Keeping Afloat and Having Fun with Girls at Play


Karissa Mae Stewart

by Karissa Stewart

When you’re upside down in the rapids, of a swiftly moving river, with your head above the rocks and your lungs bursting for fresh air this may sound like a time to panic, but it’s actually the best place to start.

To escape, you must lean in, tuck your chest forward and pull the release loop on the top of your spray skirt. Then the water fills up like a bubble inside of the kayak’s hole, and you rise to the surface of the water.

This was the position I found myself in a lot during the beginner 4-day whitewater clinic with Girls at Play this past May. Sometimes it was intentional or accidental like when reaching too far out to grab a stray paddle, or it was when I was peeling out, or I didn’t know what I did, but I still managed to find myself upside down.

When all else fails, you swim. It can complicate things. Getting into your head that you’re going to swim and you can become discouraged. For me, I became more self-conscious, sometimes I felt silly, but never in a way that made me give up.

There are two ways to go down a river — paddling or swimming; however, when our group headed to the French Broad River, section 9, I learned of another way: walking.

For us, on that day, it meant fastening our kayaks to a rope, hauling them up a steep hill one at a time, balancing our boat on our body against a drop, and then cautiously carrying it across the outside of a railroad track, treating rotting planks of wood like stepping stones.

The Class II rapids along FB9 demand attention, and since this was our third day together, we weren’t concerned about embarrassing ourselves or holding up the group. At least that’s how I felt. After a few runs, boats were moving faster, all of us were swimming, and I felt a tinge of weariness. But I still thought walking was the worst idea.

I later realized that the personality of the river changes, just like the personality of each participant changed over the course of four days. Rain, the night before, had changed the river’s personality and was a huge factor in why the water was so cool and quick. And we simply weren’t ready.

Looking back, I’m glad that we walked. In order to become a good kayaker, it’s not about being brave, but about making the best decisions based on your abilities. It’s a lesson that I now take to heart.

Girls at Play taught me that sometimes those decisions mean being bored on land (and you just have to get over it.) Trust me, walking sucks. That day I learned that you shouldn’t push the envelope if it means leaving you exposed to unforeseen hazards or paddling outside of your protection point. Have faith in the opinions and thoughts of experienced kayakers. Don’t argue. Listen…they know. Mary Frances, our instructor, did.

It’s now been almost a month, 26 days to be exact, since my 4-day clinic at GAP. One of my goals for the summer was to run the Nantahala River. This past Tuesday, I accomplished the Nanty…it was amazing! I kayaked with two friends and I put in below Patton’s Run. I never felt stressed out or like I was just surviving the waves as I did on the French Broad. Sometimes I took more conservative routes and it was the first time I didn’t follow others. I paddled my own route. GAP gave me the courage to be a confident paddler.

My experiences also showed me that paddling or being upside down are not the only options I have. With that, I got out just before the Falls — walking the rest — and grateful to know that I’ll be back later.

Thank you, Girls at Play, for living up to your motto: inspiring your life on and off the water. I’ve accomplished so much with your help. Since my time in Asheville, I’m paddling with confidence, I’m aggressive and my river reading skills are improving.

My forward stroke is looking a lot better. And what I describe as my “uh-oh” face, along with the “don’t swim, don’t swim, don’t swim” voice, has gone away.  And I’m having fun pushing myself to do my best every time.

My mental game has changed. I hear myself saying “paddle hard”, “loose hips” and “I got this”. I’m no longer feeling like waves are the death of me. I’m turning into smaller eddies, catching them higher up on the water and gliding across lines better.

As a working girl on a budget, I have told my friends and parents that GAP was the best value for my money. My advice to any beginners is invest in instruction. Cool clothes and top of the line gear aren’t that awesome when you can’t paddle.

I received excellent instruction from Mary Frances and she made it fun, while at the same time giving us feedback on our strokes and other concepts. In addition to great on-the-water instruction, I also learned a lot about stretching properly before and after kayaking. And I no longer dread loading my boat.

Mary Frances gave us a 101 on everything from carrying our boats to caring for bruises after you are off the river. My time at GAP made me realize that kayaking has become more than a hobby, it has become a passion. One that I wish I had started sooner.


Join us for one of our awesome beginner whitewater kayaking clinics in Asheville, you can read more about them here. Or, looking for an even bigger and tropical adventure? Check out our Novice and Intermediate Whitewater Kayaking Trips in Costa Rica.