Tips From a Whitewater Kayaker: Success On and Off the River

First off, let me say that these tips will not be coming from me! (This will probably make you more inclined to read on.) I am a novice, nervous whitewater kayaker at best – Clay Lucas on the other hand.. his name might as well be synonymous with whitewater extraordinaire.

Clay sending Celestial Falls, Oregon. Photo by the wonderful Tommy Penick!

Before moving to Hawaii, a large part of my life revolved around rivers. In fact, I owe a lot to whitewater. It provided me with my first remote seasonal job, which led me to my best friend and boyfriend, Clay. A couple of years later, whitewater took Clay and me across the country to the Pacific Northwest; providing a wonderful adventure and the opportunity to grow and explore. Whitewater has introduced me to life long friends spanning from the east coast to the west coast (insert everyone here), to South America (mwah, Abby!), to England (hello, Rossy!), and beyond. Eventually, it was our connections through whitewater that landed us here in beautiful Hawaii.

Clay, me, and Ross. Stoked for an overnight trip on the White Salmon!

Clay, despite channeling his focus towards surfing in recent years, is a phenomenal whitewater kayaker. You’ll never hear it from him though, so I’ll proudly say it. His role as a lead whitewater kayak instructor at Wet Planet Whitewater allowed him to transform people who had never been on a river before into kayakers. New to kayaking myself, I loved the opportunity to get on the river with my boyfriend and professional kayak instructor for a 1 on 1 lesson. (The boyfriend/girlfriend teacher/student dynamic can be an interesting one – sometimes involving high levels of stress, angry words, and occasional tears – a story in itself. More on that to come!)  laughcry

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, The Outliers, 10,000 hours of deliberate  practice are needed to become world class in a field. Clay has spent these hours on the rivers of Ecuador, Chile, Uganda, North Carolina, Canada, Washington, and beyond. That whitewater also encompasses travel and introduces you to wonderful people along the way only adds to the adventure.

Whitewater takes you places. Havasu Creek, Grand Canyon. Photo by Dave Fusilli.

While many of our friends and acquaintances perform at this level of kayaking, there are many of us that will not. Novice or expert, river veteran or contemplating whitewater kayaking for your first time, these tips will help you to succeed both on and off the river. In fact, the river is a wonderful synonym for life. These tips apply to all of us  – on the river, perhaps in a sport of your own, and in everyday life.


Look where you want to go.

That big rock looks scary. Or in life, the chance of failure in your job, relationship, test, or performance. Instead of staring at the source of your intimidation, look beyond the rock where water flows free. Focusing on the outcome you want – physically looking or even psychologically looking – there’s a much better chance you’ll end up there.

Make a decision.

When paddling with people better than me (which lucky for me is always), multiple friends in addition to Clay encouraged me to quickly make a decision. There’s an obstacle in the river – do you go right or left? It doesn’t have to be the right decision, but failing to make one or wavering upon your choice will leave you tangled up on the river or in life.

The Narrows, White Salmon River, Washington

Lean into the obstacles.

These obstacles can be rocks, logs, layoffs, or breakups. When on the river, although anti-intuitive, you want to lean in to them. Because when you don’t, the river’s current will grab your kayak by the edge, flip you, and shake you around a little bit. Just like in life, the obstacles and challenges that we face have the ability to make us stronger. So lean in, embrace the punches, and come out upright – on top.

Punchbowl Falls, Eagle Creek, Oregon


If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. If you are at the point that you are about to take action, the first paddle stroke down a new river, the first step in a new relationship, or the first plans in a big move, don’t waiver. You’ve gotten yourself this far because of your abilities, your heart, and your mind. So do the dang thang.

That little speck on the 80ft waterfall is a human. Clay Lucas, to be exact.

Waterfalls – chase them.

Most all of us know the song “Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls”, but in reality, I strongly dislike this song. Because to me, waterfalls are beautiful – plain and simple. More often than not they represent adventure and rawness. And if you are Clay Lucas, any of our friends, or another being that is Class V certified, waterfalls are both a dream and a challenge – an avenue of which you can paddle your kayak off the lip into freefall.

My free fall off of Hooker Falls, NC was short-lived. But exhilarating!



3 thoughts on “Tips From a Whitewater Kayaker: Success On and Off the River

  1. I’ve always thought white water kayaking was really scary but lately I really want to try it. I have no idea how to meet people though, I live in Southern California so I don’t think there is white water kayaking anywhere near me.


    1. You should absolutely try it! Luckily, there is everything from Class I to class V. You should look into meet ups or maybe a local paddling group. I know the American River is a famous one in CA with different sections offering different levels. Otherwise, a paddling trip is a great way to combine learning a new sport with travel! If you’re interested in that, I would highly recommend a whitewater trip to the Columbia River Gorge!!

      Liked by 1 person

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