Everyone has to start somewhere, including the pros who routinely take on world-class whitewater. But with the benefit of hindsight, what lessons might they impart to their younger selves? We asked eight experts to share what they wish they’d learned in their first year kayaking. Listen up, whippersnappers! The answers might surprise you.

8 pros on what they wish they’d known sooner

“I started paddling at a very young age of six, so there was a lot that wasn’t on my radar in the grand scheme of things. It is very cliché, but there is no way I would have known where kayaking would take me. That goes for the incredible destinations I’ve been, but also the lifelong friendships and relationships I’ve gained along the way.”

— Alec Voorhees

a young whitewater kayaker paddles on a rocky river
“All great men had simple beginnings.” —Lailah Gifty Akita. The same probably goes for paddlers, too. | Feature photo: Courtesy Madawaska Kanu Centre
“In my first year of paddling I wish I knew how to roll or even put on a sprayskirt. Hopefully this inspires people to not let a slower progression stop them from paddling. There are a few hurdles in learning to paddle, but it’s well worth it to put in the time and effort to master them even if it takes some patience.”

— Tyler Bradt

“Nothing. The learning process of any sport is super fun. Breaking down those walls and improving happens the quickest when you are first starting. Improving seems to slow down as you get better, unless you are more creative than I am. The community comes next. As you are improving and learning, you’re meeting more and more incredible paddlers who are all mostly incredible people. This was also a great surprise to me and something I’m glad came with time. I’m grateful for the process and amazed by the community. If I would have known more my first year of kayaking it might not have ended up so special.”

— Dave Fusilli

“It is really important to make a habit of doing hip and shoulder mobility routines from the very start. If I had done this, I likely would have avoided painful hip flexor issues that started my second year of boating that I still contend with 20 years later.”

— Natalie Anderson

“People tell you you can’t sleep your way to the top,
but I’ve seen it done. Also, wear earplugs.”

— Darby McAdams

“Train hard and study the sport. If you do whitewater, it is safer than you think.
That would have helped me because I was really scared of paddling.
But I started when I was nine.”

— Evan Garcia

“One thing I wish I had known earlier is how to scout rapids/waterfalls properly and evaluate the potential risks that come with running them. For me, realistic visualization is key—working backward from the worst to best possible outcome so you can set appropriate safety and be well prepared dropping into the stouts.”

— Zack Mutton

“That it is better to go to a familiar run and make it difficult rather than stepping up to a harder river. It is a much better learning environment to push yourself on easier whitewater (catching all the eddies, surfing, boofing, etc.), basically making a class II or III run have class IV or V moves. That way when you step up to a harder river you are less physically and mentally challenged and much safer because you have built up your foundation.”

— Sage Donnelly

Cover of the 2023 Paddling Buyer’s GuideThis article was first published in the 2023 Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

“All great men had simple beginnings.” —Lailah Gifty Akita. The same probably goes for paddlers, too. | Feature photo: Courtesy Madawaska Kanu Centre



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