Updated: Jun 27, 2018
The first weekend of August, my brother and I packed up the car and headed to Three Rivers Paddling Club's Turkey Bash, a two day instructional clinic and gathering in Ohiopyle, PA. About this time, four years ago, I had my first experiences in whitewater. I had patient instructors who emptied out boats, quelled my fears, and gave me a taste of a sport that would become an huge part of my life. Now it was my turn to do that for others.
The preceding weeks were spent organizing paperwork, rosters, venues, and activities for my students to be. I would be taking on a group of young beginners, all under 14. I had help from my co-instructor, and my younger brother - our unofficial safety boater and helper extraordinaire.
At just 18 years old, it was a bit of a daunting task. I'd instructed before, but never with this level of responsibility and visibility. I called parents, sent supply lists and schedules, arranged meeting times and prayed that everything would go as planned.
For the most part, it did. But as they say, you can't change the weather.
The first day, I drove through a drizzling grey morning to the lake. My brother rode shot gun, and two students, both eleven years old, sat in the back. During the ride, Max and I asked them dozens of questions, they had the same answers for almost every one, and became fast friends.
When we arrived, it was time for all our students to get used to their gear. Wet exit practice (exiting a capsized kayak by removing a neoprene seal from the cockpit) was a slightly festive experience for teachers and students alike. Some students had brought very tight sprayskirts that were hard to remove, and one was missing the cord to pull to remove it! Luckily, we figured out how to adapt/remedy these issues and a safe session was had by all.
After a quick lunch, we headed to the river, where the kids were excited to finally paddle in current. As usual with beginners, some of them had opportunities to use their new wet exiting skills. After reuniting kids with their gear, and getting everyone dried out, we headed back to camp for the much anticipated Turkey Bash dinner.
It was Thanksgiving in August. Jiggling mounds of cranberry sauce and stuffing, piles of steaming corn and giant, freshly cooked turkeys greeted us at 6 pm sharp. After a long day on the river, it was wonderful to have my responsibilities reduced to a choice between dark and light meat, and to swap river stories across picnic tables with my fellow whitewater enthusiasts.
After the meal it was time for a campfire and some well deserved rest.
The following morning I awoke to find my brother racing our campsite neighbors to boil water for coffee. He was heating it over the fire in pop cans while his rival was using a slick jetboil set up. The jetboil won, but not by much. The improvised breakfast battle continued with fire roasted bacon and bagel sandwiches vs. freeze dried scrambled eggs. Theirs might have been faster, but I think we won if for no other reason than that our breakfast involved bacon. I also walked across the road, where I was offered a fried egg to add to my sandwich by a new friend made the day before. So it goes with the paddling community.
As we cleaned up after breakfast, my brother told me a story about the day before that made every damp, chilly moment extra worthwhile.
"Jack* came up to me before he went home and he asked me when we could paddle again. He thanked us for 'making him good so he can paddle with his dad.'" My brother paused. "Jack was trying not to cry and it was all I could do to keep it together."
The day before, my brother had been helping Jack surf some little waves. Even without a roll, the little guy was tearing it up. It was amazing to see my almost 16 year old brother take an 8 year old under his wing and to hear how great things had gone.
The rest of the day was a new and improved version of the one before. With the sun peeking out from behind the clouds, the kids were warmer, happier, and progressed even faster. They were quick learners, and when we got to Ramcat, the biggest rapid on the section, our oldest student made a brave choice to run a tougher line through the middle of the rapid. Just as I thought he was going to make it, he flipped and swam. Even after this set back, he braved the rapid a second time to try surfing. With my co-instructor there to guide his paddle and his boat, he glided across the wave. The smiles I got at the take out told me the day had been a success.
When we arrived back at camp, there were goodbyes and thank yous. There was also an incident explained, as one kid's forehead now sported a bandaid covering a little cut, a souvenir of one of our younger students' poor rock-throwing aim. Luckily my co-instructor's EMT skills had her patched up so that she had been able to paddle without any issue, and her dad was understanding. After all of the students had been returned happily to their families, I breathed a small sigh of relief. We had done it.
That evening, we met my dad for dinner and, over cheeseburgers and root beer, shared stories from the weekend.
A huge shoutout to all the parents, students, instuctors and organizers who made Turkey Bash possible. Special thanks to Sue Knechtl and Bill Deaton who did behind the scenes administrative work and who responded to all my questions with patient, helpful answers.
Thanks also to my fellow instructors, Alex and BJ, and to my brother, who were willing to go along on this adventure and who helped out every time I asked.
Finally, thanks to Nori, who hosted an instructor appreciation paddle on Meadow Run and the Little Sandy. It was great to have such a good guide for my first time down those runs!