Someone who caught the sport of kayaking for the first time during the Summer Olympics might have had a few thoughts. Namely: "Holy shit, how are they doing that?" And, "How are they paddling that fast?"
If you decide to pick up the sport, you probably won't make it to Tokyo in 2020, but Elizabeth Gardner says you will overcome some of your fears: "When you go to a river and you look at a raft and think, 'Wow, that is a chaotic piece of whitewater, how am I going to get down there, that looks scary.' And then you get through it, and you look upstream. And you think, 'Wow. I really did that.'"
Gardner, a meteorologist at WRAL who grew up in Raleigh and lived in some great outdoors states like Colorado and Washington before coming home eighteen years ago, is the president of the Falls Whitewater Park Committee, a nonprofit that is trying to get the city of Raleigh to invest in a whitewater park that would be available for fishing, tubing, and—yes—kayaking. (The city released a study in March 2011 on the viability of a park—it would cost $2.8 million—and is now working on an environmental assessment with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)
Gardner says she became interested in kayaking after whitewater rafting—a common story. "You see people who think rafting looks really fun," she says, "and they go on a commercial trip, and then they see people who kayak."
The difference between the two is in the details. Whitewater rafting, Gardner says, is "fairly expensive" and more of a "special occasion kind of thing," where a guide tells you and a group of several people what to do. It's also only naturally accessible near mountains—Gardner says some of the best rivers for doing that in North Carolina are the French Broad, the Nolichucky, and the Nantahala, all in western North Carolina. (There's also rafting at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, but that's a man-made park.)
Kayaking, on the other hand, is a one- or two-person job that is more accessible to people who don't live near Appalachia. "The Hall River over around Pittsboro is a great place," Gardner says. "The Eno River, the Little River, and the Flat River [near Person County] are rain-dependent, but we're lucky. We have some kayaking here."
So, how do you kayak?
First, Gardner says, you need to learn from some experienced kayakers, and there's a group in Raleigh that does just that: the Carolina Kayak Club. "They provide instruction several times a year," she says. "They have group trips every weekend for beginner, intermediate, and advanced kayakers."
Then you need some equipment, most of it obvious: a boat, a paddle, and a helmet. Kayaks can run from under $100 (for inflatable models) to well over $1,000 for more high-end models. Similarly, paddles can range from around $30–50 to $400–500, and helmets can cost as little as $30 or $40 or as much as $200 or $300.
With equipment in hand, you're ready for class. But what should you expect when you actually get out on the water?
"You get in the water and you paddle the boat downstream," Gardner says, "but there are obstacles—rocks, trees that have fallen in the river. If you're a beginner and get in a river that has a pretty big whitewater, you're going to fall out. One of the things you learn is how to do a roll, so you can roll your kayak and keep on going. Learning how to kayak is learning how to manage the features in the water without flipping."
But, while you should expect to fall out in the beginning, Gardner says there's nothing like the feeling of adventuring on a kayak. And once you've got the basics down, you'll get to conquer those fears.
"It's a great confidence booster," Gardner says. "It makes you feel good."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Keep Paddling"