Whitewater is not a competitive sport. There are, of course, competitions; however, on any given paddling day of the week, there is no competition between players. This is a fundamental difference between contemporary sports, like soccer and football, and outdoor adventure sports, like whitewater paddling. This difference, where players help one another rather than compete against one another, breeds a feeling of trust and respect because the purpose of the sport is to challenge oneself, not compete.
I have competed in soccer, baseball, basketball, track and field, rugby, fencing, and ultimate frisbee for many years growing up. When I went to college I started to rock climb, expedition backpack, mountain bike and paddle. In my experiences, and out of all the people that I have interacted with, I have found that I fit in best with whitewater paddlers because they create a most unique and colorful community founded on the love of the sport and the love of the beautiful places our sporting venues are located.
Relatively speaking, there are not very many whitewater boaters. Soccer, basketball, football, baseball and the ‘usual sports’ are nice because all an individual needs to practice is a ball (maybe a bat) and a relatively flat space. These sports are accessible to almost all, and they’re exciting to play. There are significantly more limitations in whitewater sports, limits that prevent many people from even thinking about participation.
Location limits participation. For whitewater to occur steep hills are needed to create the gradient (aka mountains). Anyone living in flat areas, i.e. much of the center of the U.S. and coastal areas, would have a very long drive to get to any whitewater section of river (excluding whitewater parks like the USNWC in Charlotte, NC).
Acquiring the necessary gear limits participation. Many pretty pennies are needed to even get on the water for personal trips. To give you an idea, a new kayak is about $1000. Even if purchasing used gear it usually costs upwards of $500 to get the big five pieces of gear; paddle, helmet, PFD, skirt, and boat. On top of that, additional gear is needed to be a safe whitewater kayaker; like throw ropes, a rescue knife, a pin-kit with carabiners, pulleys, webbing, and even a medical kit. Obtaining training to use the gear effectively is also important, replacing old/worn out/damaged gear is necessary, and it all costs money.
Mostly, fear limits participation. It is very reasonable that people don’t want to participate in a sport where death is a possible consequence. Whitewater is inherently dangerous and people die in rivers every year. Not being able to breathe underwater means that if we get trapped under, for any reason, there is only a five minute window for someone to come rescue you before permanent brain damage is likely. Wood strainers, foot entrapment, undercut rocks, flush drowning, sieves… there are many ways to get caught underwater. In football, when they crash, they stay where they fall. When carnage happens in whitewater, that person and boat and gear are constantly moving, possibly into more dangerous situations.
The men and women who love whitewater recognize these dangers and limitations, and then drive hundreds of miles to charge over waterfalls anyway. That personality type resonates with me. Additionally, while on the river, the people you paddle with are your safety net. Trust is crucial because when I get caught in a tough situation, I need to know that help is coming, and my friends need to know that I will rush to help them if their shit hits the fan.
The crazy thing is that every whitewater paddler I have met is willing to help out any random stranger on the river. I lost my paddle on the Russel Fork river in Kentucky, and it wasn’t five minutes before a stranger brought me his spare paddle. A friend of mine swam out of his boat in the Tallulah Gorge and some random paddler helped me save his boat and gear from washing downstream. Personally, I have a tow strap on my rescue PFD and when ever someone swims near me, stranger or known, I do my best to rescue them and their gear.
The feeling of trust is community wide, and I love that. Even off the river the feeling of trust is there. A friend accidentally left his truck doors wide open at the put-in for the Upper Gauley River. Inside the car was his tablet, iPhone, wallet, and lots of camping gear. The Gauley parking lot is very busy because it only runs a couple of times each year, so there was a lot of traffic around the car, but when we returned hours later nothing was moved or touched.
The members of the whitewater community trust each other with their lives; therefore, off the river it’s easy to get along and help one another out. There are some pretty crazy characters that I have met, but we all have a passion for feeling the flow of water, which is enough. We recognize the dangers, and have an unspoken, unwritten commitment to help one another on, and off, the river.
-James Page (Outside World Whitewater Ambassador)
You can read James’ other blog here!