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Lost in the Desert Wildwater Camp

Denny Adams, Great Blue Heron Canoe/Kayak Club

April 4, 2012 -- Moab, UT

This past week (last week in March) fifteen folks, eleven who were paddling, participated a very enjoyable but engaging week long wildwater camp in the Colorado River Recreation Area just upstream of Moab, Utah. The gathering, put together this year by Ben Lockhard and Denny Adams of the Great Blue Heron Canoe & Kayak Club, was once a yearly club outing in the last decade that petered out when a large part of the club went off to college. Its revival last week made us wonder why? The weather down there was warm, the water friendly, and the setting magnificent – as in this is where the opening segment of Austin Power's Goldmember was filmed! (Beat that anyone--and Vertical Limit, Rio Bravo, Ten Who Dared, and countless commercials as well.)

Victor Van Haan

Long boat paddling was the main pursuit of course. With the exception of one very windy day when we used lower profile boats we had wildwater boats on the water for at least three and up to five or six hours a day. We worked in a variety of boats — K-1, C-1, and C-2 in flat and moving water and we had a pair of easy class II rapids right there at camp. Our paddlers ranged from novices to accomplished and from very young (10 yrs.) to somewhat senior (61yrs.). We were a very international camp with five countries (three countries from one family) being represented. Most importantly all left the camp excited about paddling and wildwater and wanting to do more.

Our camper of the week and exemplar model for the training was Victor Van Haan from last year's Jr Dutch team. Victor is a foreign exchange student in Denver in large part because he met US Race team parents last summer at the Jr. Worlds who helped find a host family—Mike, Gina, and Henry Hyde. Mike directed last year's Junior Olympics in Colorado and is an active supporter of racing in our region. Victor's skills and positive attitude toward wildwater were very apparent. He could jump into any boat and put on a clinic with his strokes just through example. He is also seriously fast in all boats. A deeper lesson came from his attitudes toward paddling and racing and his sharing how his team trained for wildwater racing.

Holland has only flat and moving water to train on. His club, like many in Europe, trained almost exclusively on easy water. Their workouts stressed having fun. "We always were having fun, we practiced hard but had fun too. We were serious right before a race but the rest of the time they were having fun". They learned their whitewater skills on their summer road trips, training excursions to places that had whitewater. His grin indicated that these too were greatly enjoyable. A paraphrased observation of Victor's is pretty profound:

"Americans in general are way too concerned with competition and with winning. If they can't win at what they do they don't stay with it and they never get good. If they could back off and have more fun and stay with the sport longer they would have time to learn and would be much better."

The camp had a lot of things going for it to make up for the long drive to get there. We were camping in a quiet desert canyon on an internationally recognized river. Until we can get permits for a training camp on the Grand or Cataract or Westwater Canyons this is the nearest thing to that type of setting. Unlike those places we had a town with full services 15 minutes away. The river amenities were great. We had a large shady camp (four adjacent camps actually which allowed for loud (kids) areas and for a separate refuge for the adults. It was right above a nice beach adjacent to a stretch of class I and II rapids which were attainable via very large practice eddies. We had quick and easy shuttles for runs on a couple of friendlier upstream sections. When not in the boats we had folks off cross training on world class mountain bike runs, rock climbing, and hiking up to famous rock Arches. Our youngest camper greatly enjoyed his prospecting for pitchblende (radium ore that pats easily into balls to throw and makes you hands bright yellow) and mountain lion stalking. We had killer meals in camp, animated campfires, and even a "cowboy's night in town. Just as importantly we had downtime for reading, visiting, or sleeping. Shorter camps can get away with being more intense. Judging by the faces on the last day this camp could have lasted much longer.

A telling visual image that I still carry was the final night. Finding our camp would have presented no challenge. Ours was the one with the loud kids that had been singing British Pub and 1950's vintage schoolyard songs earlier, the one with the killer beasts guarding it and the engineered class six rapid cut into the wet sand of the beach embankment below it. It was most notable for having boats and gear scattered all over the place on one side; the remains of a feast—huge piles of cleaned out pots, plates, cups, and dead soldiers—in the middle; and a intensively pensive, quiet, and reflective group of adults and kids off to the side sitting around a large fire. A few kids were still covered with sand and most had remnants of campfire food (goo and sugar based) on their mouths. Kids and adults alike all had charcoal deliberately smeared all over their cheeks and forehead?

I came on that late and have yet to get an answer to what that last part was about: some secret tribal fertility ritual, a Celtic warrior thing using charcoal instead of blueberry juice, or a maybe northern European version of the body painting that the Swiss Jr team is noted for on race day? I can best describe the larger setting as being typical of a classic old school boaters' camp – a lost art in today's world of commercialized paddling programs with brightly decorated passenger vans, biff and spiff type instructors, and trailers full of short plastic river maggots. While maybe not for everyone, my private take is that the camp was a step in the right direction for our sport—if we could only get more Americans to buy into it. Alone or in mass Ben and I are both ready to do this again next March.

Click here to see the photos