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New Whitewater Kayaking Team Starting Spring '21

Greg Kwasnik
This spring, students can swap their skis for a paddle and personal flotation device, because the school is launching a new whitewater kayaking team. 
Led by Big Mountain Head Coach Eli Sobel and History Department Chair Jordan Graham, the team will be open to a limited number of paddlers of all abilities, including beginners. Much like the school’s mountain biking and climbing teams, the whitewater kayaking team will tap into students’ growing interest in adventure sports - and take full advantage of the school’s prime location in the White Mountains.
 
“Whitewater kayaking kind of dovetails nicely with these other sports that a lot of students are really getting interested in,” says Sobel, an avid paddler who learned to kayak on the East Fork of the American River in California. He first floated the idea for the whitewater kayaking team to school administrators last spring, who approved the plan and recruited Graham – a former commercial rafting guide – to help coach.
 
Practices will start in early April with pool sessions at nearby colleges. During these indoor sessions, students will learn basic paddle strokes and maneuvers to right their kayaks if they capsize. “We’re kind of starting right at square one with everyone, which is actually great because we’re not going to have a huge skill gap,” Sobel says. “We’re going to try to have five practices at the pool.” After learning paddling basics, students will take a Swiftwater Rescue course led by the Sawyer River Group based out of North Conway. The one-day course will teach students how to handle rescue situations that involve whitewater.
 
Thanks to a gear exchange program with Plymouth State University, students who don’t own paddling gear can borrow a kayak, spray skirt, paddles, helmets, personal flotation devices, and wetsuits for the season. They will certainly need the wetsuits and cold weather gear. “We’re looking for students that are not afraid of getting wet or getting cold, because both of those things will definitely happen,” Sobel says. “On a rainy, dreary April day when everything else is not that much fun, the whitewater kayaking is really good.”
 
As it turns out, there’s plenty of really good whitewater within just a few miles of campus. Thanks to snowmelt from the surrounding White Mountains, local rivers become perfect places to kayak each spring. “Plymouth is just so centrally-located to some good New Hampshire whitewater,” Eli says. This spring, students will get to likely get to paddle sections of the Baker, Ammonoosuc, Winnipesaukee, and Pemigewasset Rivers. All have extensive stretches of beginner-friendly Class I and Class II rapids, which will be suitable to students who are just learning to paddle.
 
Along the way, Sobel says, perhaps his kayaking proteges will discover the same sense of freedom, flow that helped him fall in love with the sport. “The thing I appreciate about kayaking most is you get to see the landscape from a totally new perspective,” Sobel says. “The same way that a skier appreciates standing on top of Cannon and looking over at the Lafayette Ridge, kayakers have these unique experiences to see places that not a ton of people get to see.”  
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