I grew up in somewhat rural Michigan, learned to swim and went canoeing a few times, but I always
wanted learn to whitewater kayak. So, one day on the well-meaning advice of other people I went to
Dick’s Sporting Goods and bought myself a “nice kayak”, paddle and pfd. I was ready to take on some
serious water. I went out on the local rivers around me, lakes and even to the UP.
It was April 2012 and the spring weather was pretty nice. A friend and I decided we were going to go
out and paddle a local river. The snow had melted, the water was flowing fast and we were ready for it.
With our pfd’s securely strapped to the back of our boats and cooler in hand we set out. Everything was
great, until it wasn’t. Coming around a blind corner, I got flipped over in a giant oak tree that had fallen
across the river. I hit the water and while trying to breathe in short gasping breaths I immediately tried
standing up in chest deep extremely cold moving water. Boat was gone. Cooler was gone. That pfd
that I was going to get if I needed it…..gone! The current was trying to push me further into the
branches straining the water moving down river. Luckily I wasn’t far from shore and was able to hold on
to the bigger branches and wade to the side of the river. Soaking wet and freezing cold, I remember
thinking, if I want to kayak, I’d better figure out how to not end up in this situation again.
I started researching local paddling groups. I found a few, but, wasn’t really interested in showing up
and looking like a complete fool in front of people who were “actual” kayakers. I watched a ton of You
Tube videos and bought a different boat, a Liquid logic XP9 crossover with a deck skirt and all. I had
some mild success but it was still just me and no real way to know what I was doing. A friend told me to
call a guy they used to work with, who turned out to be Trey, from The Power of Water. Through them I
found real instructors and learned that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did.
I decided I would attend a Power of Water whitewater kayaking trips, and so, my first actual experience
in real whitewater was in North Carolina on their Southern River Trip. They worked with our group of
less than stellar paddlers on techniques, safety, feeling the water and how we and our boats reacted to
it, and a litany of other things. The greatest part was it didn’t feel like a “teaching or learning
environment.” I came home a better paddler, a safer paddler and with more skill then I had when I got
there. We were having fun and meanwhile we were learning, a lot!
In The Power of Water, I found a community of paddlers that accepted me and were genuinely
interested in helping me get better and learn to paddle safely. I learned how the experience of
whitewater kayaking could transform not just my outdoor enjoyment, but how it could transform my
life. The power of water wasn’t just fast currents, big waves or deep holes. It was the “Power” of the
water. It was exciting, chaotic and sometimes scary. The river can humble you very quickly and it did
for me many, many times. I learned through lots of practicing and swimming, intentionally and
unintentionally, that the river will always provide feedback. I learned to paddle as a member of a group,
an actual group, not just a bunch of people paddling close to one another.
Since that first trip, I’ve upgraded boats more than a couple times, paddled many rivers and became an
instructor myself. I describe whitewater now as my “relaxing chaos.” I understand it’s not for everyone.
But, I wish everyone could feel the life-changing empowerment and the transformation of the power of
-Gary Van Valkenburgh