Kelly's story with the American Canoe Association

Where it all began

While my relationship with the ACA began a bit later in my paddling career than Laura, it was equally pivotal in my development as a paddler and an instructor.

My ‘professional’ kayak career began in 2003 with Sea Quest Expeditions in the San Juan Islands, Washington.  Fresh out of undergrad and ready to conquer the world, I applied for a job as a sea kayak guide and naturalist.  Admiring my enthusiasm, if not my experience, Martine Springer hired me on for the season.  I began assisting the company’s more experienced guides with single and multi-day trips.  Then much to my surprise, I found myself leading multi-day adventures by mid-summer.  I vividly remember my first overnight trip as a lead guide – I was equal parts thrilled and terrified!

My summer in the San Juan Islands had a profound impact on the next 14 years of my life.  As a lead guide, I was responsible for the guests’ safety both on and off the water.  This was an empowering experience that instilled in me a confidence I still draw on today.  Paddling around the islands under clear summer skies in waters teeming with wildlife – I fell in love with sea kayaking and would romanticize my time with Sea Quest Expeditions for years to come.

First mulit-day trip with Sea Quest Expeditions.

First mulit-day trip with Sea Quest Expeditions.

Fast forward to 2013

After completing graduate school, I moved to California and made a career 180.  I decided to take my passion for paddling and turn it into my profession.  I joined the staff at California Canoe & Kayak (CCK) and embarked on the path to become a sea kayak instructor.  Ending up at CCK was fortuitous.  With over 40 years of experience in paddlesports education, CCK has trained countless whitewater and sea kayak instructors.  The owner, Keith Miller, assisted with the development of the ACA’s national sea kayak instructor certification program and has remained closely aligned with the ACA since.

My first ACA certification course was a bit of a disaster.  I was going for my Level 4 Open Water Coastal Kayaking instructor certification.  For this level of certification, the instructor candidate must demonstrate proficiency and the ability to effectively teach in 3 to 5 foot seas, 15 to 20 knot winds, 2 to 4 knots of current, and 2 to 4 foot surf.  With 10+ years of experience sea kayaking in the San Juan Islands, the estuaries of New England, and the bayous of Louisiana, I fancied myself a coastal kayaker.  I blatantly disregarded the fact that I had only paddled in the surf a handful of times and enrolled in the course.

The week of the course arrived and I could barely keep myself safe in the surf – forget teaching another paddler proper launching and landing technique.  I lacked confidence in my ability to instruct and was unable to command the attention required to manage a group on the open coast.  I got sea sick, swam in the surf, and spent every night of the 5 days wondering what the hell was I thinking?!

Introducing a class to one of my favorite places to paddle – the surf!  Photo: Sean Finigan

Introducing a class to one of my favorite places to paddle – the surf!  Photo: Sean Finigan

Lessons learned

Four years, 3 certifications, and 1 teaching award later, I am still growing as a paddler and an instructor.  When I reflect on my journey to this point, a few lessons standout:

There is no substitute for experience – I would like to immediately acknowledge the irony of including this as a lesson learned and confess that I can often be found shrugging my shoulders and stating ‘fake it till you make it’ before I take off on some adventure I am ill prepared for.  Unfortunately, on the water, there is no substitute for experience.  Reading about how to paddle in the wind, watching a video of someone carve a wave, or listening to your buddies rehash a rock garden rescue does not provide the same insight as the experience itself.  The more I experience, the more ways I can explain a concept to my students, the more genuine my feedback, and most importantly, the more prepared I am for an emergency.

Be flexible and creative – When I first began instructing, I prepare a detailed syllabus for each class and found it extremely frustrating that I was seldom able to follow my carefully outlined progression.  It quickly became apparent that environmental conditions and the individual learning styles of my students would require me to be flexible and creative.  Wind, swell, and current vary each time I teach a class, and often within a class, and my lessons need to be modified accordingly.  Every student has a different learning style and my lessons need to contain several teaching approaches to engage as many learners as possible.  Over time, my ‘syllabuses’ have morphed into a more free-flowing list of concepts with several exercises using various approaches to convey each concept.

Have fun!  Most kayakers seek instruction looking to improve their skills and better understand the associated risks – but they became interested in the sport because it was fun!  My main goal as an instructor is to help paddlers of all abilities find a lifetime of joy on the water.  I believe fun is contagious.  If I am burnt out and dreading a class, my students sense this and it takes enjoyment away from their experience.  To make sure I am recharged and ready to teach, I paddle for pleasure regularly and I try not to take myself too seriously.

Sharing my love of paddling through teaching.  Photo:  California Women's Watersport Collective , Melissa DeMarie

Sharing my love of paddling through teaching.  Photo: California Women's Watersport Collective, Melissa DeMarie

The ACA connected me to a network of highly skilled instructors eager to share their knowledge and experience.  I would not be here today preparing for our trip to Taiwan without the guidance, support, and encouragement of:

Sean Morley, Bill Vonnegut, Roger Schumann, Matt Palmariello, Keith Miller, Deb Volturno, Cate Hawthorn, Jeff Laxier, Bryant Burkhardt, Ben Lawry, Mat Hoff, Michael Bowersox, Matt Krizan, Mitch Silverstein, Melissa DeMarie, Jennifer Yearly, Sean Finigan, Mike Kowalsky, David Santaniello, Kenny Howell

Thank you all!

Enjoying some time on the water just for me.  Photo:  Bill Vonnegut

Enjoying some time on the water just for me.  Photo: Bill Vonnegut