Kayak trip leaders learn the ropes

Fellow level 4 kayak instructor Bill Merrick and I spent two days this week at Gardner Dam Boy Scout Camp helping six kayakers attain their ACA level 1 kayak instructor certification. The candidates are preparing for their summer jobs as guides for kayak camping trips in the Apostle Islands and other locations in the Upper Midwest.

We began each day with classroom lessons and discussion in topics such as risk management and cold water safety before moving to on-the-water training. Gardner Dam Camp is located in the Wisconsin northwoods on the Wolf River. It’s an ideal spot to learn whitewater kayaking, so for the sea kayaking portion of this week’s training we traveled to nearby Boulder Lake on Tuesday and Shawano Lake on Wednesday. During the two days, each student took a turn role-playing as “trip leader”. He or she prepared the group to review the float plan, discussed visual and audible signals, and assigned “lead”, “sweep” and other roles for the group.

Bill and I acted out the roles of inexperienced members of the group and deliberately created situations the future trip leaders may encounter in real life. For example, we took turns straying off course from the group, passing the “lead”, falling behind the “sweep”, capsizing and waiting for a bow rescue, and capsizing and wet exiting so students could practice their assisted rescue skills. After one of my capsizes and wet exits I turned my boat right-side-up so I could push it away from me as far as possible. Then I tossed my paddle as far as I could in the opposite direction and pretended to panic; splashing around and calling out for help. When Justin, the closest student, came to rescue me, I continued my panic routine by grabbing the side of his boat and pulling him into the water with me. He reacted properly, choosing to swim a short distance away from me until I “calmed down”.

To conclude the second day, we informed the students that both Bill and I were incapacitated and not able to lead the group. They would have to decide among themselves what to do. They quickly set up tow lines on our boats to bring us to shore. I took it a step further by feigning unconsciousness so they put a kayaker on each side of me to hold onto me and my boat, preventing me from capsizing as they towed me to shore. This extra drag on the tow line required them to set up a second tow rope with a fourth kayaker in front to assist. After returning to shore Bill and I congratulated the instructor candidates and passed along our evaluations to the ACA instructor trainer, Dave Benton, who supervised the week-long ACA training and certification process.

Kayak instruction is a rewarding experience. The payoff for me is in seeing how much progress a student can make in a relatively short but intense time period. The transfer of skills and knowledge makes me feel better about the safety of the groups the young guides will be leading this summer and hopefully for years to come.

Here's the view from my cockpit as I am supported by a kayaker on each side and the three of us are towed to shore by two other kayakers performing an in-line tow. To the left, Bill is towed by another student.

Here’s the view from my cockpit as I am supported by a kayaker on each side and the three of us are towed to shore by two other kayakers performing an in-line tow. To the left, Bill is towed by another student.

Bill explains the gear he carries in his PFD to the kayak instructor candidates.

Bill explains the gear he carries in his PFD to the kayak instructor candidates.


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