First-timers brave chilly river waves

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— Paddling's new generation of "play boats" has transformed kayaking.

Skilled veterans are able to perform stunts such as aerial loops that were out of reach a few years ago.

Boats with sculpted bows and sterns that allow paddlers to dig into the current are fueling the trend.

Ingenious kayak design also is helping people just entering the sport.

"These new boats are very maneuverable, but they still have a lot of stability," Chad Bowdre said.

"They give these guys the ability to start to play and surf waves and holes. It's a great thing."

Bowdre is an instructor with Mountain Sports Kayak School. He had just come off the water at Charlie's Hole on the Yampa River with a group of novice paddlers, most of them in their teens.

Erica Emmons, 14, had just completed her sixth lesson and was pleased with her progress.

"I can surf waves pretty decently," she said with confidence. "I can squirt when I'm exiting an eddy."

Bowdre said a "squirt" -- when a kayaker plunges her stern into the water -- represents a pretty advanced series of moves for a novice paddler.

"It's a fun maneuver that allows you to get your boat vertical in the water," he said.

Pete Van de Carr of Backdoor Sports said versatility is one of the biggest advantages of the new boats. Paddlers can bolt various attachments onto their hulls -- fins and scoops -- to alter their boats to fit the kind of water they expect to encounter.

"These Pyranhas are the wildest," Van de Carr said, pointing to a stubby little kayak.

"They have snap-on fins and even skegs for ocean kayaking. The attachments improve the boat's directional stability."

The new play boats are short -- sometimes just 6 to 7 feet in length -- and chubby in the middle. Bowdre describes them as "bulbous" looking.

The volume that used to be contained in the ends of longer boats has been squeezed into the middle of the boat.

That allows them to pivot around their middle much like a mid-engine sports car.

The play boats also have a flat bottom, unlike the slalom boats that were more popular a decade ago. The boats are intentionally made to be slow for paddlers who want to enter a hole and perform stunts. But that's not so desirable for a paddler whose goal is to surf a wave.

"That's an inherent problem with these small boats," Van de Carr said.

"They're really slow. This boat has a patch of black plastic you can bolt onto the bottom. It increases the surface and makes if faster so you can catch a wave. To me, the ultimate is getting on a big surfing wave."

Van de Carr may be an old crest on a new wave -- the youth movement in kayaking seems intent on spinning and flipping in play holes.

John Oakland, 12, was one of the veterans in Bowdre's class this week. He's been kayaking for three years and was excited about the Wave Sport T4 Transformer he was paddling.

He pointed out that by unbolting the scoops on the bow and stern of his boat and exchanging them for scoops with a different design, he can convert the Transformer from a play boat to a boat that's ideal for fast-current creek boating.

The little kayak gives him the confidence he needs to play on the Yampa's white water.

"You do it long enough and you have a sense for it," Oakland said.

"You know where you want to surf and where it might not be a good idea."

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