My first time seeing a kayak go off Gorilla, they spun out and went off it backwards, arms in the air the kayak flopped over the edge and pitched vertically but slid down the flume just fine. Hearing Woody Calloway say people go off backwards 50% of the time, I made it my mission to learn to kayak backwards before I returned, so I would be ready for action before I launched into the Notch. In the following months I paddled every rapid and then every slot I could find on the Gauley and Upper Yough backwards, with handpaddles, and then backward handpaddling combined. What was surprising is how quickly you pick up skills like carving an eddy turn or even a boof… and soon just the awkwardness of looking behind you, the timing problems that causes, and the challenge of re-learning to brace remain. Since I’ve never had to use those skills in 20 years of running Gorilla, I had nearly forgotten the fun I getting ready for it when Pat Keller and Dane Jackson came ‘Rewinding’ through at this year’s Green Race – intentionally doing the entire course ”switch” for the added thrill of it all. I know Pat’s done much of Raven Fork, a group of us ”switched’ the Alseseca after the race and Dane back-paddled Alseseca’s Meatlocker just last week. Who knows how many others will be inspired to follow at Green Race or anywhere else by next year?
In case you weren’t inspired quite yet, here’s a quick list of tips to make the most of your first ”switched on” experiences.
1. Practice backpaddling circles and ”S” turns in flatwater to learn how to hold a line with your edge, how to rudder and sweep with your paddle, and how to stoke effectively while rotating your torso as far around as possible. Then try easy eddy turns and peel outs. Learning how and when to swap edges and look over the other shoulder is key to preventing gaps in your momentum and control.
2. Work on timing your back-boof stroke by running over leaves, sticks or rocks and trying to ‘push’ your stern upwards as you hit them. It’s amazing how helpful edging the boat is and how much power you generate with one big hard backstroke.
3. Stroke up to speed and practice your brace. Now roll up and try it again and again. The normal methods of blade behind your hips sends the paddle diving on contact with the water or bouncing out of your hand when you contact rocks, so just know this one’s gonna take a while! I’m working towards a ”low-brace” style that starts just in front of my hip and pushes towards the bow or a high brace style very similarly. And I roll a lot as neither seems natural or strong yet.
4. Keep your weight over your boat! Since it’s hard to see exactly where you are headed, tough to time things just right, and braces are about 50% as effective it is wise to just center your weight and keep it there anytime you are bouncing or falling or landing. The stable shape of modern boats like Villain, Hero, or Karma that really shines for beginners is your new best friend once you ability to see / predict where you are going is compromised. You will miss this ability to shift your weight to perfectly anticipate each bounce or movement of the kayak – so center up and just start at square one. Let your body adapt it’s motions the the new direction before trying to anticipate what you can’t see.