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Old 05-09-2008   #1
Join Date: Feb 2004
Posts: 75
The Extreme Image of Whitewater Kayaking

“… you are a whitewater paddler? Those waterfalls look terrible” that is pretty much the line from non-paddling friends and family. All my protestations can’t convince them that I am not out running sick falls.

I just visited (summer version of site), and every image there is family friendly except… you got it, the kayaking image… a pretty stout extreme race photo.

At a recent instructor training class I had opportunity to show the welcome powerpoint from last year’s Whitewater Symposium. (available at The theme of this talk is how the image of whitewater is frequently too extreme. We see waterfalls and big water everywhere in media not controlled by us.

Skiing also has this issue with dramatic images of the extreme, but they also have resort powerhouses balancing that image with convincing marketing that sliding on snow is a family sport.

We need to do a better job of distributing the scenic, social, and sheer fun images of attainable whitewater kayaking. We don’t have the weatherman standing in front of the bluescreen showing ski resort provided images of beginners having fun. We need to make sure that our own advertising is putting forward the most attainable part of the sport. The collective impact of our enthusiasm for the steeps actually alienates potential boaters.

As I put this idea to my instructor class they all chimed in with their own horror stories of peer pressure to run the steeps, pressure to paddle overly aggressive boat designs, and inadvertent inhospitality to newcomers to whitewater. I think if our community discusses this issue, and takes a few simple steps, we can do a better job at welcoming a newcomer.

What is your experience with the perceived image of whitewater kayaking?

Kent Ford

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Old 05-09-2008   #2
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Eagle, Idaho
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It was those images of the sport and the excitement of possibly being able to do that myself someday that prompted me to start kayaking 12 years ago. But yeah, I hear from people that know very little about the sport that it's "crazy". It is, IMO, portrayed as more "extreme" than skiing.

Quite honestly though, this sport is NOT for everyone. I don't care how many lessons they take or how many friendly rivers they try to paddle first. You have to have an aggressive nature, decisive, determination, etc....

I don't think there's anything wrong with portraying it as they do. Maybe it'll keep the people off the river that don't have the right personality? I'm not saying keeping people off the river is a good thing, I'm all about welcoming new people to the sport and helping their progress along and I certainly NEVER pressure someone to run anything they aren't comfortable with.

But consider what has happened to skiing in the past 20 years. It's portrayed as a nice, relaxing, family sport....the resorts are becoming over-crowded with dumbasses that don't understand basic mtn. rules and 65 yr. old rich dudes are suing little boys.

I don't know, maybe it's not a bad thing to deliver the message that kayaking is serious......not trying to be antagonistic or anything....just some thoughts.

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Old 05-09-2008   #3
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Boulder, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2003
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Actually most people I encounter think I'm paddling around a lake in a canoe.

I think I partially disgaree with GoodTimes. I think some people enjoy kayaking class II-III their entire kayaking career and that's fine. It doesn't take a ton of drive, perseverance, and risk to do that, but they can still enjoy many aspects of the sport.

Big drops make for dramatic imagines. It's hard to create exciting images of people going down Pumphouse, but it's easy on OBJ.

Also, I'm not sure I want massive populations of kayakers on the river. I think there's a sweet spot where the industry has enough revenue to continue to innovate new products, and there is a quorum for political pressure for access and river conservation, but the serenity of the rivers is maintained.

I think my only concern with the "extreme" projection of the sport is people get enticed into this aspect of the sport without understanding the risks and skills required to run things at that level safely. I'd like to see more information about the training regiment, practice, and years of experience a lot of the pros go through before they run these drops, as well as the toll bodies can take - blown shoulders, cracked ribs, concussions, death. Inevitably images of people running big drops will inspire others to want do the same and there's a responsibility to make sure people are making educated decisions about the risks they take.

After all, kayaking is somewhat unique in that progression in the sport usually requires taking more risks and running bigger drops. If you're a runner you just train to go faster by having more endurance and run more efficiently, in basketball you train to score more points by shooting more accurately or having quicker feet, but in kayaking you're generally training to run harder water or surf a bigger wave/hole.
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Old 05-09-2008   #4
Durango, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1985
Join Date: Mar 2004
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Hi Kent,

I agree with your thoughts and I have some concerns about marketing the sport of kayaking to the general public without great caution regarding safety and personal accountability.
Unlike climbing or even bungy jumping, kayaking has no belay device that allows the new paddler to screw up and then be saved. If the new kayaker doesn't fully understand the committment to self preservation and personal accountability to the level of safety that river running demands then injury is more likely to occur.

In the ideal marketing scheme for the general public, kayaking like parachuting for the first time would involve an instructor to detail all of the needed and required skills and equipment to allow the paddler to make good decisions. Granted not everyone needs that level of hand holding, however, as a ski patroler for many years, I had wished that more of the vacationing skiers had had some formal instruction both in skill and etiquette.

Perhaps ACA can drive the sport of kayaking to the general public and receive a well deserved donation to their program, both instructional and conservation.

PS Great ACA class, thanks!
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Old 05-09-2008   #5
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1983
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not so far off

Originally Posted by kentford View Post
“… What is your experience with the perceived image of whitewater kayaking?

Kent Ford
Kent, I've been living in Colorado and skiing since I was a child (196) and I'm very involved in the ski industry, getting out most months of the year. The recent death of Lathrop Strang on Mt. Sopris brings the total number of friends or acquaintances who have died skiing to maybe at most 4 or 5. I've been kayaking since 1983 and the number of friends or acquaintances of mine who've died in kayaking accidents numbers between 15 and 20.

I would say that the perceived danger of kayaking is not so far off from reality.

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Old 05-09-2008   #6
Boulder, Colorado
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I don't even think kayaking, especially whitewater kayaking, has much of an image outside mountain or outdoor oriented communities. However, I agree that the image is "extreme".

A lot of people have been rafting because of its image of being adventurous. The rafting companies spend a lot of time and money making Shoshone, Browns Canyon, and other class III runs seem "extreme". These tourists (for lack of better term) are fooled into thinking the float they just paid $75 for actually had some element of danger.

I don't really care what our image is so long as it isn't negative. I personally don't think extreme is a negative image, so I'm fine with it. Plus, chicks dig the kayak on top of my car. Until they smell me, that is.
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Old 05-10-2008   #7
Salida, Colorado
Paddling Since: 2003
Join Date: Jun 2007
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Great discussion,
How can policy makers justify preserving kayaking interests if it only benefits a handful of adrenaline junkies?

As boaters we are all aware of how water policy decisions affect our form of recreation. There are countless examples of political pressures to use water for purposes other then whitewater recreation and limit our access to the rivers we love. Any image that portrays kayaking as elite or exclusive will make it harder for the public and policy makers to respect our sport and therefore work to protect kayaking concerns.
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Old 05-10-2008   #8
Join Date: Oct 2003
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Why are you so interested in this subject? Are you trying to determine market perception so that you can get more business for your instructing class? I'm not sure why you would care exactly.
Also, I don't think that policy makers would have to dig that far to discover the amount of recreation that our rivers get. I'm pretty sure that they are not watching the latest YGP video to correctly determine the amount of use and importance of a local river.
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Old 05-11-2008   #9
Pueblo, Colorado
Paddling Since: 1997
Join Date: Nov 2005
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Your own life is extreme to you if that is your own conception of reality. Kayaking can be a means to fish a pond, but also a way to push the limit of your own fragile existence.
Both skiing and kayaking began as a means of transportation on relatively gentle topography covered by a form of H2O. Add as much gravity as you want.
I think that at its root, Kent's post addresses how marketing has evolved at different times for two outdoor sports. In its advent, alpine skiing in the 1930s and 40s in Austria was an extreme sport, and at the time marketed to attract adventurous and hearty folk. The modern whitewater kayaking industry, by comparison, is still in its infancy, and its current marketing is directed to attract that exclusive, somewhat athletically elite subculture 60 years later. Perhaps in 60 yrs there will be family oriented getaway packages for a Browns Canyon kayaking weekend.
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Old 05-11-2008   #10
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Originally Posted by fireitup View Post
Perhaps in 60 yrs there will be family oriented getaway packages for a Browns Canyon kayaking weekend.
You just sent a shiver down my spine with this...

Life: Live it!
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