A cheechako's guide to getting wet

Posted: Friday, May 03, 2002

Jim Bennett helps Scott Leader complete an Eskimo roll during a two-day kayaking class at the Skyview High School pool Wednesday.

Panic. This could very well be a natural reaction to being upside-down under water with your legs constrained inside of a fiberglass case. Or maybe I was just overreacting a bit.

Fortunately, this was not some scene I was trying to recreate from the spy movie du jour. I was learning to do an "Eskimo" roll in a white-water kayak in Skyview High School's swimming pool, as part of a kayaking class I was taking from the Soldotna Community Schools.

Dare I say, this was a turning point in the class. I had taken several years of canoeing lessons before as a kid in summer camp, so I was relatively well-versed in the basics of water crafts and safety. And the first evening of the two-night, two-hour class seemed to go off without a hitch.

Entering the kayaks from the "dock." Not a problem. Maneuvering the small, jumpy river kayak and the longer, more stable sea kayaks. It took a bit of work, but it wasn't difficult. The wet exit, rolling over into the water to remove the skin that keeps the water out of the boat and eject yourself from your seat. Child's play. Reentry into a sea kayak using your paddle and an inflated paddle float as an aid. Easy.

But as I sat in the river kayak, completely inverted, moving my hips and thrashing the paddle around in a helicopter-like motion to right myself, it was difficult for my body -- wanting to breath again -- to accept instructor Jim Bennett's directions that "your head should should be the last part of your body to leave the water."

This sort of thinking -- my panic -- is what the class was designed to teach people wanting to kayak to avoid.

"When you're turned over in rapids, and there are bubbles and currents rushing all around you, it's a completely different thing," said Gail Moore, a Quest instructor with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, and one of the instructors. "You can't panic."

But keeping a cool head wasn't the only lesson the class was aimed at. For $20 each, close to 30 people were taught beginning kayaking principles; from what to wear to how to choose tide-safe beach campsite to the all-important safety tips.

In its third year, Soldotna Community Schools Director Rosie Reader said the the class originated when Bennett offered similar lessons to kids in a summer program.

"All of the parents said, 'Why don't you do it for us?'" Reader said. "He does it totally free of charge to us."

Bennett said he has been kayaking for eight years. A Quest teacher at Skyview, he said his desire to learn to kayak some 20 years ago spawned his urge to teach it to others.

"It's the teacher-to-pupil thing," he said. "When I started to learn, it didn't seem to be anybody who would show a novice just a few little things. Since I've learned, I know other people want to learn."

And many of the students were interested in being able to get out into the water to tool around. Melissa Murdock, visiting from Salt Lake City, said she wanted to be able to be involved in something her husband, Jason, had such a passion for and had been doing for almost 11 years.

"He's always excited about getting on the water," she said. "And he wants to move up here so he can do more of that."

Boyuk Datomain, of Soldotna, has Yupik and Inupiat heritage, and he said learning to sea kayak was a way of connecting with his past.

The only one of the 30 pupils to master the Eskimo roll, he said he'd never tried kayaking before, but thought it offered a great opportunity to spend time outdoors.

"I figured I should learn," he said. "I'm thinking it's a really cool way to see wildlife."

Bennett said he recognized the demand for more than just one class a year, however.

"I see a need to do this on the Peninsula," he said. "The classes are certainly popular. If someone is looking to do this as business, there is certainly an opportunity."

Bennett said people were asking for more time to spend in the pool, after classes were done. He and Moore admonished the pupils in the class that the two nights they spent in the pool were only the beginning and suggested places where people could continue to educate themselves.

"The main thing to remember," Moore said, "is this is just the beginning."

Bennett followed her warning.

"Hopefully, they don't jump into traveling out to the Aleutians on the first trip," he said. "You should find or go out with people who have a little bit of experience."

Bennett listed the Kenai Peninsula Outdoor Club, on the Web at www.communities.msn.com/KenaiPeninsulaOutdoorClub, and Knik Canoers and Kayakers in Anchorage, on the Web at www.kck.org, as organizers of trips for kayakers of differing skill levels. He also suggested two other key sources of information on kayaking.

"The 'Sea Kayaking Bible' is the most complete book," Bennett said. "And the British Canoe Union covers kayaking (at www.bcu.org.uk). Their page has spelled-out rules and instructions to follow."

He also mentioned one peninsula businessperson who could offer aid to those wanting to begin or continue learning kayaking.

"Tom Pogsdon, out of Homer, gives lessons," Bennett said. "He follows the British Canoe Union (instructions)."

Closer to home, he said many of the instructors from the class, including himself, Moore, and borough assembly member Pete Sprague of Soldotna often convene to play around on the Kenai River.

"We're down at Swiftwater Park a lot," he said. "It's a small community, so it's easy to know people who are kayaking. I know throughout the summer, I taught half a dozen people how to roll a kayak."

I know I'll be there looking for him.

Because although those four hours didn't make me much more than the guy with an adventuring spirit I already was, it helped me gain something much more important, as I tempered my brash overconfidence and focused on improving technique.

"I think what we've done is let them know that there's a lot more to know," he said. "The more you know, the better off you are."

I still have to learn to complete that Eskimo roll without help. Then I'll have to learn to do it without a paddle. Then, in a river. In short, I've got plenty more to learn. But I know enough to keep me coming back for more.

And I hear knowledge is power.

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Comments can be sent to clarion@alaska.net.

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