Barry Smith leads a class of beginner kayakers down the Yampa River on Friday. The Mountain Sports Kayak School offers three- and four-day classes for rookies.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

Barry Smith leads a class of beginner kayakers down the Yampa River on Friday. The Mountain Sports Kayak School offers three- and four-day classes for rookies.

Kayaking classes in Steamboat help beginners get in the water

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— Don’t muscle it; keep your head high and your paddle low.

Barry Smith disseminated a wealth of kayaking tips last week as he lead a group of first-timers into the cold waters of a slow-moving Steamboat Springs creek, but those were the ones that stuck with me most because those were the ones that were supposed to keep me from tipping over.

And I didn’t want to tip over.

“That doesn’t happen very often on the first day,” he said, trying to reassure a class of nervous rookies.

The day seemed to be the exception. Two of my classmates took unexpected dips into Walton Creek, though I remained dry.

“By the time you’re done with this class, you’ll have the skills,” Smith said about the beginner-kayaking course available at his Mountain Sports Kayak School in Steamboat Springs. “I don’t know if you’ll have the guts, but you’ll have the skills.”

Built for safety

Smith got his start kayaking more than 30 years ago. He led tours down the Grand Canyon before settling in Steamboat to run the kayaking school.

He’s been at that for 30 years, and he said he tries to incorporate all of it into his classes in an effort to make beginners feel comfortable.

“I tell them about the history of kayaking, and we talk about how much the boats have changed,” he said.

He’s seen them go from 13-foot Fiberglas torpedoes to today’s popular plastic freestyle boats.

“Anymore, boats are geared toward comfort and safety,” he said. “Some people have a fear that ‘I’m going to get stuck,’ so we talk about how to get in and out of the boats safely.”

He said the most common misperception among beginners is that the boats are hard to get out of and that the entry and exit holes are tight.

That’s not the case, he demonstrated. New kayaks have a large hole on the top, covered during a trip by a fabric spray skirt that keeps water from getting in.

“Out” takes little more than a kick of the knee, knocking the skirt free, and reliance upon gravity.

Catching the drift

The face of kayaking in Steamboat is Charlie’s Hole, a gnarly man-made downtown feature that creates such a big and perfect wave it’s the envy of many a mountain town.

Its washing machine effect on even the area’s best paddlers makes it an intimidating introduction to the sport for many who’ve never tried it, however.

We didn’t go anywhere near the famous C-hole on Day 1 of kayak school. But Smith said the lessons he tried to get across in that first session and the others that followed could make a kayaker out of anyone.

Instead, beginners work on the sport in still-calm waters around Steamboat. Last week, I stood at the edge of a large still-water drainage plain fed by Walton Creek with a pack of outdoor enthusiast from The Lowell Whiteman School.

Soon after pushing in, we were working around the water with ease, and 90 minutes later, we were crisscrossing our way up the creek against the current, digesting instruction on how to spin away from a rock and keep balanced, how to paddle in a straight line and how to pull into an eddy.

“These boats are made to turn,” Smith said, demonstrating the benefits and handicaps of a flat bottom. “It’s important not to paddle too hard. Men, we tend to muscle it, and that makes them go all over the place. Women do so much better.”

Later in the week, the class stops by a local swimming pool to work on technique in a safe environment, and it slowly works its way into faster water.

Just what classes do and where they go is determined by the water level.

“After a three- or a four-day class, you know all the basics, and the more and more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel about it,” Smith said.

In the flow

The nerves were gone from the class of Whiteman students after their four days on the water.

Being wet became a choice, rather than the consequence of an un-followed rule.

In their unofficial graduation moment, the students pulled off into an eddy on the Yampa River, behind the Rabbit Ears Motel. They’d navigated the rapids of a rushing river.

Everyone got wet that time, but only after perfect and planned dips in the water. One of the first-day swimmers snapped her body into the current, entirely upside down in the kayak, and just as quickly snapped back up, grinning widely as the Yampa River rushed out of her nose and helmet.

“I’m just going to add kayaking to the list of things I do,” Sadie Grossbaun said. “This is definitely my new hobby.”

The Mountain Sports Kayak School offers classes for beginners and intermediate kayakers.

For more information, call the school at 970-879-8794.

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