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The Newbie: What, wonders our reporter, will happen when she hits the rapids?

  • Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan starts the moving-water portion of her beginner kayaking lesson at "The Railroad" portion of the Deerfield river on Sunday as part of a course with Zoar Outdoor's paddling school.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan starts the moving-water portion of her beginner kayaking lesson at "The Railroad" portion of the Deerfield river on Sunday as part of a course with Zoar Outdoor's paddling school.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell

  • Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan makes her way down the class II "Freight Train" rapid on the Deerfield River with Zoar Outdoor guide and teacher Steven Allen on Sunday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan makes her way down the class II "Freight Train" rapid on the Deerfield River with Zoar Outdoor guide and teacher Steven Allen on Sunday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell

  • Zoar Outdoor kayaking guide and teacher Steven Allen goes backwards down the class II "Freight Train" rapid on the Deerfield River on Sunday to keep an eye on Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Zoar Outdoor kayaking guide and teacher Steven Allen goes backwards down the class II "Freight Train" rapid on the Deerfield River on Sunday to keep an eye on Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell

  • Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan paddles in the "Fisherman's Bend" of the Deerfield River on Sunday as part of a Zoar Outdoor paddling school lesson.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan paddles in the "Fisherman's Bend" of the Deerfield River on Sunday as part of a Zoar Outdoor paddling school lesson.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell

  • Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of occasional features in which staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan writes about her experiences learning new skills; hence its name: “The Newbie.”

    Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of occasional features in which staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan writes about her experiences learning new skills; hence its name: “The Newbie.”

  • Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan starts the moving-water portion of her beginner kayaking lesson at "The Railroad" portion of the Deerfield river on Sunday as part of a course with Zoar Outdoor's paddling school.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan makes her way down the class II "Freight Train" rapid on the Deerfield River with Zoar Outdoor guide and teacher Steven Allen on Sunday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Zoar Outdoor kayaking guide and teacher Steven Allen goes backwards down the class II "Freight Train" rapid on the Deerfield River on Sunday to keep an eye on Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Recorder reporter Kathleen McKiernan paddles in the "Fisherman's Bend" of the Deerfield River on Sunday as part of a Zoar Outdoor paddling school lesson.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of occasional features in which staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan writes about her experiences learning new skills; hence its name: “The Newbie.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of occasional features in which staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan writes about her experiences learning new skills; hence its name: “The Newbie.”

The dark black waves sucked me forward. I held tight onto my paddle, sat tall and looked straight ahead toward the rushing water that would soon surround me. Scared, nervous, determined, I paddled and kept facing the river head on.

After a few moments, my fear subsided as I paddled into a gentler waters. I realized I had made it through rapids for the first time, while on my first whitewater kayaking trip on the Deerfield River.

Relief washed over me as I looked at my instructor, Steve Allen from Zoar Outdoor, for approval.

To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Several years earlier in college, I had sea kayaked from Narragansett River to Narragansett Beach in Rhode Island with friends and no training. So, I was confident when I met Allen, who is from Westhampton. He is an American Canoe Association Level 4 certified instructor in white-water kayaking. He has been doing the sport for 10 years and teaching it for seven years, mostly in Virginia, where he was first introduced to it.

Earlier that Sunday morning, I’d watched as kayakers and white-water rafters gathered their equipment at Zoar’s Paddling School in Charlemont and headed out onto the Deerfield River.

Allen grabbed me a tall black paddle, a personal flotation device, or “life jacket,” and a spray skirt — an awkward-looking item made out of wet-suit material. It fits tight around the kayaker’s waist and has a skirt that’s stretched over the kayak’s cockpit, creating a seal that keeps river water out of the boat.

Then, Allen picked a helmet for me. “Wait, I need a helmet?” I asked myself. A little more wary, I followed Allen outside to a stack of different models of kayaks of all different shapes and sizes.

They could be separated into three basic categories. The first was the river runner and the key to paddling it is sitting up straight or, as Allen said, “having good table manners.” The river runner will rock back and forth and you can maneuver it with your hips.

This second type was the play boat, which is not a beginner’s kayak. It has more volume, which gives it more buoyancy, and its design allows for more tricks. It has a flat hull, which helps it sit flat on the water, and aggressive edges.

Lastly, the third type is a creek boat, which is for more experienced boaters. It is mostly used for flooded creeks and navigating waterfalls. Creek boats are usually about the same length as playboats but have extra volume. The bow and stern are rounded, which helps keep the boat from getting pinned between rocks after steep drops. The design also helps kayakers get over rocks or “boof” over rocks, and to turn very quickly.

Since I’m a beginner, I took a red Jackson brand river runner, hopped into Allen’s truck and headed north toward Fishermen’s Bend on the Deerfield River.

For this beginner’s lesson, the trip featured class I and II rapids. Rapids are rated on a scale of difficulty and danger from I to VI. Class I and II rapids have few obstacles, small waves and are perfect for beginners. Class III is intermediate water, class IV, V and VI waters are for experts. A half-mile down from the Fife Brook Dam, we put in.

It was at that moment that my confidence ebbed and my nervousness grew.

My first lesson involved practicing a “wet exit” or flipping the kayak. It was the most important skill to learn in white-water kayaking and the one that got my nerves in a jitter.

I climbed into my kayak and sat down, my knees pressed against its sides and my spray skirt sealing the kayak’s cockpit.

I tried to keep my cool as I mentally went over what I’d been told in my head. There were five steps I would have to do to get myself out of the upcoming predicament: tuck, comb, grab loop, pull loop, push off.

Allen, who was standing in the water, pushed my kayak gently toward the running water. He warned me that he would flip my kayak over and I’d have to practice the wet exit until I was confident doing it.

In seconds, I felt the cold water hit my face and body as I rotated into the water upside down. Under water, I methodologically tucked my body toward the kayak. I “combed” along the lip of the hatch, searching for the spray skirt hook and, once I found it, quickly pulled, releasing the skirt from the kayak. Relieved, I pushed off and out of the kayak. My head bumped the bottom of the kayak, but the helmet made that harmless. As I came up out of the water, I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d done it. I survived.

My body was shivering from either the cold water or the nerves. I couldn’t tell. I promised myself I wouldn’t need to do a real wet exit today; there would be no unscheduled flipping for me, I vowed.

Allen flipped me over a couple more times. The key to a wet exit is getting comfortable with the maneuver, making it automatic.

“It’s important to build a strong foundation,” Allen said. “If you can get the basics and get them well, that’s advanced kayaking.”

It was at that moment that I realized my salt water ocean kayaking was a like a safe swim in a kiddie pool compared to what I had committed myself to on the Deerfield.

Back upright in the kayak, I learned how to “ferry across the current.” While crossing the current, the bottom of the boat is tilted toward it. And most importantly, as in any sport, when you want to cross the river, look where you want to go.

“You have to look downstream. Visualize where you’re going,” Allen said. “Keep your eye on the ball. When you focus your eyes on something, your body makes you want to go in that direction.”

One of the most basic skills I needed to learn was how to spin the kayak — something that took me a lot of practice. Spinning the kayak in place is the fastest way to turn a kayak around and the only way to do it in tight places.

Normally when paddling a kayak, one hand is higher than the other while making a stroke with the two-bladed paddle. The main trick to spinning a kayak is to keep both hands on the paddle low and almost level to the boat. I struggled with this. One of my hands was too high. I had to consciously remind myself to keep it low and gently glide the paddle through the water.

Next, we headed to a tamer section of the river called The Railroad.

As I carried my kayak on my shoulder over a mossy path cluttered by tree trunks, branches and rocks, I looked out toward the water. Across the way, a fishing boat floated peacefully in place, its fishing lines quietly waiting for a bite. Farther down, about a dozen experienced kayakers were playfully carving through the water.

Everywhere I looked, I saw tiny rocks jutting from the water and waves rushing this way and that.

I grew very quiet as I got more nervous — something Allen quickly noticed.

Allen expertly hopped into his kayak on land and slid down a small bump and into the water. Not feeling as daring, I timidly pushed my kayak to the edge of the water and climbed in.

This was it. I now had to learn how to maneuver through waves and dodge rocks.

As I headed toward the thrashing, tiny waves, I told myself to breathe steadily and keep calm. All I had to do was point straight at the waves and keep paddling. I could do this. It would be over quickly enough.

“Waves are good. You know it’s deeper and has laminar flow — all the water is going in one direction,” Allen said.

With a smile on my face, I realized I had dealt with the tumbling and twisting water. I actually could do this. My confidence began to build as I headed for my next white-water challenge.

Beside a small island, Allen and I bumped into the dozen kayakers I had spotted earlier. They were laughing and chatting, all members of the Amateur Mountain Club, whose ranks hail from Rhode Island, Connecticut and Boston.

They all began to offer advice to me on which club to join, from the Merrimack Valley AMC to the Connecticut chapter. The most important tip on how to keep paddling, they said, is to connect with other paddlers. Join a local club to go on trips and network to make it more fun and safe, I was told.

I braced myself for my next challenge as the AMC club began surfing waves.

Small swirling eddies dotted this section of the river, which was near the Bridge to Nowhere. An eddy can form on the side of a river or behind a boulder. The water in an eddy is flowing in the opposite direction from the rest of the river.

Eddy turns, called “peeling in and out,” are one of the most important kayaking skills to develop.

The secret to passing the unstable zones of eddies is to spend as little time in them as possible.

The goal is to break completely through the eddy line and to carve a smooth, arcing turn in which the kayak maintains its forward momentum.

“You can learn what’s happening under the river by looking at the water,” Allen said. “Once you get good at reading the river, you’ll know where you need to be.”

I looked back over my shoulder at the dark blue river disappearing into the lush green mountains behind me. In our kayaks, with only the river around us, I felt worlds away from my typical Greenfield life. It was strange to think that just 40 minutes away the Green River Festival was jamming, hot air balloons were soaring, and cars were traveling down Main Street.

As we crossed underneath the old steel Bridge to Nowhere, I saw a white van with the Zoar symbol on its back in the distance. I smiled excitedly. It was the end of the lesson. I hadn’t flipped over. Rather than a wave of cold river water, it was a wave of relief and accomplishment that washed over me.

I had certainly underestimated kayaking. It was technical and involved skill work and practice. But I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a summer morning in Franklin County than boating down the picturesque Deerfield River.

I paddled forward.

River Safety

There are several important safety tips anyone on the river should follow, whether you’re white-water kayaking, rafting or tubing.

First off, when you fall out, don’t stand up because your feet can become trapped between rocks. When foot entrapment occurs, the rushing water will push your body forward, making it harder to dislodge your foot and perhaps forcing you underwater. To avoid this, swim on your back looking downstream with your feet at the surface.

Secondly, stay away from strainers, which are things like trees with branches that water can get through but your body can’t.

Thirdly, be cognizant of river signals. A pat on the head asks the question “are you OK.” To signal “yes,” pat your head. To point which direction you’re headed, raise the paddle in that direction. To signal stop, raise the paddle above your head.

Always have a helmet, a personal flotation device and a buddy.

Lastly, know the river you are on and stay in areas that are within your abilities.

It should be noted that you need a moderate level of fitness to enjoy white-water kayaking. According to Zoar, you should be able to walk a few miles at a brisk pace, do five to 10 sit ups, lift 30 pounds or so and be active for six to eight hours at a time.

Paddling School

A kayak lesson at Zoar Outdoor, 7 Main St., Charlemont, runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and includes lunch alongside the river.

Zoar offers one-, two-, three- and five-day clinics, depending on how much and how fast you want to learn.

A one-day lesson costs $120 per person, while a five-day lesson package costs $600. Those costs include all the equipment, instruction with a maximum of four students to one instructor and transportation from the base and lunch.  

Zoar suggests at least a two-day lesson to get the basics of river kayaking. The first half day is spent on flatwater. The second day is when you learn river maneuvers like eddy turns, peel outs and ferries.

If you fall in love with the sport, you’ll need a boat, paddle, helmet, life jacket, sprayskirt and other gear. An initial setup usually runs around $1,000. This gear should last you at least five years under normal use, according to Zoar.

Zoar also offers guided trips on a variety of crafts, including rafts. Crab Apple White Water and Moxie Outdoor Adventures also offer guided trips.

For more information, visit www.zoaroutdoor.com

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

Staff photographer Micky Bedell started at The Recorder in 2014. She can be reached at mbedell@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 273.

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