Start Me Up

At a school like Otter Bar, every beginner has a shot a greatness

Apr 1, 2004
Outside Magazine

A whitewater kayak is an unstable platform in the slippery grip of Old Man River—it will flip. Not maybe; will. And when you find yourself hurtling through a rapid upside down, with the lower half of your body entombed inside a plastic shell, you'd better know how to use your arms, your paddle, and a twist of your hips to roll the boat upright—a subtle, balletic move that takes you from an inverted, fishy kingdom of death to the bright realm of light, air, and gasping life.

Consistently hitting my roll is the high-water mark of my success after three weeks of kayak instruction over three summers at the Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School, way up in the attic of northern California. Otter Bar has a wild stretch of the Salmon River in its backyard and is probably the best whitewater school in the world, not least because it is the most decadently luxurious. Its proprietors, Kristy and Peter Sturges, are superb hosts, and the instructors are world-class boaters. But you don't have to be a hardcore jock to gain something deeply rewarding by taking the uncharacteristic (for an adult) risk of signing up for summer camp.
Decades after leaving childhood and the classroom behind, it's a humbling, revelatory experience to become a beginner again, to face down a primal fear of the difficult and the unknown. But once intermediate status is within reach, you open the door to the epic possibilities of real adventure.
At the moment, I'm dreaming about Otter Bar's annual autumn trip down the Grand Canyon. I'd have to get serious about tuning up my paddling to handle the Class III–IV water, but places like Otter Bar specialize in making big dreams come true. Even for a slow learner like me.
Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School, Forks of Salmon, California; seven days, $1,605–$1,890 (all-inclusive), April to September; 14-day Grand Canyon trip, $2,900 (Class III+ paddling skills required), September 15–29; 530-462-4772,

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