Chasing the grades can be an ego driven road to nowhere.
There is a lot of chasing the grades in kayaking. Certain rivers, rapids, or sections are seen as being test pieces that, once done, a person feels like they have moved up an echelon in the kayaking world. Even if in reality they only survived down them.
The Mellte, the Tawe, the Glaslyn gorge, the Upper Dart etc are amongst some of the most popular, because they are well known. Are they the highest grade of technical difficulty? Nope. But they can certainly deal out severe beatings at the right water levels.
The Tawe is a pretty good popular example of a river that falls into the category of a river course that provides for good pub talk, or when a person is asked which rivers they have done on a coaching course preamble.
At low levels it is mostly grade 3, although there are sections that could certainly be placed at a low 4 due to hazards that the naive may not be fully aware of in places. And I know people who are tempted, and sometimes do, go on it at higher levels despite the skill level not being there.
Congratulations, you made it down!
Here’s a question. If someone decides to push the grade despite them not having all that great a skill even on lower grades, is it right that we cheer and congratulate them for making it down a rapid upright, even if they were in reality completely out of control in doing it?
An example was brought up on The Hammer Factor a while ago that paralleled kayaking with surfing and made a pretty stark comparison. If you were surfing at a dangerous break and clearly didn’t have the skill to be doing so, in many parts of the world the other, more experienced surfers would say as much and tell you to get the hell off it.
Rude it might be, but it is also potentially life saving. Yet in kayaking we whoop and cheer as someone beaters down a chunky rapid, clearly not knowing what they are doing. Does it foster a culture of thinking that it’s okay to be pushing things even if people aren’t really capable of doing it as safely as they can?
The trouble with grades
Part of the problem with grades is that going on grade 2 or 3 to some people feels like the adventure sport version of going on the nursery slopes while skiing. It just isn’t cool (or sick, or dope, or whatever the down with the kids parlance is at the moment) to be the one having to do lower grades while all those peers are off on a mad trip to Scotland for the best of the white water.
There is a natural desire to want to ‘fit in’ with some people. It’s human nature. They want to be seen as equals to their peers, not inferior in some way.
The problem is that ticking off rivers and rapids is great for pub talk, but if you know that you weren’t ultimately in control and you pretty much just air braced while the boat carried you to the bottom, or PLF’d or did a burning man off a big drop, you can only kid yourself for so long. Because what you are doing isn’t just lying to yourself, it is actually dangerous. Not only for you, but to those around you.
Be exceptional on each grade
There is one thing in common that all the best boaters in the world say to people who want to improve their skills. From Bren Orton to Evan Garcia, from Nouria Newman to Adriene Levknecht, the advice is always “learn how to do the hard moves on easy water”. By doing this you not only get much better and precise skill, but you just look better and will have more fun in the first place!
There’s always a hard move to make on any rapid, no matter how simple it might look at first.
Okay, readers of this blog were wondering when I was going to rant on about this, but hold on, hear me out.
You have your huge confidence inspiring boat, and it’s getting you down rapids much better than your old boat, and you feel really happy!
Right, so honesty time. Is it your skill getting you down the rapids you found difficult before, or the boat? Then you need to ask yourself why whatever your answer was is the case. Why does your skill work in the new boat but not the old one? If it’s the boat getting you down then is there a problem being stored up for the future?
You see, if you have your big boat and you are now finding grade 2 or even grade 3 boring, or you can’t visualise any way to improve further, and you can’t make the most of the all the features on those lower grades because your boat is like the Titanic, what course of action is left? That’s right, you have no choice but to go on harder water in order that your boat comes alive again. And with harder water comes more consequences. Instead of practicing hard moves on easy water you are now learning your craft by practicing easy moves on hard water.
And that, in a nutshell is why I am dead set against the push to buy a creek boat when starting out on grade 2-3. It simply won’t allow you to get the most out of those grades, and hence improve your skill. Remember the aim is to physically increase your skill level, knowledge, and experience, not to paper over the cracks in an attempt to cover up lack of skill level, knowledge, and experience.
Where would you rather take your learning knocks? On grade 2 or on grade 4-5?
One of the best ways to see if you really have any boat control is to try slalom. You don’t even have to have a slalom boat to do this. The reality is that even paddlers who regularly paddle grade 4 in their clubs often fall apart at the seams when it comes to making simple, precise, smooth slalom moves, even on grade 1 moving water!
What slalom is in effect is getting you to do is to make grade 5 moves on any grade of water. Not only is slalom teaching you to do these moves, but it is teaching you to do it in a way that helps you to read the water, and hence use it to help you where you want to go. There’s a reason why I was paddling at my best when I used to practice slalom (albeit very poorly!) And there’s a reason why my river running skill level nose dived when I stopped it!
Lastly, practicing slalom teaches you to be proactive. You won’t make the poles if you are a drifter. You really have to think about boat placement, and ways to keep the boat moving, even over squirrelly water. It makes you positively change direction rather than back paddling (okay, I know some smart arse will point out to me that slalom paddlers sometimes take a back pry to dip the tail to get through some staggered gates etc), but for the most part it is about positively driving the boat and being in control at all times.
But it’s slalom, not a rapid, it’s different!
No it isn’t. Transferred to a river running scenario, those poles are simply must make moves and eddies. Go into a tight and technical grade 5 boulder garden full of sieves and siphons and you will want to go where you want to go, each and every time. Slalom is training you to do this. And like I said you don’t need a slalom boat to do it.
Skill levels are not a level playing field
Skill levels go up and down. If you once paddled grade 5 really well but have only been on grade 2 for the last 5 years while piling on the pounds you are not still a grade 5 paddler. Accept that sometimes people who were once lower than you in skill will sometimes surpass you. Skills have to be practiced or they become rusty. I know this very well. Sometimes real life gets in the way of having fun on the river. That’s just how things are. You need to build back up again.
So instead have fun doing things really well, not just things really big. And while we sometimes have to push our comfort zones to improve, there’s a big difference between pushing our actual skills within our skill level and putting ourselves into a scenario where our current skills are simply not enough.