Schooled On Whitewater
Photos and Story by Gordon Kumpuris
For 31 years now, paddlers have gathered on the mighty Mulberry River for the Arkansas Canoe Club’s annual School of Whitewater paddling. Back in the mid-1970s, it was almost strictly a tandem canoe event, but as interest in kayaking exploded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, kayak classes started to exceed canoe classes. Today kayaks far exceed canoes. And although the name of the school reflects that change, many still refer to this event by its original name: Canoe School, where hundreds gather from Friday to Sunday for three days of paddling instruction, music, food and world-class camaraderie.
The first order of business Friday night is for students to meet their instructors. A typical class is six to eight students, one lead instructor, an assistant and often another safety boater. Friday nights are pretty low key. Instructors confirm logistics, make sure everyone is present, and has the proper gear needed for the weekend.
Saturday morning, by contrast, is organized chaos! Dozens of classes gather at nearly the same time, and it always seems that each class departs for the river simultaneously. Instructors, like mother hens, scurry about to make sure each student is properly equipped.
Once at the river, the first order of business is the basics: group dynamics, river safety, river signals and terminology. Then it’s time to get wet! Paddlers nervously enter boats and push off. For kayakers, wet exits are often the most dreaded drill—and they come right at the beginning. One by one kayakers tuck, pull spray skirt grab loops and practice exiting the boat. This necessary exercise cools the paddlers in a hurry but also seems to instill a bit of confidence.
Instructors teach students about proper posture, how to “wear” a boat, how to plant the paddle, how to go straight and how to turn intentionally. The first big revelations often come when paddling strokes are broken down. Forward, reverse, turning and bracing strokes are demonstrated and practiced. Stroke practice and flat-water drills take up much of the morning.
After practicing in flat water, it’s time to venture into the first of many small Class II rapids. The transition to moving water amps up students’ nerves, but they are now armed with enough new skills to transition to moving water with a degree of grace. Before long, students are nervously gliding back and forth through the current to and from eddies on each side of the river. Small waves are surfed and grins are plentiful. Even the occasional capsize is really no big deal. Around 4 p.m., the classes wearily paddle to the takeout and class is over for day one.
Evening activities are both formal and fun, including the annual ACC General Meeting followed by a fish fry and the almost ceremonial burning of the “blow log.” A blow log is a large hollow log placed upright on top of a large fire. As it burns, fire shoots up and out the opening at the top. While not an official school-sanctioned activity, flammables such as leftover fish fry grease have been known to find their way into the log, creating what amounts to an Arkansas surface-to-air missile.
Sunday mornings start with pancakes and hot coffee courtesy of the River Valley Chapter of the ACC. Sunday classes are spent refining and building on the skills and drills learned the previous day. By the end of the day, students are eager to seek out new streams and runs where they practice their newfound skills to end the class.
As new paddlers head home on the winding Pig Trail, (state Highway 23) more than a few have shared that they lean into the turns driving as if they are still doing paddling drills they worked on all weekend.
For more information on both the ACC Schools of Whitewater Paddling and the ACC School of River Paddling go to the club website, arkansascanoeclub.com.