Transitioning from novice to an expert paddler

As we progress from beginner to intermediate, or from intermediate to advanced paddling, we go through a number of ‘graduations’, where we ‘step up’ a level in challenge, and periodically we also take steps back for any number of reasons.  A common question for people considering stepping up is ‘Am I ready?’, followed almost immediately by ‘How do I know?’.  This article will discuss ways in which to approach this question.

Experience and judgment

There’s a saying that goes something like ‘good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes largely from bad judgment’- and depressingly enough, this is mostly true- we learn more readily from our own mistakes than we do from the guidance of others, but it should go without saying that you should try to absorb what you can from a mentor- learn from his/her mistakes, rather than having to take your own licks.

New Gear, New styles

Due in part to different, more specialized gear and more advanced instruction, beginners today have an enormous advantage over their predecessors of just 10 years ago in terms of making that learning curve steep.  Newer boat and gear designs make moves that were once the sole realm of paddling gods accessible to everyday mortals like us, and this can be a mixed blessing- today it’s more possible for relatively new paddlers to learn paddling and skills… sometimes faster than they learn how to read complicated water or spot hazards- potentially enabling them to get into more dangerous situations.  It’s important to recognize this as the mixed blessing that it is… which makes discussing the question of when and how to step up a level perhaps more important now than it was 10 years ago.

New School, Old School

Perhaps complicating this ‘mixed blessing’ syndrome is an ongoing disagreement about just what and how people should learn, in what order, and from whom.  These days it’s not uncommon to see relative beginners with monster flatwater playboating skills that have difficulty sticking a ‘relatively easy’ ferry, and everybody seems to have an opinion about why this is and whether it’s a bad thing or not. Some will argue that you should learn how to ferry before you learn to do flatwater stuff, and while their point has merit, I will posit that it’s fine if your skill set is focused toward whatever you plan on doing, so long as that’s what you’ll be doing.  I’ll also posit that if you’re a flatwater monster, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can read water or boof or make a must-make ferry, etc.- It used to be that if you could cartwheel it meant you already had all of those other boat-handling skills, because the only place you could learn to do that was in holes (unless you were a squirtartist, which meant that you had the skills or you got in serious trouble) but the same is not true today- newer designs make the so-called ‘advanced moves’ much more accessible to beginners, simultaneously revising our definition of what ‘advanced’ means and making it more difficult to judge a new paddler’s skill level.

This disagreement has led both to a certain amount of contention between the so-called ‘new school’ and ‘old school’, and also to an understanding that there are a wide variety of paddling disciplines that call for different techniques and different skill sets… many of which overlap, but some of which do not.  It seems plausible to surmise that if your objectives on the water are different then it makes sense for your skill set to be different as well- after all, if you just want to cartwheel on flatwater, why bother learning the duffek? …but it should go without saying that when you step up to water of greater difficulty, it follows that you should have whatever skills that water will require of you.

Class Ratings

The lines between classes blur a bit, and the differences between bigwater and low-volume/technical runs with the same difficulty rating can be remarkable- they demand different skills- so I’d suggest that the first thing we do is to throw out the numbers altogether for a while- they’re useful for comparing different rivers, but they don’t adequately describe what you’re up against, so the first thing you’ll need is to adopt a binary ratings scale- a ‘yes, I can do this one, or no I shouldn’t do this one’ approach, based on how you feel that day, your own self-evaluation of your skills, the input of a mentor, and an evaluation of the overall safety capabilities of the group you’re paddling with and an evaluation of the worst-case scenario.  Ultimately, the criterion that should be used is not the class of the water, but your capabilities and your comfort level.  The numbered system is useful, but only for establishing a general guide for discussing what you’re comfortable with.

Examine your motives

Why do you want to paddle more difficult water? This is an important question which, although seemingly simple, bears some sober evaluation- because an understanding of your motivation can help you avoid some of the pitfalls involved in taking on greater difficulty and danger.  If it’s ‘status’ you seek, be aware that this desire can blind you in certain ways from objectively weighing your capabilities against the water you face.  It’s important that you avoid mixing ideas about self-worth in with your ability to run a given rapid, because this can put you under a lot of pressure to do something that you may be better advised to walk.  If you feel you’ve got something to prove, be very cautious.  The best paddlers in the world regularly walk rapids, possibly because they’re not there to prove anything.

Another possible motive is that you want to challenge yourself, to step outside the box of your current abilities, or to expand what is possible for you in a boat.  For you, if you’re not growing or challenging yourself, there’s something missing.  Be prepared for some folks not to understand- for them, boating is about something different- perhaps it’s comraderie, maybe it’s being out in nature, but whatever it is, being outside of one’s comfort zone is not something they desire and for them, this is great.  You need a challenge, and coming to terms with this gives you access to making it happen safely.  For you, it’s simple- get with people who enjoy doing the kind of water you want to do, and pick some mentors.

Play it up

One thing that will prepare you for more difficult water is to do the tougher moves on easier rapids- that is, find the boofs and micro-eddies and get them, go into holes and play there, find and make the tough ferries as though they were must-make moves, practice getting into and out of situations that are challenging to you, and as you become comfortable with the hard moves on the water you’re running, you’ll discover that the easy moves on the next difficulty level up will likely be the same thing.  This practice, by the way, is an excellent way to squeeze more fun out of less-challenging water when you’re paddling with a group that doesn’t go in for more challenge.

New Dangers

While ‘playing up a level’ is an invaluable activity in terms of preparing you for some of what the next level will bring, it should be stressed that this alone won’t prepare you for everything you’ll see at the next level- what it will do is help you reach a solid minimum, not establish a comprehensive skill set. In addition to those challenges you’ve been playing on while ‘playing up’ you’ll also encounter phenomena new to you- for example, super-elevated or super-depressed regions of water or tall vertical drops- dangers which you may not be accustomed to looking for.  Whenever you step up a difficulty level, do it with someone who’s familiar with the new dangers you’ll see, and who will be able (and willing) to point them out to you.


Evaluating where you stand with regard to water you’re comfortable can be tricky- first of all, ‘self-evaluation’ sounds like you’re giving yourself a grade and this can tempt us all to do a little bit of ego-padding.  It’s important to be frank with yourself, and to use others whose judgment you trust as a means of helping to keep yourself real and grounded.

Another thing to ponder is the level at which you perform on your ‘off’ days.  We all have these, and because they’re unpredictable, you should avoid putting yourself in the position of relying on having an ‘on’ day.  A good outlook and positive mental attitude go a long way towards making them more reliable, but we all get shaken up and freaked out from time to time, and if it’s not there it’s not there and good days are all but impossible to force.  I rate myself by my performance on my off-days, and I encourage you to do so as well.

Boating as a head game

We all have good days where things go right, and we all have weird days where we ‘left our cape at home’- and your personal comfort and state of mind is a tremendously important part of the way you’ll make decisions and enjoy your paddling.  Remember, this is about having fun, and if you’re there to prove something, or if you’re scared, or both… you may discover that your fun factor will be diminished somewhat.

In a broader sense, however, paddling is a head game of a different stripe- we perform best when we’re focused on whatever challenge we face right at that moment, and where we’re not distracted by anything unrelated to that specific challenge.  If you’ve got other things on your mind, often you’ll find that it’s tough to stay ‘in the zone’ and sometimes your performance can suffer as a result.

Boating as a skilled activity

Without the requisite skills, boating ‘in the zone’ is impossible- ‘the zone’ is a place where you get out of your head and let yourself do what you know how to do, without interfering or auditing the process.  If your skills aren’t up to the task, you should definitely practice in a place where being ‘in the zone’ isn’t a necessity, and you should definitely avoid committing yourself to challenges where having an ‘on’ day will be required.

Use a Mentor: Your mentor is your guide, your coach, your shrink, your safety, your buddy, and your friend.  Your mentor has experience that you don’t, and with his or her input you can learn and progress much more rapidly and safely than you would without.  You’ll learn things from your mentor that go beyond paddle technique and how to spot dangers- you’ll learn habits like always carrying a rope when you scout, and a host of other good ideas that they either learned from their mentors, or had beaten into them by the cruel hand of necessity.

Be a Mentor: You’ve either learned a lot from other people, in which case you can appreciate how valuable a mentor can be, or you had to figure everything you know out for yourself, in which case you really appreciate how valuable a mentor can be.  I’ve found mentoring to be an incredibly rewarding experience and I recommend it to anyone.