By Eric Jackson
Every year Jessie spends a week of her life implementing her dream to help one child at a time increase their chances of living a better life. She chose kayaking as her medium for teaching a variety of life skills that are hard to come by for anyone, but particularly for these young people who have a range of difficult situations that have them being protected and taught primarily by people other than their parents.
Skills taught include: Self-sufficiency, working together with others, leave no trace, being a positive influence on others, listening and learning, teaching and demonstrating, and generally pushing outside of the comfort zone. Of course, Whitewater Kayaking is learned in the process.
Jessie has worked with different groups and used different venues. This year we worked with the Graham School kids, like last year, and had a whole new group. The school has their own pool that we used for teaching on day 1 and 2. Unlike a typical 5 day beginner class at an outdoor program, this 5 day clinic starts with kids who don’t know what kayaking is for the most part.
Jessie asked each one, “Do you know what kayaking is?”. More than 1/2 of the class said they didn’t know what it was, but they wanted to learn. A couple were hard to reach on the front end, some very outwardly seeking attention, and some in the middle. It was a great mix of personalities of kids ranging from 13-17 years old. We had 8 kids and 2 instructors to work with and teach. Our instruction team consisted of Jessie Stone, Courtney Kerin, Dane Jackson, and myself. We got additional help for the river days from Andy Kuhlberg, Kaitlin Green, Bob (don’t know his last name), Paula and Dave Staff.
Jessie has a fleet of Jackson Kayak boats we donated back in 2004 for the most part, but she has also put some of her personal boats in it since then. The 2004 Fun series has been great to use again and it was especially great to add in our 2015 Funs and the new Zen prototype for the week. She rented a big van to move the boats around the city and CT. We staged out of Jessie’s house in Purchase, NY, where our RV was parked out back.
Day 1: After meeting the kids we checked out the cool display they put up in the “Tiger’s Den” showing off some photos of last year’s group and the Jackson Kayak T-shirt signed by the instructors was hung up like the jersey of a hockey player. We walked to the small outdoor pool and unloaded the boats. We didn’t bring stuff for everyone, but decided to rotate people through as the first day was a getting used to water day, as most were not super comfortable swimmers. Getting anyone’s attention was difficult, getting everyone’s attention at once was impossible. The kids were not conditioned to want to hear what the instructor was saying or do what we wanted them to do. There were definitely some tough cookies and attitudes on the front end. We worked around them on day 1. By the end of the day everyone could wet exit and paddle around.
Day 2: Pool-
Today we would teach some rolling and bracing and some strokes. We would also go for a better disciplined environment. The kids were getting hooked on the idea of going out of state to run a river and to learn more kayaking. I gave them an ultimatum of either listening when I or any instructor talks, or we walk and the program ends. Everyone seemed to want to continue and the amount of time wasted on getting their attention was reduced and we started really getting somewhere. We got Daniel rolling, followed by Sharon and everyone learned a reasonably good brace. We did a boater cross that went pretty well except for a few hurt feelings. The group was beginning to gel, and the comfort levels were increasing related to the instructors they never met before, but there was still a long way to go. We went into the city and had a vegan dinner with Michael Gross, a local writer doing some amazing projects.
Day 3: Paddling on the Hudson at “hastings on the Hudson”. Our first open water paddle. This place is a little dirty looking, but not bad considering the location. The kids went through a whole list of things they were afraid of that prevented them from wanting to get in the water. Sharks, snakes, spiders, bugs, turtles, etc… Real fears, lack of knowledge about the subjects they were afraid of. Fear of the unknown, primarily. Today we gave each kid their own boat to use for the rest of the week. Daniel and Tanisha both got the new Fun. This boat is awesome for learning in. Against the vote of the group, we paddled against the tide out of the eddy and headed to a beach not far away, but along the railroad tracks. This year’s group got to that beach 1 hour faster than last year’s group, which took 2 hours. We got out to stretch our legs and learn about the river. We checked out driftwood, crabs, minnows, and tried to make a fire with two sticks. The way back was with the tide and Jessie led us out to the middle of the river in front of a tugboat with the idea of introducing the kids to waves. it was awesome watching them paddle over the wake of a tugboat! The girls were screaming and the everyone was both having fun and feeling challenged. We drifted past our takeout and I was paddling with some of the slower paddlers who were thinking of giving up going against the tide. A little bit of drill sergeant type motivation on my part and some more aggressive paddling on their part got the final few over the hump and into the eddy. We ate a packed cafeteria lunch and then those who wanted came out for a second session. Daniel learned to back deck roll but still swam twice before we finished.
We went to Times Square and picked out a restaurant for a double date with Dane and Mary (and Kristine and I).
Day 4: Housatonic River: The kids first introduction to whitewater and for some, the first time out of NYC. We had a good big eddy to practice peel outs and ferries, but the water was very slow. We were missing both Chantel and Leisha that day. Each of us took our own group down the river and I had Michael and Sharon. The both did amazingly well. We got them all through George’s Wave right side up somehow. All of the instructors surfed and we go the kids to want to try as well. While they couldn’t roll, we could “hand of god” really well…. We got some good surfs and flips and only one swim. It was awesome watching the kids commit to a peal out that they were not ready for. By the time we left they were all much better. The next big rapid was interesting but they did well also, two flips, one swim. Lots of interpretations of “follow me”. TJ, who was scared of the pool and not happy there, was the hero of the river and was not only paddling really well, but also super fired up. It was great to see. Great day and the kids are now starting to understand what we are doing and getting hooked and wanting more.
Day 5: Farmington River: Everyone showed up for this river run and graduation day. Chantel and Leisha would be doing their first river run on the harder river without the Housatonic Warmup. We had lots of additional help so it wasn’t an issue. The put in was super cool. Bob found a snake and the kids were amazingly interested in playing with it. I caught a frog, not so interested, scared of a frog, but not a snake…hmm… Goes to show that people’s prejudices are learned, not innate. We had a great day on the water- starting with some very calm deep water, fallen trees, and very wooded area that made for a nice slalom course for the kids to warm up on. We learned to throw our paddles over a tree and catch it, etc.. I wish I had my fishing pole to show the kids what a big smallmouth bass looked like! The initial rapids were quite small and perfect for warming up. We took our time, eddy hopped, and each kid was feeling more and more like they belonged on the river. The big rapid was at the bottom and everyone, including the instructors were nervous about any potential flips and a long swim. We, however, had a 100% success rate and everyone did awesome! “Everything is awesome, everything is cool, when you are part of a team!”…. “We are living in a dream.” (sorry, love that song from the Lego Movie, and felt it was appropriate.)
Outside TV was filming a segment about the trip and had their Red Cam, and crew filming. The kids were fired up for the most part, with a couple nervous about being on TV.
We made it to the final big rapid and I asked everyone- “Want to take the easy line, or the big water line?” Everyone said they wanted to take the Big line! Cool! We did great and there was only one flip and swim. At the take out we swam around in the big pool at the bottom of the rapid and even body surfed the hole with the instructors paddling the kids into it on the back of our boats. Everyone was having a good time and nobody wanted the fun to end. Finally, it was time to wrap up. We ran shuttle and then Jessie hosted the “Graduation” which included a question to answer by everyone, and some swag from Aqua Pac, Jackson Kayak, and more.
Some autographs on the shirts, hugs and goodbyes and we were on our way. We all wish the best for these kids and hope they become the people they can and hope to be.
Until next year, signing off from Jessie’s Kids Camp….