Westwater Canyon is an amazing stretch of the Colorado River that consists of nine class III+/IV rapids. It can get really gnarly in high water, and I have experienced major scary carnage in rafts at those levels (video evidence here), but during the Fall, it's a super challenging and relatively safe stretch on a SUP.
This year was the third time I have SUP'd Westwater. One of my goals was to be able to clean the entire stretch and SEND IT!!
So I reviewed the footage from year's past. Replayed it over and over. Slow motion. Studied it. Wrote down what I would say as my own coach. Oh man, I wanted to clean Westwater Canyon SO DANG BAD.
I never want to be the person that feels like they are a "professional", therefore they can't learn anything else new.
Having a network of SUP friends is awesome. There have been a handful of paddlers that have been a huge influence on my stand up paddling career because they have provided me with great gear, useful knowledge about board and paddle design, how water interacts with my board in the river, and helpful tips on paddle technique. I would not be the paddler I am today if I wouldn't have moved to Colorado and met the wonderful world of whitewater SUPers.
I never want to be the person that feels like they are a "professional", therefore they can't learn anything else new. Coming from a dance-ish background, it reminds me of a story my ballet instructor told about a world-class ballet dancer taking beginner ballet lessons because they believed that there is always something to be learned; even at the basic level. I never want my ego to get in the way of learning. The sport of whitewater SUP is such a new sport that I also believe that there isn't really a "right" and a "wrong" way to do things. It's always fun to watch great river SUPers paddle and see what stances they prefer to take, how they punch through holes, or how they utilize their corrective strokes to get the SUP to go where they want to go.
I used to strap a GoPro to my helmet or my chest when I filmed myself paddle boarding so that the footage showed how big the waves were, and what lines I took to get through the rapids. However, I already know how big the waves are, and I'm already confident that I can read water well. I started attaching the GoPro to the nose of my board so that I could video myself paddling. I like the way the footage turns out better, because I can be my own coach and watch how I paddle, and break down what I'm doing well and what I need to work on as a stand up paddle boarder.
On October 20th, 2017, I paddle boarded Westwater Canyon in Utah for the third time in three years. I am very happy with the way I paddled because I feel that Westwater is a very challenging canyon for me because it's a big water style of river. Which means the waves are BIG, and they hit you HARD, and if you make it through the waves, then you have boils and swirling eddie lines at the bottom of the rapid that try to suck your rails underwater. After you make it through one class III rapid, you have a pool to recover, then about one minute until the next class III rapid. There are a couple class III+/IV rapids in the mix as well. It's a workout, at the very least!
The first time I ever SUP'd Westwater, I remember swimming hard. The most distinguishable memory that stands out to me is swimming through Funnel Falls and swallowing the most river water I have ever swallowed. I did clean a few rapids, don't get me wrong, but the ones that I swam... I swam hard. It was exhausting.
The second time I SUP'd Westwater was September of 2016 at 3700 cfs. I knew what I was getting into. I came back for redemption, and this time, I was in better shape from racing all summer. My mantra I used to help me paddle better was, "Paddle Fast". I charged every rapid as fast as I could, and cleaned a lot more of it. I understood that for me, I could handle bigger water and bigger hits much easier if I generated speed and went faster than the current.
Compilation from Westwater Canyon in 2016 at 3700 cfs.
However, I still got worked in Funnel Falls and Surprise Rapids, and fell off because of one of the boils after the rapid as well. When I looked at the footage from my GoPro, I feel that the reason I swam in those rapids is because of my foot placement. I could tell from the footage that as I charged into those rapids and stepped back into my staggered stance, that I seemed unsure of myself. And I bounced off of my board as soon as a big enough wave hit me.
My equestrian vaulting background helps me to be able to see and understand my body language of being unsure about footing. I say this all the time, standing on a horse and standing on a SUP in a river are very similar. When you stand on a horse, you can actually use your feet to make the horse run well, and it also feels better to the horse when you stand that way. A great stand on the horse means that your feet are rolling from your toes to your heels with each stride, and your knees are absorbing that movement so that your upper body is solid. It's a harmonious stance, rather than a reactive or defensive stance.
Standing on Rocco, owned by Gino Zoppe while training with Cavallo Equestrian Arts.
When I stand on a SUP, I want to use my weight to help the SUP stay upright and push through the currents. When the SUP climbs over waves, I need to put my weight on my toes as I reach forward in my paddle strokes to pull the SUP over the tops of the waves. As my SUP drops down the backside of the waves, or drops into holes, I need to put my weight back on my heels to push the board forward and lift the nose slightly to keep it from pearling on the next wave.
I reviewed the footage. Replayed it over and over. Slow motion. Studied. Wrote down what I would say as my own coach. Oh man, I wanted to clean Westwater Canyon SO DANG BAD.
So this year, I gave it another shot. I have been trying to recover from SUP overuse injuries, so it had been about two months since I had actually paddle boarded, and I hadn't really paddled big rapids in probably six months. I felt under-prepared and a little bit nervous.
I joined my friends, Gary and Leslie Lacey, and their friend on one raft, and I was the "safety boater" on my SUP ;) . Although it was sunny that day, the wind was blowing about 20-40 miles per hour. Wetsuits don't insulate very well in the wind, so my goal was to stay high and dry through Westwater, and use the motivation of staying warm to help me send it.
So my mantra on this trip was "Dry Hair". And I'm proud to report that the Dry Hair Challenge was a success!! I didn't fall off of my SUP AT ALL throughout all of Westwater!! The water level was even higher this year (4400 cfs), but I felt so confident on my board and I felt like my efforts to get in the habit of charging through each rapid are starting to stick.
Compilation from padding Westwater Canyon in 2017 at 4400 cfs.
After reviewing the footage, I am happy to see that my foot placement has improved from last year. Controlling the rails of the board to keep it from flipping was second-nature, and I attribute that to the time that I spent surfing in Sayulita last year. I've also been spending the last few years trying to break my habit of bracing at big waves instead of continuing to paddle through them, and I see from the footage that I have indeed improved.
I am happy with the way I paddled through Westwater because I saw so much improvement in my performance versus years' past. However, I do not feel like it was as beautiful and clean as I would like. I am my own toughest critic, and another habit that I have developed that drives me nuts is falling on one knee. It's a great way to stay safe in big water, and I would teach that technique to everyone learning how to river SUP because it helps you fall on the board instead of in the water. It's also a great way to recover quickly. However, for me and where I'm at in my paddling, it's hard to justify if it's a cop-out or a safety call. I personally feel like I'm selling myself short by going on one knee, because I know I'm good enough to stay on both of my feet.
I've been trying to figure out what causes me to fall on one knee. I definitely know that when I paddled through Sock It To Me and Skull Rapid, arguably the biggest rapids in the canyon, I prematurely fell on one knee because I was scared I was going to fall in as I was navigating the fine line between the boils and the current, so my board was starting to spin in circles (if I were paddling faster, or shifted my line a little bit to be more in the current, then I would have been fine).
There are other times that I go on one knee because I want more weight on the rail while I reach out to the side to do a draw brace to keep the board from flipping. It's like my way of 'high-side'. I think that there were some instances that this technique has been appropriate, but I would like to also practice my draw braces in a river while standing so that I can work on reducing the frequency that I feel that I need to lower to one knee.
But the other instances I fell on one knee, and the majority of the times I do this in general, I know it was because I hit a wave so hard that my board stopped and I fell forward. So how to fix that? I know there were definitely times this happened when I could not have been paddling any harder. I remember it felt like I hit a rock head-on some of these times. So my theory to fix this from happening is to try paddling a shorter board (Atcha 8'6") that would allow me to have a little bit more freedom to shift my weight back and lift the nose up and over those big waves. I tend to stand in such a wide staggered stance on my Atcha 9'6" because I feel like I have to in order to set myself up so that I just have to shift my weight from front to back to lift up the nose without having to physically cross-step back toward the tail and risk falling off, especially in those split seconds I have to react to big waves. Being a smaller-sized paddler physically, I have to move around on my board more than a bigger paddler would in order to get it to respond to my weight placement, which obviously has both its pros and cons.
But regardless of my own critique, I had such a fun time paddling Westwater!! It is one of my favorite stretches of river, and I am so happy that I live close enough to it that I get to paddle it so often. It will probably be the last stretch of river I will paddle this year, especially since I've been dealing with some sciatica pain after paddling it. :( I'll probably be taking a few months off of paddling to give my body a chance to heal for next season (easier said than done).
What are some tips and tricks you use to help you paddle whitewater?