Italian National C-2 team racing in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. One of the least well-known sports, whitewater slalom racing has been part of the Olympics since 1936. Photo by David Ian Roberts.

MOST PEOPLE WHO don’t paddle associate kayaking with adrenaline sports.

And while there is undoubtedly that thrill-seeking element, once you really get into paddling, you’ll find that it’s more about gaining access to places you couldn’t get to otherwise.

This might be an isolated gorge like, a campsite on the bend of a high-desert river 50 miles from any trail, or even on the green face of a wave pumping right through the middle of your town.

And you’ll also learn how friendships and communities are built up around certain rivers and whitewater centers, and that extended families have created entire lifestyles around time spent on the water.

Beyond the quick rush of running a drop, paddling is something that unfolds over a lifetime.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Find a local paddling club.

Start local. The Internet works for initial inquires, but nothing is better than talking to folks close to home to get an idea of what the local runs are, who is paddling them, and what’s required to be safe and happy in the water.

It can be intimidating coming up to a new group as a total novice, but remember that paddling clubs often tend to focus on bringing beginners “up through the ranks.” It’s one of the main reasons why they exist, and often you’ll find a few core members of each group who love nothing more than taking first-timers down the river.

Paddle clubs can be found in most cities throughout the US and Canada. Most universities have paddle clubs. Your local paddle shop may also be able to steer you towards a club.

Slalom Racing

In addition to straight-up whitewater clubs, there are also whitewater racing clubs nationwide. These clubs focus on coaching slalom racing technique, using race-courses built (usually) on very mild whitewater or even flatwater, up through courses on powerful whitewater.

Because of their dedication to technique and training, slalom racers (and coaches) are usually among the best paddlers in the country, and great resources for learning how to paddle.

Getting started with a race-club may or may not require an investment in special equipment (a race boat), in addition to any club dues, but either way, getting coached on proper paddling technique will jumpstart your skills on the river.

2. Take lessons with an American Canoeing Association (ACA) or other qualified instructor.

Many people have their first paddling experience sitting in the kayak of a friend in a lake or pool. This can work fine in many cases, however, a certified ACA instructor may be a better option, especially if you’re uncomfortable in the water.

Photo by Oso.

Look for group lessons that have a student to teacher ratio of 5 to 1 or less, or take a private lesson for your first time.

Typical first lessons include learning to wet-exit, learning to roll, and basically just getting comfortable in a craft that may seem, at first, too tight and confining (to properly fit in a boat it should feel like you’re “wearing” it).

3. Don’t buy gear, rent from local paddleshop or borrow from a club.

One of the most common mistakes people make (and one of the reasons for the great number of cheap “kayak packages” on craigslist) is going out and buying all new gear before they’ve really gotten hooked on paddling.

Then after initial setbacks or frustrations–with the roll, or perhaps an early scare on the river–they have second thoughts about paddling.

These doubts and negative feelings may be compounded if they’ve just dropped $1,000 on all new gear and now feel as they must prove they can paddle.

When you get in with a local crew or club you’ll find that most people have spare boats and gear that they’re happy to lend you. Playboater having fun in the foam pile. Photo by Wausaublog.

Through a combination of renting and borrowing gear (most paddlers are famous for having extra gear, holding onto old boats and sprayskirts for decades) you can eliminate that extra pressure of feeling like you have something to prove.

In addition, it also gives you a chance to try out lots of different types of gear and see what works for you.

Once you get truly hooked, and know exactly the boat/ gear you want, that’s the time to go and get your own.

4. Find your “training ground.” Pt. 1. Flatwater

Once you’ve had a few lessons, and are comfortable entering and exiting a boat, team up with a friend and take your borrowed / rented kayak or canoe to a lake or the flatwater section of a river, and just work on what your instructors have taught you.

A heavenly training ground. Photo: Chris Hemmerly.

It may take several hours just to make the boat go in a straight line, but simply being out there, soaking up the view and the feel of being on the water–this is what paddling is all about.

5. Learn to Roll.

For all paddlers, learning to roll is the first big challenge.

Clubs throughout the country typically run “pool-practice,” especially in the winter time, to concentrate on just this.

Each person learns it in his or her own time: it can take minutes or days or even weeks to hit your first roll, depending on your athletic ability and flexibility and comfort level being upside down in the water.

The main thing is not to let your immediate success or failure with the roll determine whether or not you’ll continue learning how to paddle. Even if you don’t have a roll yet, you can still enjoy your “training ground” (flatwater or easy class I and II rivers) with experienced paddlers.

Once you get the roll however, (and later, your “combat roll” or roll in the whitewater) you’ll open up a new level of confidence and ability to paddle more dynamic water.

One tip for pool classes: bring a pair of swim goggles. Eventually you’ll be able to roll by feel, but in the beginning, it helps to be able to see your hands, the paddle, the boat, and the top of the water, while upside down.

6. Training ground Pt. 2: A pair of eddies

Once you can paddle in a straight line on flatwater and are feeling confident and totally comfortable in your boat, the key now is to find another training ground. Growing up, I was lucky. I had the Chattahoochee River right by my house with miles of water perfect for this.

You don’t need to run a river to find this. All you need is a single set of shoals or chutes with a channel of current and an eddy, or ideally, a pair of eddies, one on either side of the flow.

Great Falls of the Potomac, a classic class V-VI mega-drop. Whether you’re running stuff like this or taking your first paddle strokes in a class II riffle, it’s all about respect. Photo by Guy Incognito.

You’ll probably learn about these spots from others in your paddle clubs, or from being taken there on lessons from an instructor. You can also learn where these spots are by studying the American Whitewater Association database .

Whether you paddle here with instructors, friends, or you’ll find that the real teacher is the river itself–the dynamics of the flow and how you can work with it or get worked by it. As you practice over and over—eddying out, ferrying, catching eddies, surfing–you’ll build the foundation of running whitewater on any scale.

The more time you spend learning here and the more confident you become–(Got your roll in the pool? Ok, try it there in the moving water, or in the eddy-line)–the more fun you’ll have when you take your first true river trip.

7. Your first River Trip

Once you’re comfortable at your training ground and at the pool, you’re ready for your first paddle trip. An ideal first trip should be with a group of paddlers with whom you feel comfortable and safe, with plenty of extra gear and warm clothes kept in drybags for inevitable swims.

Don’t forget to check out the beauty around you. The perspective from the water changes everything, including your sense of time. When you finally get to the takeout you’ll see the world differently.

The definition of a river trip: Wondering what’s around the bend. Floodstage on the Crystal River, Colorado. It took two days of driving, a night of camping, a two-mile hike, and a bottle of Jaegermeister (the night before) to get us to this sublime 15 minute stretch of whitewater. Photo by Alex Harvey.

8. Gear up.

Once you’re fully hooked, one of the most exciting moments is looking for and buying your first boat and paddle, plus other gear: PFD (Personal Floatation Device), helmet, spray skirt, dry-top or paddle jacket, booties / water shoes, and a dry bag.

A great place to find everything cheap is to look for used gear on Craigslist , and also the gear swap pages on Boater Talk, as well as used gear closeouts at your local whitewater shop.

Final thoughts

Above all, remember that paddling is a lifelong progression. The river teaches you lessons that are hard to learn anywhere else.

One of them: 90% of your success in running a rapid is determined in the approach, the set-up, which, translated here, means: if you’re just getting into whitewater paddling and want to keep at it for decades, start slow, enjoy the learning curve, keep it safe, and always stay in the flow.

Community Connection

Your number one resource in the US is the American Whitewater Association, which not only has a comprehensive list of most major whitewater runs nationwide, but also fights for river conservation, access issues, promotes safe paddling practices, and produces a top-quality monthly magazine.

Stay tuned for an upcoming companion article at MatadorTrips.com on the top 20 whitewater trips for beginning paddlers across N. America.