How to Paddle ‘Til You’re 50

I want to be like John Pilson. Recently, I watched Pilson compete in the fifth annual Jerry’s Baddle kayak race on the Green River Narrows. The incredible thing about Pilson’s very respectable performance is that this was his first-ever race…and he is 50 years old. Pilson is among a growing number of paddlers who are pushing class V limits and paddling stronger than many kids half their age. Those of us who want to paddle at a similar calibre for our entire lives can learn several important lessons from these veterans.


Know when to walk


Many paddlers decide that once they’ve run a rapid once, they have to run it every time. This is a dangerous mentality, especially when it’s an ego-driven decision fuelled by the presence of other paddlers. According to a NOLS study referred to me some years ago by whitewater risk specialist Fergus Coffey, the top two human factors leading to accidents in the outdoors are: 1) the desire to please others, and 2) attempting to adhere to a predetermined schedule. Your decision to run a rapid should be based on many different variables, including: river level, group size, group mentality, daylight window, personal abilities, personal feeling that day, weather and more. Expedition kayaker and extreme race champion Tommy Hilleke once told me that he has a mental conversation with his three children before he runs anything scary. If he can’t justify the danger to them (and himself), he walks around it.


Wait for safety


The social trends of kayaking are interesting—and sometimes frightening—to watch. Recently, it’s become cool to be the first to do something, often at the expense of safety and common sense. Running huge waterfalls blind with newbies following. Running big drops before other paddlers have ropes ready, are back in their boats after portaging or, in extreme cases, before they even get out of their boats above the drop. This is a trend that has nearly resulted in several fatalities over the past year, and will most certainly have dire results if things don’t change.


Quality, not quantity


Paddling every day of the year will not make you a better boater than paddling one-sixth that amount smart. When I have ignored warnings from my body telling me not to go paddling, I have regretted it every time. A painfully perfect example of this occurred during training for the 2007 extreme racing season. I paddled so much in preparation for the fall races that I developed debilitating tendonitis in my control forearm. The injury took me out of contention for the season, and could have easily been avoided by not overtraining.

Paddle when it feels right, and paddle smart. Run quality whitewater in your comfort zone on a regular basis, and step things up to the very top of your ability level only once in a while.


Account for mental fatigue


The day after I ran the intimidating, class V+ Toxaway River in North Carolina for the first time, I went out for a what was supposed to be a mellow run on the familiar, class IV Chattooga. I got worked! Running fringe rivers takes it out of you, and you need to allow time for your mental abilities to bounce back. One of my favorite ways to recover from a long, stressful day of creeking is to soul surf on a big, glassy wave the next day. The more you practice, the better you become at keeping yourself in the right mental state for longer, multi-day trips.

Aging yet adept boaters like Pilson are inspirations, proving that whitewater is a lifestyle that does not have a retirement age. Remember, paddle smart and paddle forever.


Chris Gragtmans is a Canadian freestyle and extreme paddler who lives in Asheville, NC. He has contributed to the sport through his creek racing, membership on the Canadian Freestyle team, first descents and videography.

This article originally appeared in Rapid, Summer/Fall 2010. Download our free iPad/iPhone/iPod Touch App or Android App or read it here.

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