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What makes a great paddler?

     Writing on a blog is strange business.  Am I dumb enough to believe everything I write is worth reading, or pompous enough to think I know more than other people? It's quite a conundrum. I just know that sometimes I tend to be  rather oblivious. After three years of kayaking I got done with a creek and was asked why I didn't use elbow pads. My reaction was "Elbow pads? That's a great idea!"  I had never noticed other people wearing them, and the idea made sense once it was mentioned (and I saw that everyone else had them). So this blog is for people like me, who don't always notice the obvious :)  On to what this post is really about.

   I believe there is something that separates a good paddler from a great paddler. Some of the skill sets are more obvious:

Boat Control: Exactly what it sounds like, the ability to control your kayak, from rolling to ferrying and boofing.

Reading Water: Knowing what the river is doing, reading water goes hand in hand with boat control. If you have the two mastered you'll be able to put your boat where you want it.

Evaluating Risk: This comes down to making good decisions like what river to run to which rapids to run. A coherent evaluation of personal abilities and how much risk is acceptable.

Mental Strength: The ability to deal with fear rationally and stay calm in tough situations. We all miss lines from time to time. A good paddler can adapt well to a missed line and recover from a swim and still paddle well the rest of the day. Another aspect of mental strength is the ability to make fast and efficient decisions.

Speed: Through experience great paddlers develop an ability to move quickly off the water. Fast hiking, portaging and scouting equate more time to deal with on the water problems.

Physical Strength: To complete most runs you don't really need to be in tip top shape, but once something goes wrong, you need to be able to perform well physically.

Prepared: A great paddler minimizes risk by using proper equipment like a drysuit, first aid kit, pin kit & breakdown paddle when applicable. On top of the gear is the ability to use it; swiftwater rescue training and cpr/first aid at a minimum.

   With the above skill set one can be a world class paddler, but just because one can paddle the hardest whitewater doesn't mean they are a great paddler. To me a great paddler has the following, rarely talked about asset:

Understanding and influencing the group dynamic: A great paddler will be comfortable enough on the river to set aside personal agenda and adjust their choices to suit the groups needs. With one group it could mean acting as the probe and helping the team go fast. Sometimes it requires running a larger drop to inspire the crew. On the other end of the spectrum, it might mean slowing down the pace because a group member feeling challenged or even overwhelmed by the run, and taking the time to give good beta and scout even if they don't personally need or want to. A great kayaker is always in tune to the group dynamic and reacts appropriately,  doing whats best for both the safety and enjoyment of the team members.

   We put a lot of work into getting on the river. It's easy for us to be self focused, but I believe that a great paddler knows when it's time to go big and when to put other's needs before their own.