Returning Home


By Emily Shanblatt

I am about to return home from the greatest journey of my life.

I took a brief break from GAP instruction and life in North Carolina to fulfill a long awaited dream.  I’ve spent the last three months travelling out west with the sole mission of running whitewater.  Starting with 8 weeks of creeking in High Sierra California, I then migrated north to the Pacific Northwest, followed by a short stint in Idaho.  What has this trip meant for me?  Way more than I could have ever expected…

I went to California with the mentality of “I want to run big rapids.  I want to look at something intimidating and scary, and have the peace of mind and confidence in my skills to run it anyway”.  One of the first trips I went on upon arriving in California was a two day mission on Dinkey Creek.  Dinkey is famous for waterfalls and slides of epic proportions.  While I expected to encounter tall, technical rapids, the magnitude of Dinkey Creek blew my mind.  It was the perfect training ground to test myself and my goal.  Each rapid took significant planning and focus, and help serious class V consequence.  The purpose of this tale, is to emphasize the importance of my predetermined mindset – knowing what I wanted to accomplish, and holding myself to it.  Proving to myself on Dinkey Creek that I could push through the fear of running the biggest rapids I’d ever seen, set me up for continued success.  That mentality has never left me.  This mentality, however, stands ubiquitously for any level of kayaker.  With an obvious mentality of safety first, it doesn’t matter if you’re starring down the gut of a class II rapid or class V, it’s about what you do with those feelings of fear.

willie kern

another 20

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I have spent 44 days on the river since I left Asheville, and have run 28 new sections of whitewater.  I have practically run more sections of rivers out here, than I have in my own home region of the Southeast!  I cannot overemphasize the importance and significant growth resulting from running new rivers.  The first time down any river, it’s natural to be nervous, anxious of what’s ahead, gripped, and pumped with adrenaline.  Fresh eyes on whitewater always makes it seem bigger and harder than accounts from those who know it, but there is much to be learned from any personal first descent.  After 28 of them, one trip stands out as the most challenging and enlightening day on a new run.


The first time I ran the Little White Salmon in Washington, I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever done in a kayak.  I had never been so scared putting on a river, and every bit of that fear came to fruition as I dropped into the first big rapid, a half-mile long class V boulder garden with virtually no where to stop and little room for error.  The next hour and a half put literally every skill I had to the test.  From technical skills like delayed water boofs and torso rotation for maximum power, to reading water and seeing moves, to the ability to calm my mind and find respite among chaos, the Little White demanded more from me that day than I could have ever expected.  It can be hard to practice those skills, and truly put yourself in a “gripped” mindset.  I certainly cannot replicate that atmosphere for myself on a run I know.  It takes the mystery of the unknown to showcase our inherent talents.  Having tested and seen improvement in my skills throughout this trip, I now believe that running new rivers is one of the best ways to become a better kayaker.

The world is filled with all different types and styles of whitewater.  Traveling has also tremendously improved my kayaking by exposing me to various styles and river features.  Low volume, rocky creeks are my comfort zone since it’s what I learned on.  Out here, I had to adjust to higher volume, and a more pushy nature.  I’ve learned to deal with features rarely see in the southeast like boils, potholes, and bedrock slides.  I’ve even started to lessen my fear of big water on runs that felt like the Upper Gauley, mixed with the Russell Fork…on crack!  Travelling allows you to diversify your skill set, and show you a whole new world of lessons to be learned on and off differing styles of rivers.

The greater picture of this journey brings me back to the people I’ve grown close to, the places kayaking has taken me, and the profound experiences I’ve had mixing those two things with the inherent adventures and challenges of whitewater.  This trip has shaped me, in more ways than one, and has reminded me time and time again why I love kayaking.

cherry scout

I’ll soon return home with a bittersweet sense of seeking closure on what has been the experience of a lifetime.  Eager to return to my house, my things, a kitchen, refrigerator, and pieces of life that remind me why I love the south, I drive east knowing I will return.

The lessons I’ve learned out here are powerful, and are sure to make me a stronger kayaking instructor.  July 18th marks my re-entry into the world of GAP instruction.  I have never been more stoked on kayaking than I am right now, and cannot wait to see how that excitement manifests in my teaching, and time on the river with friends, new and old.

To sign up for instruction with Em, contact Girls at Play at (828) 333-4482 or