Are you thinking about doing Canoe U and becoming a Midwest Whitewater Paddler? Awesome! Now sign up! The Midwest is a very underrated whitewater treasure. Most people are unaware of the beautiful rivers in the Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan area. Here's what you need to know and do to join the community of dedicated paddlers.
First off is your boat. There are so many whitewater designs to choose from. I would suggest doing a little research on youtube to determine what type of whitewater paddling you're thinking of doing. Searches should use the three main words, creeking, playboating, river running. There are boats specifically designed for these three types of paddling. If you want to do a little play and river running there are crossover boats that work very well too. Then go to your local kayak dealer and demo as many boats as you can. Our very own Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, does a demo night at the Rapids Riders pool sessions. This is the perfect time to try as many boats as you can in a nice warm pool. They also have demos during the summer at local lakes. Check their website for upcoming events. Boats are made in different sizes and volumes. Pick one in your weight and size range. Feel the balance and performance of the boat and also very important check the comfort of the outfitting. Can you spend hours in the boat comfortably? You will know what boat works for you and what doesn't. Also don't forget to check out the whitewater canoes. OC1's and C1's are just another fun way to enjoy whitewater. Make sure you buy float bags for your boat!
Second piece of gear you'll need is your helmet. Most helmets now come with velcro outfitting pads that give you a snug custom fit. The safety factor of helmets have come a long way in about the past 5 years. Better fit and still maintaining style and looks. Buy a set of nose plugs to go with your helmet. The Midwest rivers are not known as deep big water runs. Our "good" season is short and the rocks can be razor sharp. Full face helmets are recommended if you're thinking of running creeks. Plus they look badass!
Third up is your paddle. Paddles are a very personal piece of equipment for me. Buy the best one that you can afford. Again size and shape matter. The shafts come in straight and ergonomically bent shafts. Some paddle manufacturers make two different size diameter shafts to accommodate hand sizes. There are general sizing charts that you can use to determine the approximate length of your paddle. Personal preference will refine what you feel comfortable with. Then there are the blades of your paddle. The offset can vary from 45 degrees to zero offset where the blades are even. This is a personal preference also. I started with the standard 45 offset and switched last year to zero. Before I switched I noticed that my right hand was the dominant control hand. I had a good sized paddlers callous on my thumb. After the switch my lazy left had to step up and take just as much control as my right. Now I have a callous developing on my left thumb. The zero offset is popular among playboaters. Again it's what YOU like.
Fourth is your Personal Flotation Device or commonly known as a PFD. Buy a whitewater specific vest and make sure you can move and bend while in a sitting position with it on. Again it must be comfortable enough to breath yet snug. You can upgrade and buy a Rescue Vest. Highly recommended if you plan on creeking. More on that later.
The fifth and final thing you need to get on the river is a sprayskirt. There will be two sizes listed on them. The size of your cockpit and your waist size.
These five things are mandatory to get on the rivers. Count to 5 every time you leave the house. If you plan on doing a creek add on a good set of elbow pads.
Lets talk about what you wear up here in the frozen north. Drysuits are the best bet for warmth here. They have their drawbacks only in the cost. If you can afford one then get the best one you can. You should get one with a tunnel and a relief zipper. Ladies buy a funnel to go with your dry suit. I like the hard plastic versus the soft. You will also have to wear warm layers underneath your drysuit. Polypropylene is good. Union suits work very well also. If you're on a budget then grab the poly sleep pants you find in the men's department on sale. They work good. For your feet make sure you have a very warm pair of socks. The booties on the drysuits come in latex booties or fabric booties. Both have their positives and negatives and again it's preference or what you can afford. You may still find some with latex ankle cuffs. Pass those up. I had those on my first drysuit and I tore several of them plus at the end of a cold run peeling them off with frozen fingers doesn't work well.
Dry tops are another option for cold water and very handy to have especially while transitioning to warmer weather. For very cold weather, a farmer john wet suit topped with a dry top works well. Layering under the dry top with synthetic fabric like polypropylene helps keep heat in.
For your feet there are a several of options. The lightest being rodeo socks. If you've chosen a playboat you will most likely need the lighter type of booties. If you are kayaking while there is snow and ice on the ground you can add a stout pair of sandals over your booties for traction. Beener the sandals in your boat while on the river. If you've chosen a river runner or creeker you can go with stouter water boots. You will need them for the razor sharp rocks we have here in the Midwest. Just make sure that what you buy will fit in your boat while wearing them.
Get a neoprene hoodie for under your helmet!
Gloves are a must also. Good neoprene, snug but not too tight to restrict blood flow. Note that one small hole in your glove will compromise the ability of your gloves to work. There are also poggies which are like mittens that velcro around your paddle. I've never used them so I don't have an opinion on them.
Then just keep adding to your layering wardrobe with rash guards and poly and you'll be set for anything that the Midwest throws at you. Remember to dress overly warm as you can take off layers. If you chill yourself on a cold river it's very hard to regain the body heat until you're off the river. Hypothermia can develop within minutes during a swim if you're not properly dressed. The length and class of a river is a good thing to keep in mind along with the temperature when dressing for the day.
Whitewater is the most legal fun you can have but it can be dangerous. Quality instruction is priceless and the fastest way to excel safely at your new sport. If you don't have a boat and you're not sure what you want there are good schools that do provide the gear and boats for you. You will find a kayak instruction list on the right side bar of my blog. All are outstanding schools! Personally I volunteer teach through Rapids Riders. We do not supply boats and gear. Midwest does have a rental fleet and they're good about having nice, newer boats. Reserve early though.
If you choose to take the Canoe U course here is what to expect. You will get a pool class where we take you through flatwater basics. The first weekend we camp at St Croix State Park in the Norway Group Cabins. Come early to get the best cabins. We'll determine the best rivers at optimal flow for beginners and start you off. Good paddling, good food and lots of fun camping with the group. Bring your cameras!! You will then have two weeks off before we reconvene again. In those two weeks try to paddle as much as you can. Flatwater is great and it's best to keep practicing those strokes! Weekend two we'll tent camp at Robinson Park . More of the same with just a bit more challenge.
Now you've learned the basics. You have "graduated" from Canoe U and find that you have an insatiable desire to paddle....worse than a crack habit and the best part is it's legal and good for you! How do you continue? It's summer now!! First you should have already joined the Canoe U Facebook page. Your classmates are going to be your paddling peers. Get to know them and trust them. There is a special bond between whitewater paddlers and you've just joined the "tribe". Post on the Rapids Riders Forum. Hook up with more experienced paddlers who are willing to mentor you. Make sure it's someone you can trust. Reward them with drink, pie and shoulder rubs...they like that. Then start putting in the hard work so you're ready for next spring. The Kettle, St Louis Upper and the Vermilion are all good rivers. Charlkes City Whitewater Park is a new addition and a very friendly environment. It's summer so watch for the levels when they come up. But then the best place in the world to develop those skills during the summer is The Wausau Whitewater Park .
Wausau is an incredible asset to our Midwest paddling scene. A dam released specifically designed whitewater park with free camping all right in downtown Wausau. On a warm summer day you'll find over 100 paddlers from the 5 state area throwing down and running the park. The bottom of the course is designed to be beginner friendly and just work your way up until you're stomping the whole run and playing the holes. Network and meet others. Wausau has several awesome volunteer rescue swimmers that love nothing better than to sharpen "their" skills. It's all good!
The highlight of the summer is the Midwest Freestyle Championships. I know you've just started paddling this year but there is a Freestyle Clinic taught by Colin Kemp and John McConville of Team Jackson and they teach all levels. Sign up early as it is filled up each year. Then enter the competition and just have fun. A drawing is held at the end of the comp for a mountain of swag including a Jackson kayak of your choice. How cool is that? And all you have to do is enter! The cost to you as a paddler is nominal and the park runs mostly on donations.
Another super asset is Jim Falls. Brian Brezinski and Glenn Felske have been teaching whitewater safety during the releases. If you paddle whitewater you should have a good knowledge of rescue techniques and they teach a very good class. UMD, Bear Paw and Wausau Whitewater all have excellent Whitewater rescue classes too. Remember that Rescue Vest I mentioned before. This is where you will learn how to use it with actual hands on in the river scenarios. Good knowledge for your whitewater tool box.
Other great events you really shouldn't miss are the Kettle River Paddle Festival , Paddlemania, and the Vermillion River Clean Up. Good Midwest fun on the rivers.
THE book to have on running rivers in the Midwest is Northwoods Whitewater by Jim Rada. An excellent must have book written by the man who pioneered many of the runs we now enjoy!
I hope I have covered most of the things you will have to know about starting to paddle in the Midwest. Now it's up to you how far you go with this sport. Nepal? Africa? The rivers are as endless as your imagination. They will change your life!