asked John Sweet if he would take us down the Youghiogheny. When he inviteded us to join him that weekend he forgot to mention that everyone else would be paddling wildwater boats in preparation for the national downriver championships. Jim and I chased them down the river. They were impressed that I rolled at Cucumber, but then I hit the hole at Swimmers, freaked, flipped, and swam. We loaded up at Stewarton and hustled back up to Ohiopyle for a second run, eating our lunch during the ride. This time neither of us flipped.

It rained all night, and the river came up several feet. This was more water than the group really wanted, so they headed north to run the Casselman and Laurel Hill Creeks, both big, fast Class III runs with lots of waves. Three rivers in one weekend! It was unprecedented! After school a group of us drove to New Hampshire to climb and hike. I got a bunch of people to paddle down to Walker’s Falls on the Saco, thinking that it would be a great play rapid. The water was high, and the drop was washed out. Fortunately, the Swift andAndroscoggin were more rewarding.

In the fall of 1970 I still needed one more year to graduate. All of the people who had started the Outing Club with me were gone, but when I announced a meeting a new crop of freshmen showed up. All fall Alan, Ray, Dave and I loaded up the fleet of Outing Club canoes and spent Saturdays at McKee’s Half-Falls, learning to do eddy turns and ferries. I was impressed with a tough little woman named Betsy who, although only she weighed a hundred pounds, thought nothing of carrying a 75 pound canoe by herself. In late October we headed for the Middle Yough below Confluence. The weather turned cold and nasty, with a wicked upstream headwind. We arrived at dusk only to find that out Dave left the keys to the shuttle vehicle back at the put-in! Fortunately, Betsy’s Dad, who lived nearby and planned to meet us for dinner, found us and saved the day.

During the winter a lot of the guys came out for roll sessions. I knew a few shortcuts, and they caught onto the roll a lot faster than we did! Now I had company on the road toState College. At the pool, Norm Holcombe said that I was way too big for a kayak, and that those silly kayaks were only for women and little wimpy guys anyway. And he just happened to have a used C-1 for sale! But I passed on the battered relic he offered, consulted the Whitewater Program, and ordered a new “Modified Czech” C-1 from John Berry. A few weeks later Tom Irwin showed me how to brace and roll it.

In the spring of 1971 I was learning to paddle my C-Boat while leading “beginner canoe trips” for the Outing Club every Saturday. For three bucks a head we took students to Buffalo Creek or Lower Penn’s Creek, passed out the gear, taught a little canoeing, and hustled them down these pretty Class I streams. We used the proceeds to subsidize our gas on mid-week Loyalsock trips and “Advanced Trips” to more interesting rivers on Sunday.

The Penn State guys suggested running Shade Creek into Stony Creek, and once the Loyalsock got too low it quickly became our favorite. It was an hour closer than the Yough, and you could set up a bike shuttle if you had to. I was pretty nervous on our first run. When I landed on a mid-stream rock at the first big drop below the confluence with Shade Creek I was so dry-mouthed that I could barely croak out the words “we need to scout this one” to my friends. On later trips we all took turns getting worked in those great play holes. Sometimes Betsy, who really wasn’t ready for this much fun yet, would come along and run shuttle.

We finally started racing. We traveled to the Petersburg Races on the North Fork, South Branch of the Potomac during Spring Break. I’d never seen so many paddlers in my life! I ran the “expert race” through mighty Hopeville Canyon sight unseen. I was so nervous that I loaded a full survival kit – sleeping bag, tent, and food – inside my boat. Fortunately, the river wasn’t all that bad. But the biggest danger was being run over by those intense Midwestern downriver racers who screamed “HUT!” at you as they rocketed up from behind.  About a dozen of us were at the Loyalsock, and a decent group traveled up to the Esopus Races after graduation.

That fall I met Ed Gertler at the Savage Races and he lead me down the Gauley for the first time. But that’s another story!