Whitewater Kayaking: A noob’s perspective, five rivers in


It’s been about a year since Bulti and Willis first invited me up to the Barrington to go kayaking. I had a heap of fun and was sold on the idea pretty quickly. I’ve now done six trips on five different river sections, and recently finally learned to roll – so I figure it’s time for a recap, as I begin to transition from a liability to an asset on the river.

The Barrington River

Kayaking on the Barrington River

Discounting the paddling I did at year 5 camp on Narrabeen Lakes back in primary school (I’m pretty sure we didn’t have skirts), the first kayaking trip I did was from Bindera to Rocky Crossing on the Barrington. I rented a Bliss-Stick from Barrington Outdoors for the occasion. It was great, like spending the day swooping down nature’s own waterslides. Although I did flip over stupidly trying to hold onto an overhanging tree, I didn’t flip in any of the rapids, and was quite proud and felt I had this kayaking thing all sewn up, after running the Screaming Jaws Of Death and The Steps at a lowish water level.

I had a different experience 10 months later when we returned to the Steps for an afternoon after heavy rain, when the river was significantly higher. It was also my first time in a playboat (a Dagger Outlaw) . I went over the first Step, got sucked backwards into a hole, capsized, and swam and stumbled down the rest, before emerging sopping and with sore feet onto the cobbled beach. I didn’t try to run it again. It turns out higher water and a smaller, less stable boat make quite a difference in the difficulty.

The Murrumbidgee River

Kayaking the Murrumbidgee

Not the famous Red Rocks grade 5 section, but a tame and mostly grade 1 section between Kambah Pool and the Cotter Dam. I was stoked to go kayaking again; so stoked that I got really impatient waiting for the shuttle and took off down the river without a PFD. D’oh.

Besides that, this trip is memorable for the frustratingly low water level and the nudist colony we passed shortly after the put-in. There was one bony grade 3-ish section that felt more like juddering down a flight of steps. I was paddling one of the club’s old Dancers.

The Kangaroo River

Kayaking off a waterfall on the Kangaroo

After wailing at all the rain for ruining the canyoning season and a much-anticipated Newnes trip, Bulti slapped some sense into me, I exclaimed “Oh yeah, kayaking!” and immediately the world was full of possibilities. We loaded up the new club creekboats (which were still kind of shiny at this point) and headed down to Kangaroo Valley where the river had peaked at something like eight metres. Back down at one, we ran this very cool grade 3 section through what felt like a rainforest. I stomped every rapid and my greatest mistake was that I forgot to brown claw. Oh, and my boof attempt over the little waterfall in the photo didn’t go too well. The water level just wasn’t quite right for this fall, or the alternate line down a vicious rapid on river right.

Creeking Near Sydney

Creeking in a national park near Sydney during flooding rains

With the rain continuing in the Sydney basin, we went exploring close to home to find what is normally a set of pretty trickling cascades for seniors on their afternoon walks was brown, flooded and raging, producing a huge slide followed by a small wave. Bulti ran it twice, with the level visibly dropping while we were scouting and portaging. As the wave dropped to a small hole, I realised this thing might not run again for years and launched into the unknown, emerging at the bottom victorious before ferrying across to the take-out. I’d come really in a support role and hadn’t seriously expected to paddle (I was wearing a cotton tshirt) but was really glad I did.

The Nepean River

Turning into a grade 3 rapid on the Nepean

We’d meant to run this the day after the Kangaroo trip, but the level was too high…a week later it was still high, but looking acheivable. Willis now has a confirmed nemesis in the Nepean: already having lost a boat bung and having to hike out on the first rapid on his last attempt, this time he broke a paddle blade on the same rapid, barely 100m downstream from the put-in! He glumly slogged back to the car with his boat to spend the day reading a Kindle, again.

Despite a few tiring portages, I was doing well and really enjoying the bigger water, pushier rapids and longer wave trains, as well as the lack of scraping. Unfortunately, about two-thirds of the way down the river, Bulti cut in front of me seeking GoPro Glory. I capsized, swam, and smashed my thumb and scraped my foot, ripping a hole in my bootie. I was a bit more subdued after that.

It’s extremely frustrating when a little moment like that leads to so much carnage and slows you down so much, as you thrash through the trees down the river bank after the boat and spend ages bailing it. I resolved not to paddle another river until I could roll, so I made sure the guys left a boat, skirt and paddle at my parent’s place. The very next day I rewatched Bulti’s recommended instructional video closely, and spent about an hour and a half in the pool flailing with the paddle, until I managed to sweep roll a playboat. I then managed to roll a couple of larger boats at the club pool session the day after that.

Conclusion

Kayaking really ticks all the right boxes as just an awesome thing to do. Scenery and location, like climbing or canyoning. A focus on minimising effort by harnessing of natural energy and correct positioning like surfing. Speed, and long  downhill runs with plenty of variety, like skiing. Lack of contrived, installed infrastructure like sport climbing or ski resorts. There’s a variety of sub-branches like playboating, flatwater or overnight trips you can switch between if you get bored.

What is also really great is that you get repeatability. One of the most frustrating aspects of surfing is that you never get to surf the same wave twice. It’s very difficult to learn or refine when the medium you’re working in is constantly changing. If you miss the wave of the day then poof, it’s gone forever. At the other extreme you have skateboarding or bouldering, where you repeat the same moves tens of times in a meditation-like persuit of perfection and transcendental difficulty. Kayaking seems a happy medium between these two extremes; while trips to the same river section at different levels or weather conditions will obviously be very different experiences, you can run individual rapids or falls as many times as you’re willing to portage back upstream. And playboating is the logical extension of this.

And honestly, it’s easy! Compared to learning to ski or surf, I felt inspired rather than demoralised as a beginner. The whole kayak-skirt-paddle setup is so practical and mature, if you keep your weight centred and head level, and the nose pointed in the direction of flow, you can stomp grade 2 or even 3 on your first day. Perhaps a bit like climbing in that the experience of progression is the same at every level?

But on the other side, it’s also surprisingly dangerous and brutal sport, with a high degree of consequence in some places. In surfing, a break over shallow reef or rock is firmly in ‘advanced’ territory, and in kayaking you’re put in that situation from the start – situations like pinning or hold-downs in holes, which are whispered tales of nightmare fuel in surfing experienced only at the most powerful reef breaks, seem to be common consequences in kayaking. At least once you get into higher flows. There’s also no respite like you get between sets in surfing: the flow won’t eventually stop if you get pinned. There’s no lull in the river current. The swim I took on the Nepean was easily the match of my worst surfing wipeout, where I got slammed and pinned onto the reef at Aussie Pipeline. In the surf if you come off on a wave you usually get caught in a rolling or bouncing motion, although you can get dragged over and onto shallow rocks if you get caught in the wrong spot. In kayaking, getting inexorably dragged over and onto shallow rocks is the default.

But yeah – a beautiful sport. A truly under-the-radar one as well, like bodyboarding. I’m drawn to sports where you can have the venue to yourself a lot of the time. A trip to the Nymboida this Easter is capturing my imagination a lot more than a trip to Mt Arapiles.

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