Kayakers sharpen skills in the Mt. Abe pool
BRISTOL — On a recent Wednesday night, Paul Carlile of Burlington sat in his blue whitewater kayak in the swimming pool at Mount Abraham Union High School, nose plugs engaged and ready to demonstrate the perfect roll.
Designed to help whitewater kayakers navigate the sort of steep, technical stream that runs cold and fast from Vermont’s Green Mountains in the spring, his boat showed the signs of wear and love. A network of scratches ran along its sides, battle scars from past adventures running streams at high water.
On that snowy night, Carlile, an American Canoe Association-certified whitewater paddling instructor, was at the pool to practice and to help other paddlers perfect their skills as a volunteer for the Vermont Paddlers’ Club.
The club has been hosting pool sessions at Mount Abe during the winter months since 2019. The group has also hosted sessions at the University of Vermont and Northern Vermont University pools. This winter, it has eight sessions scheduled, all on Wednesday and Friday nights. The club also hosts annual two-day clinics for novice and intermediate paddlers in June and July.
“Without a pool session, it’s pretty easy to go several months without paddling so you can be pretty rusty in the spring,” Carlile says. “It’s also hard to work on your roll in cold water.”
For kayakers, having your roll down ensures that you can pop back upright if you capsize in your rig while navigating a rapid. It saves time and keeps people safe but requires a delicate combination of skill and athleticism.
Snowmelt in Vermont fuels high water on rivers like the New Haven only for a limited period each year, often in the early spring. Paddlers like Carlile want to be ready to dive in as soon as the ice melts.
“When you look at a rapid, you need to say, ‘OK, what is my path? What are the moves I need to make to be able to go on that path? What are the consequences if I’m not able to do that?’”
Carlile, a confident paddler on the most challenging Class IV rapids, says there’s no substitute for time on the river, but honing certain strokes — a perfect brace, a sweep or a swift draw — in a pool, can help make a kayaker more efficient in big water.
“When you are in whitewater, it looks like pure chaos, from the outside and from within. But as an experienced paddler, you can see the line. You break the rapid into manageable parts and you plan the moves to get you to where you need to go. And then you find the path through apparent chaos,” Carlile says.
Each paddling session in the Mount Abe pool draws between four and eight kayakers, though at times it has seen as many as 15. Carlile and Vermont Paddlers’ Club President Chris Weed are available to mentor novice paddlers seeking to improve their skills. With advance notice, they can sometimes provide paddlers with loaner gear — paddle, life jacket, spray skirt and boat — for newcomers. Those who wish to receive instruction should become members of the Vermont Paddlers Club. The cost for each session is $15, and a yearlong membership to the VPC is $15 ($20 for a family). Sessions have been running Wednesdays and Fridays, 7-9 p.m., but this Friday (February 28) is the last of the season. For more information on the club's pool paddling contact Weed at 802-863-2149 or Chace.Rapid@Gmail.com.
The club has slated Saturday, April 11, for its 12th annual New Haven Ledges race, in which kayakers cascade down the New Haven River from the Lincoln town line to Bartlett Falls in Bristol. The alternate date is April 18. For more information contact Ryan McCall at 802-272-6209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Vermont Paddlers Club was established in 1964 and is affiliated with the American Canoe Association. Club members organize whitewater and flatwater canoe and kayak trips across the state, promote the interests of paddlers in river management, offer courses in safety and skill building and, when necessary, get political to protect access to rivers for recreation.
“This is an amazing community of people to learn from,” says Kerry Whalen of Waitsfield. “It really is extremely welcoming.”