It's usually simple enough to examine any technique or design in its current state, and trace backwards in time a very logical, step by step progression, from the very beginning all the way to contemporary design, shapes, and attitudes. However, why is it so daunting to try and anticipate how design and performance will be optimized in the future? Strangely enough, while we can be fairly certain of how we got to where we are from positions past, to project where we're going can often end up a fool's task.
In some fields, particularly more cerebral ones like computer technology, it takes a visionary, or legion of visionaries, to, with an open mind, look to the future for new perspectives. Innovation can certainly happen by arbitrary mistake - science history is full of these Eureka! moments, but by and large, much of our advancement in human history is intellectual in nature, sourcing from the mind, often on an emergent, collective scale.
This seems less so the case in whitewater, where from the perspective of the individual, gains are made through the simple mathematics of hours on task. While guidance from professionals and awareness of the breadth of current knowledge help expedite a person's ability to hone in on what is understood as the best style and technique, it ultimately boils down to letting our bodies do what they do best - optimization through hours and hours of repetition and muscle-memory refinement. Simply put, in a sport like whitewater, much of our learning consists of subconscious processing in the background, between body and mind, often even while we're fast asleep. This means we can do very well at something while not having a cognisant, academic understanding of it at all. This can make elevating the collective technical progress of a paddling group cumbersome, as the more experienced paddlers in the group will describe the motion of their body to explain a skill, rather than the true mechanics and theory driving the motion.
Despite the idea that any person's progress in whitewater largely depends on the amount of time devoted to practice though, we still heavily rely on the free dissemination of information on new techniques and best practice. Imagine if you were to give a full set of gear to someone that had never seen paddling in any capacity, and also gave gear to another person but also shared instructional videos, modern kayak videos, and writing on paddling. Assuming each person had similar physical ability and coordination, the person with exposure to the current state of the art would be able to see from their position as a beginner, far off to the edge of the envelope as currently known. The person with these resources would immediately have a visual understanding of how the best paddlers in the world look when they paddle, and more importantly, how they don't look. The person without connection to these resources would be in for a wandering, torturous path beset with digression. To take an instrument designed to perform in a certain way, and attempt to find a purpose for it without knowledge of the purpose might be a worthwhile endeavor, and could produce some creative results, but is unlikely to lead to a quick and substantial growth in ability to use the instrument.
If it seems like I'm stating the obvious, I am. But on our endeavor towards personal growth, it's worthwhile to remind ourselves that we owe most all of our specialized abilities and competencies to the generations who have come before us. Think of the number of hours humans have spent figuring out the best way to peel out of an eddy, skim on through the next one, and pivot turn into the eddy on the other side. In a sense, on any given Summer Saturday at a crowded river, there is a bounty of research being conducted on how to best get things done. It's been going on for decades and will continue on into the future. As individuals we benefit from the hours of repetition, the subconscious learning of the body. And as groups of friends, we undoubtedly cross-reference our findings and pick winners for best practice. We learn, and our ability evolves. We take the work of those in the past, add ours to it, and push on in the pursuit of understanding and performance. And it often doesn't even seem like work. It's kayaking after all! What could be more instantly satisfying?
We all want to be the best paddlers we can be. We see where it all started, we see ourselves as beneficiaries of that developmental path, and hold much respect for those who have given us so much. We are in the moment and focused on the move, but are we spotting our landing? Are we scanning the next horizon line for clues about where our paddling style will be in the future?
I think to look into the future and discover where our skills are headed, we need only to watch the best paddlers in the world. In the digital age the excuses for not knowing what it really looks like to be the best are few. Imagine putting a group of promising youths in the hands of the best paddlers in the world. Give these new paddlers the privilege and opportunity to put in an amount of hours a week paddling that most most other folks don't even put into their work week, for years on end, on a stage that covers planet Earth, with every sub-discipline of paddling available to them. Give them the tools, the support, and the encouragement, and see what they will do. Allow them to feed off one another, and refine technique as a group, as a family, for the pursuit of pure aquatic joy. Then let the desire to share it grow inside them to the point at which they are compelled to share it with all of us, for example, by creating beautiful videos that show what they're doing. These folks are out there doing just that, right now. Whether you, the reader, just got your first boat and are chomping at the bit to get your driver's license to drive to the Ocoee every weekend, or are a veteran who's paddled over 30 years with a wooden 60 degree stick, these kids are out there, doing the best kayaking that the world has ever seen. We can ooh, and ahh at the beauty of a smooth line. We can guffaw and retort "kids these days" and other cliche remarks when we see someone bounce down a marginable cascade in Gnarjikistan on the latest new video. We can and we in fact do. But are we really paying attention? Are we watching every second as an eager apprentice? Or do we discount it as youthful growing pains and the ego-driven stunts of a crowd that hasn't yet grasped their own mortality?
Here's the rub - no matter how we look at it, these kids are prototyping what will become the foundation for the way the next generation paddles. What looks flashy and loose now is the groundwork for the solid standards of tomorrow. So it has been in the past.
Take the cover of the Summer 1973 American Whitewater Journal for example, which showed a paddler braving Potter Falls on the Crooked Fork in Tennessee. This article generated much controversy. Many thought the picture and short blurb accompanying it should not have even been printed, for fear that it would lead a whole generation of new paddlers astray and to their early death. This was prior to the development of the proto-boof, also known at the time as the "ski-jump." Basic techniques we take for granted today sourced from the era when these brave paddlers started testing Potter Falls. They were labeled risk-takers, and any role they had in creeking development was completely minimized at the time. The folks who wanted to suppress that this activity was going on were unintentionally keeping the state of the art from being absorbed by the larger boating public. Take a look at the links below:
Blurb for Cover Shot
Winter 1973 issue - check the letters from readers section a few pages in
Responses to the letter in the May/June 1974 Journal (read through page 98)
This drop now gets regularly run by first year paddlers - it's an introduction to waterfalls. I doubt anyone's ever gotten hurt there. This same type of criticism has occurred following every waterfall record since, with every new height achieved being discounted by many as bad for the sport and marginalized as simply a stunt. I'm not trying to argue whether it's bad for the sport, but only that at any given time, the people pushing the envelope are the ones progressing the range of what's possible in a kayak, and if we would watch, they're also showing us how to do it best. With the proper skill-set, it is now reasonable to consistently run 50-70 foot waterfalls with precision and acceptable risk. How could this have come about without us taking note of those pushing through barriers?
What does this mean for those of us who will never run a drop over 20 feet? It means a lot! The most fit techniques for doing what all of us do have developed from the best paddlers continuing to get better, and I try to get the most out of it personally by emulating what they are doing in my own paddling.
The state of the art when it comes to whitewater kayaking is right in front of us. My advice is to get in on the ground floor with the latest techniques, and learn as much as you can. Watch and learn!
The Ear Dip - A Celebration of CHARC and the Water Boof
So let's take a look at the Ear Dip. If you haven't seen one already, check out Substantial Media House's video "Hello Darkness" below - skip to 14:29 for a clip of the perfect ear dip. There are some nice shots of the move earlier, but this one is the best. The paddlers in Substantial's videos are the highest end paddlers in the world, in particular with respect to expeditionary kayaking and big drops, and they also run the biggest, hardest whitewater on the planet. It's these folks who are leading the way in the development of river-running and creeking technique, and the Ear Dip is one of the latest phenomenons to gain notice.
Take a minute and watch the first sequence too, which is a series of shots of Outlet Falls - it's one of the most beautiful segments yet to be produced in whitewater video.
Back to the Ear Dip shot in the video. It may be readily apparent that the Ear Dip isn't necessary in order to get a sufficient or even stylish boof at the ledge shown, but this flashy move is an instance of artful hyperbole nodding to a somewhat recent embrace of using increasingly aggressive edging and Charc in suite with deflective features to generate lift when there's no eminent rock contact to do the work for us. The Ear Dip is a celebration that the concept of the boof has expanded territory beyond the realm of rocks and into the medium of water. This expansion, to be clear, is not new. However the true mastery of it in my opinion is fairly recent, and is certainly a 21st century development.
Folks have been "water boofing" for a while now, but typically, nailing a water boof takes more skill and experience than it does to boof a rock. This is because in the instance of rock boofing, we have a immovable, stiff, hard material creating a deflective feature that gives our boat lift. It's fixed, predictable, and we just need momentum. The rock will give us lift at exactly the correct time. In water boofing, we use more impermanent, dynamic features in the water itself to generate lift, such as pillows, curlers, diagonals, waves and holes, where timing can be more complicated. In the case that the lift generated from one of these features is insufficient, we have to create additional lift through the use of leverage.
By far the best way to create leverage with our boat is to use momentum and edge to create a charging arc, or "Charc." Any stroke taken on the inside of the Charc will have leverage that is capable of lifting the bow without any help from water features, rocks or anything else external. So here it's leverage that allows us to lift our bow, instead of the boat's momentum hitting a rock and redirecting the energy upwards. Whether the lift we create is all Charc-based leverage, or deflection based from rock, water, or a combination thereof, this lift creates a fleeting window where the bow is rising up. In that moment, if we were in outer space, that new direction of momentum would continue into eternity, for a galactic boof that Neil De Grasse Tyson would be short on words to describe. But because we are on Earth, and are forever subject to the downward force of gravity, that lift-induced raising of the bow quickly becomes overpowered and vanishes. A beautiful thing about a tiny split-second of lift, though, is that if we time it just right, it can give us a magical ride through the air - a moment where it all slows down and makes sense. It's making something great out of something small. Beyond the sensation though, it's utility at it's finest. It's the foundation of creeking.
So the Ear Dip might be seen as a piece of performance art in tribute to this discovery, a revelation by no one person, but the cream of the renaissance of so many generations of paddlers working together in the effort to paddle with grace. And that is why the boof is so much more than is being conveyed in traditional instruction and tutorials of late. The boof can happen with the help of rocks, and it can happen with the help of water, but the potential to boof is within the paddler and their craft alone. Those on the envelope have returned with riches, and now we too can now generate lift without external deflective features. We do this through the leverage that Charc gives us.
In the next section, we'll start the process of understanding the many ways we can generate lift in greater detail. I realize it took me a while to get to a more technical conversation on this post, but I feel that to take full advantage of the knowledge and experience out there, we need to look at the right source and point our personal path in the right direction. We have to look to the best modern artists and try to see what it is they're doing. We also have to give great thanks to those in the past who were willing to go out into the unknown and find their own way of understanding. We can thank legendary squirt boater and creek explorer Jim Snyder for the term Charc. It's a simple idea that can lead to beautiful things, and in my eyes, is the most fundamental principle behind whitewater kayaking. If the boys dropping Potter Falls in 1973 got the ball rolling on the boof, Charc has undoubtedly set it free!