Ej Blog on “Soul of Kayaking”


Recent articles in magazines, seeing blog posts and chat group banter with “debates” about paddling, etc. has lead me to think about what information is being shared by the media about our sport.    With our own paddling media trying to be like the tabliods, looking for very opinionated, one sided people to interview more often than not, if you were just getting into the sport of kayaking, you would think it was full of disgruntled people, that feel that the sport owes them something it isn’t delivering on.      Sure there are always great comments about our sport mixed into the articles, however, factions are being created and perpetuated by  people who just can’t live without a fight within their own group.   My goal here is to present the sport from the perspective of  “Ask not what kayaking can do for you, ask what you can do for kayaking.” and present what the sport is and can be for anyone wanting to be a positive part of the “Soul of Kayaking”.


I will be writing a series of blogs that discuss many subjects on kayaking.    Each one will be titled the “soul of kayaking”.      What gives me the “right” to speak on the subject?   I have a voice, like everyone else, and that alone is all I need to be qualified to write on the subject.      As for my qualifications to speak about kayaking without having a one-dimensional view,  I am coming at this as a long time paddler with experience in all aspects of recreational, competitive, expedition, instructional,  and the business of paddling.    Most importantly,   I enjoy all of them, and am friends with paddlers who excel in all areas of paddling.  teva-games-boatercross-niki-kelly.jpg


Why the title, “The Soul of Kayaking”?    That title is typically used by the media, or by individuals as the “trump card” in their debate of why what they do when they are paddling is better than what somebody else does.    Usually in this format,  “The Soul of Kayaking is not…. (insert what you don’t do), the true soul of kayaking is…. (insert what you do )”.       My premise that all blogs on this subject will follow is that the soul of kayaking is inside the paddler itself.    I believe, a paddler who does what they love and share that love for what they do in a positive way are “soulful” and exemplify what people like to refer to as the Soul of Paddling.        What I will attempt to do is show how every paddling activity is either soulful or not soulful, depending on the participants themselves. 


My first blog will be on the business of paddling and it feeds into being a pro boater.   This is because it is often stated that being a boater who does it full time, can’t be soulful because they are getting paid by the sport.   I will offer another perspective on that one.   The next blog will be on River running, then “friends of paddling”, and another  one on the business of paddling.   This series will continue by demand.      I am hoping that you will find my suggestions and resources helpful at the end of each segment on how to get involved in each type of paddling or how to take it to the next level.


“The Soul of Paddling: the Business of Paddling- part 1”


Since canoes and kayaks have been used, somewhere, somebody has been making them as a trade.  The assumption is often that if you make money doing something, you are doing it for the money.     I would like to suggest the opposite.   Take two paddlers who enter into the real world where they must make money to survive.    You have one paddler who gets a job as a “Whatever” to make money to survive, and paddles on the weekends of after work, and on vacation time.     You have the other paddler who finds a job, or creates a job in paddling.     First off, the reality is that paddling jobs tend to be lower paying than the average job market, and seasonal in most cases.    Most people who don’t get a job in paddling, don’t because they “can’t afford” to, or don’t want to exchange their current standard of living for what paddling would afford them.   Is this a good or bad thing?  Neither, it is just a personal choice.    However, when it is suggested that somebody who earns a living, of any type in paddling, that they have somehow exchanged a soulful purpose in their sport for money, they are, in most cases, backwards in their assumption.     To become fully immersed in paddling and actually use that activity in your daily subsistence is to take your commitment to paddling to the next level.     Most people take that  step so they can be closer to paddling and increase their paddling days and opportunities.    It doesn’t always work out that way, as any job in paddling puts you on the job and you have to complete your job before you can do any additional paddling “off the job”.      I’ll provide some examples from different aspects of paddling, each of which I have personal experience with, and have either read articles, blogs, or been in discussions which question the “soulfulness” of these activities.


Freestyle Kayaking and Competitors, as well as the “pro paddler”-   Typically a Pro Freestyle Paddler makes between zero and $25,000/year depending on their level of success in getting sponsorship  support, earning prize money,  or doing odd jobs on the circuit.      My personal best year for prize money was only $16,000.   it certainly cost me more than that in travel expenses to earn that cash.    Certainly people make more than $25,000 but not just for being a bad ass competitor.    Instead, the top paid paddlers are very active in helping those supporting them in their goals.   Jackson Kayak’s top paid paddlers are fully qualified sales reps (they do dealer visits, training, etc.), photographers, videographers, bloggers, and volunteers at events.     In my career I have been on team perception, dagger, wavesport, and now JK.    Watching the individuals who are successful in being a supported athlete to help offset their expenses, and in some cases fully support them, each of those paddlers were fully committed to the sport during their career, and gave as much back to the sport, or more, than they received.    When asked if the freestyle paddler is the soul of paddling,  I will suggest, “but of course”!    You see these paddlers on your local river during events, offering help to anyone who needs it, volunteering for a local event, teaching free clinics, meeting with paddlers at the local dealership to talk about paddling, boats, gear, outfitting, trips, whatever.    A recent article has suggested that freestyle paddlers spend their days sitting in a lineup waiting to surf a wave or hole, and the “soul of paddling” is to be out in the wilderness surfing a big wave, or hole, where nobody else is.     Anyone who writes such a thing, hasn’t done much surfing or playing on the best spots.    When the water levels are prime for any big wave from the Nile Special in Uganda, to High Tension on the Gatineau, to Buseater, etc., etc. you will find a group or two or three showing up to surf the same waves/holes.    The longest lines I have waited in have been in quite remote places.     Most paddlers look for places to paddle that suit their style, or simply that are accessible to them.     There are many great waves to surf with little to no line up in Northern Quebec (see Joel Kowalski’s new video “stakeout”).    It is just a major project to get there and be there.    A typical freestyle competitor waits in a line up at the hole or wave that is between 3-15 people, depending on the location and the water conditions, and time of day.    You’ll find me on the water before 7am for paddling at crowded spots in many cases to paddle with a small group.     That, alone, has been labled by the “night crowd” as non-soulful, because I am not up late with them drinking/partying, etc..    There is a large contingent of younger paddlers who feel that the soul of the freestyle scene is the late night parties.    Certainly that is a fun scene that I enjoy from time to time, but I prefer to spend more time paddling, and less time drinking, or sleeping late.    Both are important parts of the social scene that makes up the freestyle tour.    Finally, there is the question of whether or not “training” for paddling with the objective of “winning” competitions, like freestyle paddlers often do, is taking a great thing (playboating) and turning it into something less soulful.     In my experience the best freestyle kayakers are rarely training, and any training they do is some of the most fun they have.      They tend to spend a lot of time “playing” on some of the great spots of the world.    They often travel as paddlers in the winter to Africa, Costa Rica, Chile, Australia, etc., etc..   Spending weeks at a time, or months in some cases, in remote locations, paddling in a different culture, in different waters, different geography, etc..  The process of becoming a great freestyle paddler is often a journey of years of some of the most envious paddling excursions that will shape the lives of those paddlers forever, for the better.     Bringing their skills home to their freestyle events to test their skills against the wave or hole, and against their peers is where paddling becomes a game.     That is the beauty of freestyle kayaking, the fact that it is a wonderful game, that can be played anywhere there is water.    You can keep score, and have a winner of the game, which is what defines a game in the first place.   Like playing a game of Pig or one on one in basketball, you keep score.    Ping pong,  cards, video games, soccer,  football, etc., etc., games are  a fun way to test your skills and keeping score is part of the game.      Freestyle allows paddlers to show up and play a great game with paddling as the medium.    emily-and-crowd.jpgThe best way I know how to describe the game of freestyle kayaking is:  ” A freestyle competition allows a paddler to show off how much they have been playing.”  There is nothing more soulful about lacking specific skills in playboating than there is in having the skills.   Being able to do a variety of fun moves in a hole or on a wave simply means that the boater has spent a fair amount of time playing in holes or on waves, and hopefully had a great time doing it.      Some of the people I have seen who have had less than complimentary things to say about playboating or playboaters are boaters  that put in on a 5 mile long river and run straight down the middle of the river not taking advantage of any of the features that they could play on the way and finish their paddling day in about 1 hour, instead of a typical 4 hour playing run down the same river.     Does that make straight down the river running less soulful?   Of course not, it is just another way to spend your day on the river…    “River Running”  is the subject of my next blog.   




So you want to do some playboating?    Here is my “how to improve your paddling through playboating” resource center:



  1. Get a playboat- a good one.    The most common misconception about playboats is that you don’t need a good playboat until you get good at playboating.    The opposite is true.   A good playboat allows you to learn new stuff and have more fun right away.    It has been stated by paddlers before that there hasn’t been any real improvements in playboats in the past 5 years.    This is  far from the case.   There are a lot of good playboats on the market, and some great ones.    There are also river running playboats, that aren’t as good for learning new moves, but will get you down the river to the playspots with more ease.    Getting the best playboat is not much more expensive than getting an OK one, so do your research before buying one.    I recommend checking online from owners of boats for determining the best ones.    This is much better than trying to find out from a magazine review.
  2. Get a friend to go playboating with you-  ideally one that is better than you.    Half the fun of playboating is that you will do things you never did before.   Spin on that rock, splat that rock,  squirt that eddyline, ender or loop in that hole, spin on that wave,  freewheel that drop,  or simply front surf that wave.   Most people who say, “I am not a playboater, I am a river runner.”  just don’t realize that front surfing a wave is playboating.      They just think that they need to learn to do a McNasty to be a playboater.    Playboating is normally done on the way down a river.    Every playboater is  also a river runner (with the exception of this one guy  I knew who only played at a single place, and never ran a river for his first 10 years as a paddler).     Challenge each other to try new things.     Running a rapid can be much more fun if you use the features in the rapid on the way down.
  3. Enter a competition-   World Kayak ambassadors organized over 120 events in 2009, they are free to compete in, are fun socially, and have tons of great participation prizes.    There are hundreds of other events around the world each season to compete in.    There has never been a better time to try freestyle kayaking.    The largest surge in new freestyle events in the history of the sport has been in the past two years.    Anyone who questions the future of the sport is living in a bubble and just doesn’t know what is going on out there.   Competitions typically have an after party, often have video premiers, and always have a great social scene.     Whether you place well or not, you can see what you know how to do, and get to have judges score your rides and give you a concrete score.   That score is something you can try to beat the next time.    You’ll be thinking in the back of your mind the next time you are out playing… “If only I had that loop dialed in, or that blunt, etc. etc.) and you’ll be tempted to learn it while you are out on the water.    Having some additional purpose to your paddling  can be quite rewarding.
  4. Volunteer at an event-  Typically the volunteers at events are the makers, shakers, and doers of your local paddling community.     Get in with that crowd and you’ll find that most freestyle events in the USA, for example, are fundraisers for American Whitewater.   American Whitewater has projects in your community for saving your local rivers, in most cases.   By being connected in that group, you’ll find your time spent to be valuable not only to yourself for recreation, but to the greater good of all paddlers, and the environment too.    You’ll likely get some good swag, free beer, and a sense of satisfaction too!
  5. Get a playboating instructional DVD.   They give you clear instruction so you can learn quickly and easily instead of wondering why you can’t get that third end in flatwater, for example.    
  6. Get instruction-  most of the top freestyle paddlers teach on the side to make cash for non-necessities like food and gas (being at the river is the only necessity for many of them. )    These paddlers are very accessible and most of them are great instructors and would happily meet you at a river for an hour, or a day of instruction.   What other sport can you hit up the top athletes directly and get a private lesson?
  7. Have Fun- lots of it.-   The only reason to go playboating is because you can make your local river more fun, or to find an excuse for traveling to a place like the Ottawa River, the Zambezi, or the Nile.       Ever notice that all of the big water runs are being done in playboats?      They are perfect for running big water and there is always big waves to surf or big holes!  
  8. Travel- nothing is more rewarding that combining travel with paddling.     I recommend starting with Africa.     Zambezi or Nile Rivers,  do a safari,  camp at the Hairy Lemon,  swim at the “devil’s armchair above Victoria Falls.




So this blog started off on the business of paddling:     below is a partial list of money making activities that you can do as a paddler to help you support yourself while paddling.


  1. Instruction- a great way to make money, a teacher can teach just about anywhere and make money doing it.    Kayak schools pay anywhere from $50/day-$200/day on average for kayak instructors.    To become certified to teach there is usually one or two organizations in your area that can provide you with instructor training and a teacher’s certificate.    Working at a local kayak school is one type of teaching, while being a guest instructor to schools worldwide is a better way to see new rivers.   You can find kayak schools listed in the back of AW journal,  on by region, and by Google searching them.
  2. Photography- With low cost digital cameras taking great photos, it is possible to work as a photographer easier today than any other time.    Working for rafing companies is the most popular photography job, while being a freelancer is the most sought after position.    Getting a cover of a major kayak magazine might only pay $500 making it hard to make a living soley as a whitewater photographer.   However, you can create additional income from it with out a major change in your lifestyle.
  3. Video and video production- rafting companies, making promo videos,  making for sale videos, TV, etc. are all outlets for somebody wanting to make money with their video camera and editing program.    Instructional videos, action videos, or producing videos for kayak or gear companies can pay cash.
  4. Retail- selling gear, renting gear are great ways to make money if you have a low cost location and a strong market and sell the right brands.   
  5. Sales-  sales reps are usually independent contractors and set their own schedules.   A couple of good brands in your quiver and you can make a real living as a sales rep with a big enough territory and a solid effort.   Contacting the brands and/or going to trade shows to ask about opportunities is the best way.
  6. Team member- start off as a local or regional team member by getting referred by your local dealer to the manufacturer.   Then show them you are willing to work for them by going to dealer events, showing up at competitions and volunteering, and offer feedback and help when you can.    Make videos, send in photos, and show your positive effect on the market and local shop.    As your skills improve you’ll be in pole position for a team spot.    Paddlers who focus on skills, but not on their positive effects on the market, don’t get noticed or picked up by manufacturers.     Perform first, get paid second is the deal here.   This is one of the hardest routes to a paycheck for a paddler, but for any paddler who is committed to being the best in their area of expertise, this is a natural progression.
  7. Factory worker- Each manufacturing company has a home office with customer service, management, shipping, etc..    Get a job there to be involved firs hand with a sport you love.    Don’t forget, however, that the schedule you’ll keep is one of a normal job, in most cases.    However, your love for the sport will go a long way in getting you a job there.
  8. Designer- a tough nut to crack, but there are more than just boat designers, there are gear  designers, paddle designers, accessories, t-shirts, etc.     This also includes graphic design for companies, web design, etc.. Etc.



Want to know how to fully support yourself?   Do as many of the above jobs at the same time as you can!    I have done every one of the above jobs and currently do all but retail at some level.      Getting small amounts of income from multiple sources is a great way to develop your ability to support yourself without the fear of losing 100% of your income at once in the case one of your jobs goes through a dry spell.  


Is making money from kayaking soulful?    I believe it shows a larger commitment to the sport and to be tied into the success of the sport, meaning you are part of the soul of it.  If the kayaking does well, you will do well, if kayaking struggles as a sport, so will you.   That makes you part of the soul of kayaking.