I can’t make this look good.
I’ve just stepped out from the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club’s (YCKC’s) wooden change room wearing neoprene booties, baggy board shorts stuffed into my vintage ’80s short-legged wetsuit with orange stripes down the side, a puke-grey paddling jacket, a purple PFD and a black kayak “sprayskirt” that flares boldly, flamboyantly around my lower body.
I look like a big golden retriever who just dipped his legs in the lake. And he’s wearing a plastic yellow helmet.
Feeling more than a little self-conscious, I can’t help but notice that my young host, 19-year-old Carson Close, has elected to wear his board shorts over top of his wetsuit and is looking emphatically less dorky than me.
He has also yet to don any of the other aforementioned trappings that I understood to be “de rigueur” when one is about to engage in some whitewater kayaking.
Friendly, knowledgeable, unpretentious … Close is the kind of kid that restores your faith in Generation Y, but he’s already let me down in at least one department:
“Uh … so …” I mumble, discretely trying to extract some of the neoprene migrating into my nether regions, “You’re not getting your stuff on?”
“Not yet,” he responds cheerfully, lashing tiny plastic oblong objects, whose purpose is not yet clear to me, onto his car, “We’re gonna drive around to the other side first.”
“Oh. OK. [awkward pause] Board shorts on top of the wetsuit, hey?”
“Yeah. You look like a newbie. Let’s do it.”
During the short drive, Close fills me in on some of the history of YCKC and what it offers: youth drop-in on Mondays from 7 to 9 p.m. Adults on Thursdays. All equipment provided. Free instruction available … all levels welcome.
Minutes later we’re back at the edge of the river and I find myself considering my “stupid line”.
Turns out those tiny plastic objects on top of the car are the kayaks, and now we’re supposed to stuff ourselves into them and launch into the swiftly flowing waters of the mighty Yukon.
Watching an adult paddle one of these snub-nosed little playboats, it’s hard not to wonder how anyone not currently touring with Cirque du Soleil even fits their legs in there. It reminds me of the top half of the classic saw-the-woman-in-half trick.
Under Close’s watchful eye, I tentatively make my way downriver to where a small group of youth and a few adult supervisors are surfing a small standing wave, practising their various strokes, hurling themselves with reckless abandon (sans kayak) into the shallow moving water and generally carrying on like a bunch of kids making the most of a perfect summer night.
I sit in an eddy watching 10-year-old Pelly (apparently his parents are fond of rivers, too) push his boat into every wave, hole and sketchy-looking hydraulic he can find, exploring what the river can offer.
Time and again he flips over in the shallow water, calmly performs a “wet exit”, swims to the nearest bank where his boat and paddle have been shepherded by an adult paddler, rocks the thing back and forth on his head a few times to empty it of water and then re-enters the fray, improving and growing in confidence before my eyes.
As for me, I realize quickly why the boats are shaped the way they are: it makes them super fun to paddle. And they’re way less tippy than I expected.
Before long, I, too, am maneuvering towards the wave while Close’s prime advice to “always lean downstream” competes with my own self-counsel that implores, Don’t pee in the borrowed wetsuit.
And then I’m kayak surfing. The sensation is difficult to describe, but the goofy smile plastered across my face was entirely involuntary.
“That’s what it’s all about, dude,” Close confirms.
And then it hits me.
“Wait a minute, Carson,” says I, “you’re telling me that anyone, even a total beginner, can stop by the intake on a Thursday evening, drop down a paltry $5, borrow a boat, wetsuit, PFD, helmet, everything you need … even get a free lesson from you or some other experienced volunteer… and find themselves whitewater kayaking in a safe area with a friendly, supportive group like we are tonight?”
“Yup. And for $20, you can do it as often as you like for the whole summer.”
For the 1,478th time, I shake my head in wonder at this place we live in and resolve to be back – soon. And I’m bringing friends. And I’m not telling them about the board shorts over the wetsuit thing.
For more information about the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club, check out www.yckc.ca.