He’s one of the biggest advocates of bringing whitewater to the appeal of the masses, and his whitewater instructional videos are some of the most well respected in the industry. An inductee into the Whitewater Hall of Fame with around 40 years of paddling experience of over 330 rivers in 27 countries, as well as first descents of the Animas Gorge in Colorado, and the Moctazuma river in Mexico. Whitewater legend Kent Ford talks to me about the current state of the kayaking world.
Kent remembers with enthusiasm how he got started in the world of kayaking. “I was really lucky. I got involved with my parents in the Washington DC area as a kid, originally at a summer camp. I was like thirteen, fourteen, and then my parents stumbled upon the slalom scene.”
“In Washington DC there’s a tremendous river it’s really quite surprising. So I was really lucky to grow up boating in my teen years. It became a really social avenue as well as my sport there for a good number of those years.”
Something that really comes across while talking to Kent about kayaking is his sheer enthusiasm for the sport. It may well be more than a little surprising then for many to discover that when he first started out it wasn’t all freewheeling. In fact quite the contrary. “When my parents first got into it I really did not take to it. I was really scared of it and my mom and dad had no idea what they were doing, and so it was really kind of a fearful experience for me. This is not to knock my parents, really no one back then understood the river very well. So I have quite a bit of empathy for those who go through that now even though it was quite a few years ago.”
The phenomenon of someone now so well known for their whitewater exploits starting out with a fear for such an environment may not be as uncommon as you might think. When I mention to him some of the other experienced paddlers I know of who also had similar experiences when they first started he remains pragmatic.
“I think that was the case for me, but luckily it was when I was thirteen, fourteen years old. Then when I was fifteen I sort of fell into this group of the racing crowd and it was really more the social aspect that got us going. I was very lucky in that it was a very high end racing crowd in retrospect. Of course we didn’t know that at the time, but it was Jon Lugbill and Davey Hearn, Cathy Hearn, and (Bill) Endicott as a coach. By the time the next decade was over we were a very high end top of the world sort of a group.”
Indeed Kent’s record in competition speaks for itself. He became the US National C-1 Slalom Champion in 1977 and went on to be a National C-2 Champion in 1987. Along the way he was a member of the US Whitewater team most years from 1977 to 1995.
“I went from that slalom racing scene in C1 to a little bit of coaching, and then working and coaching in the competitive sense, and then working at a paddle school and Nantahala Outdoor Centre. I ran a kayak school there for a bunch of years, and worked there as well, raft guiding and teaching. Then I parlayed that into the video business of capturing what I’d learned through teaching there and through coaching, and then transferring that into another medium.”
“So it was really a neat transition to take my race knowledge, and my instructor knowledge and combine them into video packaging, which I had no training for. I was a mechanical engineer by training, but you never know what bizarre twists life will take for you!”
Many people take all sorts of routes into coaching and instruction. Given his competitive background I was curious as to how he came to be an instructor, and whether it was a conscious decision or whether he fell naturally in to it.
“It was really by accident! The racing then was very early season and so you’d be left with a couple of months of Summer to do something, and a lot of people on the race scene would go and be paddle instructors afterwards. So it really was a natural progression to get into that.”
I ask Kent about advice for people wanting to get into kayak coaching/instructing, and his response was something that many people will be familiar with. The irony of the required number of days training and assessment to be a whitewater kayak coach is not lost on Kent.
“Well it’s a tremendous challenge for me because the certification process in the US for whitewater kayak instructors is just five days! I joke about it, but the certification process for a Yoga instructor is 30 days!” He laughs. “And we’ve got clearly a more dynamic and frankly dangerous venue than a yoga mat!”
“But, and I love Yoga so I’m not dissing that in any way, but the result is that for a good whitewater instructor there’s a lot more prerequisites that they need to have before they arrive to the course. And that’s getting harder and harder because people often have not been giving much deep thought to whitewater technique to serve a technical understanding of what’s going on with their boat and blade. So packaging an instructor training course is just a tremendous challenge to deliver all that information in an interesting way for folks in a short period of time.”
This will strike a cord with paddlers in the UK with the way that the national coaching scheme is sometimes run. With coaches sometimes being fast tracked through the scheme in the early stages with minimal time to develop their own paddling. “For sure the depth of wisdom is more necessary at the higher end when people have a more serious venue to contend with on class 1, 2, and 3 whitewater for instance. And that’s where the experience really is an issue.”
Although it wasn’t publicised very much, whitewater slalom recently came very close to being dropped from the Olympic schedule. It faced stiff competition from sports such as wrestling, a far more popular sport as far as the USA is concerned. I quiz him why he thinks that whitewater slalom isn’t as popular in the States as it is in other countries, particularly the Eastern European ones.
“One thing I think, for the US anyway, is it would be easier to be a world power at slalom just for any one of our states than it is for the entire country. That’s because so many resources get dispersed. For instance you’ll get a very good paddler regionally and then they end up having to travel quite a bit and spend a lot of their resources to travel to competitions and races all around our country.”
“If we were the size of Slovakia or even France we would have a much easier time keeping those folks at home and keeping them focussed on becoming a better paddler.”
“So that’s one thing I think for the US. Then Slalom and the sport as a whole, there are a lot of barriers to entry. I mean you have to be real comfortable in a boat, and upside down in a boat. Just getting involved in whitewater sport has barriers to entry that’s going to thin out the participation quite a bit.”
In past times it was often the case that if you paddled on whitewater rivers you were most probably a slalom paddler as well. It has become more apparent these days that slalom paddlers do not paddle recreationally like they used to, and vice versa. I was interested whether he also thought that competition slalom had lost its connection with recreational paddling.
“Yes, absolutely slalom has lost that connection, and it’s too bad. It used to be completely obvious that your slalom skills would help you avoid rocks and breaking your boat. Avoiding breaking your boat meant that you didn’t have to patch it the next weekend! So clearly that connection is gone.”
“I think there is more to it than that though. I think it’s lost on people how good some of the top slalom paddlers are. You know it might as well be a different sport! And some of that has come from the fact that people develop a roll much faster nowadays, and they develop a mentality that even upside down is okay.”
“So that leads to them getting on a plateau where they don’t really understand what skills are involved in getting better. Slalom could do a better job of marketing itself as a way to get better in the sport. In fact if you look at the top freestyle guys competing at the Freestyle Worlds this week, you know there’s some real high end ones like Eric Jackson for instance, I mean he was 9th in the Olympics in slalom. While Dane has not been that much of a slalom paddler clearly his dads influence on slalom has taught him quite a bit of technique!”
“So the technique does play a role. But earlier you asked about people who had hit a plateau, and that’s something I think that there’s huge opportunity in the sport for. My advice to folks is to switch it up! You know, if you’ve been a freestyle paddler try slalom. If you’ve done a little bit of slalom paddling try river exploration. Not even hard river exploration, you know, what’s around the next bend on your local river? And I know that’s a little harder in the UK than it is elsewhere, but there’s a lot of river exploration, a lot of sections of river that are not commonly run around the world. Maybe they are class 1, class 2 rivers, but people aren’t exploring them.”
“So from freestyle to slalom, to down river paddling, to river exploration, the way to get off a plateau is switching it up. I think that holds for craft also. Go from kayak to canoe, or dare I say it to decked C1 or to a SUP. Or for me I’ve gotten some huge satisfaction from rowing a Dory on the Grand Canyon!”
The Dory that he refers to is a large rowing boat, often used on big water trips such as the Grand Canyon. They can carry huge amounts of gear and so are well suited to long river trips.
“That’s actually a tremendous challenge! I mean it’s like a whole other level of whitewater challenge. It’s not intuitive to know that that would be a whitewater challenge, but it is! And the same is true for rowing a raft on some of those big rivers as well.”
If someone reaches a plateau is it often a good idea to take a step back and try something totally different?
“Yeah for sure. And you touched on that a bit with your last interview. How you go about improving in this sport, I think people have lost a realisation that there’s a path, and frankly a very well known path for how to go about doing that.”
“If you go to a soccer/football camp, would you show up at that camp and have the coach go ‘Okay let’s go play’? No, the coach would have you doing drills. You’d do heading drills, you’d do shooting drills, you’d do passing drills, you’d do every different sort of passing drill. Drills are the pathway to getting better.”
“On a basketball court or a Soccer field people know that. They just sort of know that that’s the path to getting better. The problem is that whitewater is just so much dang fun that no one does drills! It doesn’t occur to anyone to do any drills. They just sort of go out and play! You can get better just by playing but the way you really get better is by going out and doing drills.”
“And that entails backing it off a notch. You cant do drills when you’re paddling class 3, class 4 water that’s challenging you. You need to go on class 1 and class 2 water to do drills.”
This may be a harsh reality for some. The idea of doing repetitive drills may not appeal to the masses. However Kent offers me an alternative view of doing drills. “Yeah, I think that’s one of the most missing things in the sport at the moment is making that fun in some way that people go about doing it. And it’s a meditative fun, so it’s different to adrenaline fun.” He laughs. “You know maybe society needs adrenaline fun at the moment, but meditative fun is what can really get you better.”
Many people probably do not consider that a lot of the top paddlers such as Evan Garcia have been paddling from a very young age, with paddling in their blood. Kent chimes in “…And Steve Fisher grew up slalom paddling!” A fact that re-affirms that many of the people who are revered in the paddling world often learnt their skills in a fairly disciplined way.
When I mention the newer extreme races that are taking place now, and how in particular races like the Moriston River Race in Scotland may be an impetus for recreational paddlers to focus more on technique to give them a chance at winning, Kent is accepting and enthusiastic about this. At the same time he has some reservations about the way the sport is presented to the public.
“Yeah! I like the extreme, and I think that’s really awesome that it’s a part of the sport, but I think what we need more of at the moment is balance. And this gets onto your discussion about class 2 and class 3 whitewater, but the imagery out there to the public about extreme, at least in this country, has become what people think kayaking is.”
“They think that all of kayaking is extreme. And I think that’s been very detrimental to the sport. I love the extreme, and I love that people do that, but the problem is that we don’t have these big machines of public relations putting it out there that class 2 whitewater is really in many peoples hearts what the sport can be about.”
“You know in this country people who discuss this look at skiing. Skiing has quite an extreme image but they also have this huge industry of resorts. And the resorts you’d better believe are pumping out this image of ‘this is a beginner friendly activity’, and that you can do it.”
“We really don’t have people putting that image out there as effectively. We don’t have the big resorts, and as a result the image in peoples minds of what whitewater kayaking is is being driven by these visuals of the extreme by the media, and it’s not really being driven by us, the sport.”
This is a point not lost on many people who belong to clubs. I use the example of a manufacturers that preferred to show people doing spectacular whitewater rather than the kind of water most mortals can do in their advertising.
“Right, I think our sport has a lot of maturing to do in terms of figuring out how to do that. Part of the problem is that if you put yourself in the shoes of marketing director for the boat company, most of them have recreational boats, sea kayaks, and so on, and you know, they’re putting together their catalogue and they go ‘Okay here’s a sea kayak picture. We’ll put some great scenic for the sea kayaking picture!’ And then ‘Okay here’s our recreational craft. We’ll put a great family shot with that. Oh we need to spice up our catalogue, let’s throw in the waterfall for the whitewater picture!’”
“So again whitewater takes it on the chin. You know, it takes this imagery that’s really beyond what most people want to do. And so you know we’re the problem! We the whitewater boater have put that image out there, and we allow this to be the image that’s painted for our sport.”
Recently a friend of mine came back from a trip to the States and it was apparent to him that there was a difference in attitude to the way that people approach river running. My friend observed how people in the UK focussed a lot on the grade of river you run rather the experience you had, which he found to be more the case in the US.
“I’m delighted he had that experience here in the States, but frankly I think it varies by region, and I think it varies by group what sort of atmosphere is built. But I’d say it’s very common here to have a lot of pressure to get into harder and harder water, and I think that’s been very, very detrimental to the sport.”
“We lose a lot of people that way. I mean there are people who say ‘Ahh, I tried it once but I didn’t get my roll so I didn’t want to go out on class 3 or 4.’ And they quit the sport then. That’s a shame because we need to make a place for people to be okay at running class 2 for the rest of their life. And we’ve not made that place for them.”
“I don’t know how this is taking off in the UK, but in the US stand up paddling is just going blockbuster! I mean you go into your traditional kayak store in a river town and it’s not the whitewater kayaks that are front and centre anymore. It’s the stand up boards!”
“Part of the appeal of stand up paddling for the masses is that there’s a very intuitive knowledge that ‘I can do that!’ I think that the growth of that points to how badly we’ve missed that with our marketing and presentation of kayaking.”
I move on to ask him about introducing youngsters to paddling and the best approaches and advice. I mention to him the experiences that my friends have had balancing family with kayaking, and the psychological aspects of being in a boat for a young child. Kent is possibly the only person to have produced a DVD specifically for young children and paddling, “River Monster“.
“Yeah, I mean that’s really the challenge isn’t it? How to avoid the bad experience. And so the bottom line is very, very slowly and methodically. A huge amount of time getting comfortable with the boat, and getting comfortable with the boat upside down. There’s a funny expression, ‘To teach kids how to paddle you throw the kayaks in the pool and then you throw the kids in the pool!’ And just let them swim around the kayaks, and get them comfortable swimming up under the kayak, and poking their head up into the upside down cockpit. And eventually crawling into the boat and getting pulled right side up with no spray skirt. Just lots of familiarity in the water before getting into rivers and the harder aspects.”
“Then the other key thing is with other kids. If you get five or six kids involved and you throw five or six kids in the pool and five or six boats in the pool and just wait for the chemistry to take it’s own course that way.”
I go on to talk about how the image of kayaking doesn’t often appear very family friendly, and how this can often be off-putting.
“…When you have a family and you put the extreme image out there that’s not the magnet. The manufacturers and us as a whole sport need to start remembering when we have a club, we need to put a picture of a family having fun, not the guy having fun running the 10 or 15ft waterfall.”
In the UK access to rivers without hassle from landowners or fishing interests can be difficult. I mention to him the rivers access situation in the UK and ask about what the situation is like in the US.
“Right, it’s really, really different, it’s quite different, hugely different than in the UK, and it’s very regional but we’ve got great access to our rivers in most states. In Colorado where I live there are problems. But even so, our idea of problems are minuscule compared to in the UK. So we’ve got a very different base of laws and so on than you’re struggling with.”
I tell him about the irony that the US water laws were originally based on English law. “Yeah you hear talk of that sometimes! Like here, and this is one of your questions about the landowner and fishing interests, that landowner and fishing interests are aligned in the UK, but most often the fishing interests and the boating interests are aligned here in the United States. And that’s partly because the fishing interests and the environmental interests are very tightly aligned in the US. And the environmental interests are very much aligned with the boating interests.”
“So landowners and fishing interests do not necessarily go hand in hand <in the US> as they do in the UK.”
Artificial whitewater courses are becoming more popular with expensive venues such as Cardiff International White Water, Lee Valley, and Teeside. There is even a scheme planned to mimic the waterfalls on the Etive by building a new centre in Glasgow. It always struck me that it would be a good idea to convert dangerous weirs, or low head dams as they are better known in the US, to mini whitewater courses.
I ask Kent about such schemes that I have heard about being planned in the States.
“Yeah, it’s more than a few! And it’s more than just talk! It’s happening on a pretty huge scale really. Either the conversion of low head dams, or just the building of small whitewater parks in downtowns where rivers go through. It’s astounding how many of those little parks are happening around the US.”
“There are four of five companies that specialise in doing that, and there are lots and lots of projects happening around the US. Many of them in towns that are not towns that you would think of as being whitewater boating towns! But particularly the conversion of low head dams, they’re very successful! I mean there are a couple of them here in Colorado. It’s made towns turn their front doors to the rivers.”
“You know, a lot of that is a conversion from the industrial age when the river was the dumping ground and the back door to an industrial zone. And now these towns are turning their front door to the river, and one of the best ways to turn your front door to the river is by having a focal point. The whitewater park becomes the focal point for turning the front door to the river.”
“So that’s been an important part of this puzzle for the US is it’s not really about how many kayakers there are who go out and use the river. But it’s about how many people gravitate towards the river and towards that downtown because of the kayakers on the river. You know it only takes three or four people out there <on the river> to be a fascinating eye candy for someone sitting out in a cafe by the side of the river. And so you don’t need a lot of kayakers to make it a success for a community.”
There is a similar scheme being planned fairly close to me in Pershore. The plans, although having the backing from the Town Council, have been known to be opposed by anglers.
“Right well there’s these companies that do it who are are very adept here at showing how it’s a benefit to the fishery. You know for a while there was a project here in the US that was a symposium for how to build whitewater courses. And it would happen every year. It was a little bizarre in that it was one of these really small symposium things that happened every year or two, but all the companies that made whitewater parks would come to it.”
“In retrospect it made it real okay for communities to build these parks. So it might be an interesting thing to have someone organise in the UK. What ends up happening is you end up getting the typical presentation, each of these companies is showing their success stories and some of what they’ve accomplished. You know it might be a really interesting model to have happen in the UK some time.”
“Boy it’s mind boggling really how many of these courses are around the US now, just mind boggling!”
I talk about how such schemes are great for the communities and how they could help rejuvenate an area.
“Yeah, and again it’s so often not about the kayakers! Kayakers are usually the driving force to them, but the people who end up using them are the young mum with the two or three kids, and they’re able to go down and hang out in a little eddy. The kids get to get their feet wet and get to throw pebbles in low water, and they have a place to hang out near the river near the centre of town, it’s pretty neat.”
I mention Scott Shipley, the former slalom champion, who appears in some of Kent’s videos who now designs and builds whitewater courses, including the Lee Valley Olympic course.
“Scott’s a really good one, although more of his speciality these days is doing courses like the London Olympic course, which are pumped, huge, big Dollar facilities. Sometimes I think they can almost be detrimental to the sport because they have so much expense involved. What we really need more of, but what I also think is thriving, is just this ‘every town’ sort of attitude where every town with a river can do something, have some sort of segment they can carve out for public access and for boating.”
“Those are much smaller scale than Shipley’s specialty. He’s done some of the small ones too.”
I move the subject on towards the DVD’s that Kent has produced over the years and make special mention of the “Kayak Roll” DVD which has helped a great many people nail this most difficult of skills. I also ask him about the genesis of his documentary on the history of whitewater paddling “The Call of the River”.
“First of all thanks for the feedback on the roll film or any of the other ones, because that really warms my heart, and it fuels me to know that people enjoy them and it really has fueled me having that sort of feedback.”
“But yeah ‘The Call of the River’ was pretty neat. I knew of some great footage out there just from my forty years in the sport! I knew of some of these amazing little collections of footage. Oliver Cox from the UK just had a tremendous archive of stuff that he put together from the 40’s and 50’s. And as I gathered footage like that, just mentally I gathered it was an outline for how the sport had progressed over the last hundred years.”
“As a videographer I was in a pretty unique position to gather all that footage and frame it together as a retrospective of how our sport had advanced. And boy what a tremendous a) challenge it was, but b) so rewarding to see how these different pieces of the puzzle came together to propel the sport forward!”
“And they were out of left field some of them. You know some of the big changes in the sport were materials obviously, but one of the big ones was aluminum for canoeing. In the US particularly canoeing was the sport until really into the mid 1960’s and early 70’s. And the thing that really helped canoeing establish that place for whitewater was aluminum out of World War 2. Then of course plastic kayaks took their place, and just small changes at the time had a big impact on how our sport developed.”
I ask Kent if we still have things we can learn from those pioneers.
“Well yes, but I don’t think it so much in terms of technique, but you know it’s about flowing water, and there’s something really special about flowing water, and that was evident in the early days and I think it’s evident today to people that get fascinated with the sport. So you know when you look at the whole hundred years you realise that specialisation in the sport is a temporary thing.”
“There’ll be periods where the only thing people are dealing with is solo open canoes, until the next thing comes along. Right now we’re in an era where whitewater kayaks on hard whitewater is the thing, but we don’t really know what will be next, and what’s going to be next in the way people explore flowing water.”
I point out people complaining about slightly leaky dry cags and drysuits on forums, and how they have it so good compared to the pioneers who had none of this advanced gear.
Kent laughs. “Yeah, for sure! We do have it pretty good. Our boats don’t break. I mean for years people literally had to patch their boat every week! And that’s just not on anyones radar screen right now, not at all!”
So what’s next for Kent Ford?
“Well, some of my projects now are working on eBooks. Ive got an eBook now on the kayak roll, it’s kind of loosely based on the video. And I have one on technique that’s loosely based on our film ‘Breakthru’. And one of the next ones is going to be an eBook on ‘The Call of the River’. A kind of still photo explanation and exploration of how the sport’s evolved. So that’s some of the next projects. I already sell downloads of all my films, but we’re working on getting all of those onto the Apple platform. So those are some of my winter projects!”
Throughout the interview Kent’s enthusiasm for the sport of paddling shone through. Even if he retired tomorrow he has left a lasting legacy on the paddling world. Thankfully this won’t be the case and may the influence he has on the sport of paddling long continue.
I would like to sincerely thank Kent for the time he gave to take part in this interview. If you are interested in seeing any of Kent’s video or DVD productions as well as articles head on over to Performance Video.