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Whitewater canoeing a challenging pastime

Sport adds excitement of whitewater river rafting to flatwater paddling

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004

CONFLUENCE, Pa. Canoeing becomes an exhilarating challenge when nature combines swift-moving water with oversized rock gardens. Roiling waves and canoe-trapping rapids are either natural playgrounds or disasters-in-waiting.

Americans love rafting in raging whitewater. They also love canoeing, mostly in flat water. Combine the two and you get whitewater canoeing, a relatively uncommon sport that, depending on how you read the currents, is either dying out or rebounding.

On a recent sunny day, R.K. Illango, a 58-year-old doctor from Columbus, Ohio, traveled to southwestern Pennsylvania one of the East's great whitewater areas to learn some canoeing basics. His instructor was Bob Ruppel, owner of Riversport School of Paddling.

''How much patience do you have?'' Illango asks.

''Oh, I'm very patient,'' Ruppel responds.

And that was a good thing.

Unlike flat-water paddling, whitewater boating requires a fast reading of nature's forces. A swift river is spiced with frothy waves, downed trees and dangerous drop-offs. Behind large rocks, the river actually flows upstream.

Deciding where to stick your paddle, which stroke to make and which way to lean become crucial. The price for miscalculation: an adrenaline-producing swim in churning (and often cold) water that precipitates a mad scramble to find your paddle, your boat and safety.

Out on a nearby practice lake, Ruppel starts with the basics. Forward and backward strokes are commands many recreational canoeists have mastered. But they soon get complicated: crossbow draw, reverse sweep, offside powerstroke.

Kneeling in his red solo canoe, Illango runs into trouble. He gets crossed up, leans the wrong way and flips. Back on land, he's damp but in good spirits.

''I'm learning what I came here to learn,'' he says.

After a quick lunch, Ruppel takes Illango to the Castleman, a swift-moving river swollen by recent rains. Water dances and sprays above midstream rocks. Illango's eyes widen and he admits: ''I'm a little nervous.''

''Oh yeah, everyone who hasn't been in rapids like these is nervous the first time,'' Ruppel says.

Ruppel hopes to practice eddy turns (maneuvers into the backward flowing water) and cross-stream ferries. But the water overpowers Illango and forces him downstream.

A bit later he gets turned sideways in a choppy section and flips. Ruppel quickly corrals Illango and his gear. The rookie student clings to the side of his boat, breathless.

''I think I'll just stay with the boat for a while,'' he says. But the water starts churning as more rapids approach.

''I think you better try to get back in,'' Ruppel responds, and with a second effort Illango climbs aboard.

The lesson is a rare one for Ruppel. Reflecting a nationwide trend, he's seen fewer canoe students in recent years. Most of his customers are kayakers.

The proliferation of inexpensive kayaks has contributed to that decline the last 15 years, said Gordon Black, director of safety education and instruction for the American Canoe Association.

''Canoeing is a very challenging sport, and nothing is more challenging in canoeing than whitewater,'' Black said. ''It takes skill, it takes knowledge, it takes a fair degree of athleticism, and it's wonderful for all those reasons. I love it. But it's hard.''

Still, Americans are very familiar with the canoe. An ACA study found that 21 million people canoed in 2002, while only 7 million people had been in a kayak, Black said. But kayaking's growth rate far outpaces canoeing's.

At one of the nation's largest paddling schools, the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C., instructor Wayne Dickert said he thinks whitewater canoeing is coming back.

''Our canoeing numbers are up about 25 percent this year,'' said Dickert, a former Olympic canoeist. ''Over the last decade they dropped significantly ... now they seem to be going up.''

Reasons for the uptick: As boaters age, cramped kayaks become less appealing; kayaking, with its waterfall-running young-gunners, can appear to be a kids-only sport; and canoes more easily allow for distance and family travel.

Dickert sums up his love of whitewater canoeing:

''It is a dance, when you really learn to use the river,'' he said. ''The things that you can do in a boat are so thrilling and so exciting, and being able to work in concert with the water is a thrilling experience.''

Back at Riversport, Illango is again on dry land.

''Well, it was a good day. I faced my demons by flipping into the water,'' he says. And he now knows tipping is a part of paddling.

''Just learn to get back in the boat.''

On the Web:

American Canoe Association: http://www.acanet.org

Riversport School of Paddling: http://www.shol.com/ kayak

Nantahala Outdoor Center: http://www.noc.com



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