I’ve been kayaking a long time. However, until this past year, I’d plateaued in what I would run. I’d gotten complacent and wasn’t challenging myself. Running bigger and harder stuff is not for everyone and I’m completely cool with anyone who wants to boat at whatever class of river they are comfortable at – it’s just not me. I like pushing myself.

I started the year by challenging myself with a trip to Ecuador (dang I still need to write about it). It was where I found my mojo so to speak. Then I found some people who helped me up my game. Playboating on the Ocoee (thanks Andy Shirey!) Running Upper II on Little River Canyon with Dane (AKA the Dane highway) and Lynn and Andy. All of these new runs uncovered some skills I was lacking or had become lazy in. And, while I’m still working on things (always will be) I feel like the work paid off in running Tallulah this past weekend.

First, I have to say I can’t even believe the words came out of my mouth, “Hey let’s go to Tallulah.” Almost immediately I was like – maybe it won’t work out and I can take it back. It turns out others thought it was a good idea too so we had a small group going. Here are my impressions on the run, but communicated in bullets – because it’s how I think.

1. The stairs. If I had looked at the stairs before I started to venture down them I wouldn’t have done it. Not because of the number, but because of the height. I’m not good with heights and about halfway down started experiencing some dizziness. Then I saw the footbridge I thought holy cow I will never get across that with my boat. Then I was told you don’t cross the footbridge (whew!). We were asked to stop on the steps for like 15 minutes to wait for people to clear out at the put in. It’s a small wooden platform and you need to get into your boat and go. The line of boaters back up the steps grew long and it was crowded – I hate crowds!
2. The Put-in. I felt like a rookie. My skirt was dry and I had problems getting it on. There was a line of boaters behind me – waiting! Then the hardest rapid is right there – like right there. “Did you see the line?” – “Yes, I said.” “No from here, because it looks different.” Crap, I had not looked again and was immediately nervous. Would I be able to pick out the line from water level? Here goes nothing…
3. First rapid. It’s called Last Step and there is apparently a sneak on the right. But I saw the line from the platform and watched a couple of people ahead of me take it. So I was like, I’ve got this. Well I didn’t, and flipped at the bottom and took a couple of roll attempts to get back up. I took my pogies off my paddle. They were just in the way. Pull it together Helen was a reoccurring thought in my head.
4. Second rapid. Tanner’s Launch. Super fun auto-boof into a pool then between 2 rocks. Felt better.
5. Oceana. Yeah, it comes up that quick like within 15 minutes and you are there. Decision time. I almost immediately paddled right for the portage then Andy and Luke yelled for me to come and look at it. So I did. And apparently I watched it too long, I didn’t realize people were waiting on us. All of a sudden the words came out of my mouth and I was like – I’m running it. I watched several people do it successfully. The line was not that difficult, basically you go river left, hit that first boof – (I actually thought to myself -- I can’t turn back now, here goes nothing…) then there is a second boof and that rooster tail (closed my eyes) and it was over. If you watched the video I flipped at the bottom and after a couple of attempts finally rolled up. My best advice – relax, it will be over really, really, quick.
6. Gauntlet was next. We had lost our lead boater, but I was like – what could be worse? Actually Oceana is easy compared to some of the these rapids. I don’t remember much other than some big holes.
7. Bridal Veil. It’s like a small Oceana. I looked at it and thought – whatever, that’s nothing. Perspective is everything.
8. Zoom Flume – super fun rapid after you get over dropping into a little slot and riding it all the way down.
9. After that I remember arriving at Amphitheater. It’s a couple of drops that narrow down quickly into a canyon. It’s noted by the huge rock walls. Andy swam at the top but self-rescued, I remember running it, but looking for his boat the entire time. I quit worrying about it when I realized everyone stops here. It was like a rock concert audience of kayakers on river left. Cool surf holes here and a chance to catch your breath. Unless you were Andy stuck on the other side of the river with three people trying to get him ropes. Where he was it was super slick and every time he tried to grab a rope it would just miss his hands or he would slip and fall. Finally, he caught one and got back over to his boat. [Did I mention how sick he was, and that the seat of his boat came loose and was sliding around -- that's why he couldn't roll.]
10. I don’t remember many of the names or features much after that. I know there is Tom’s Brain Buster, Twisted Sister and then the Powerhouse rapid. (I know I’m missing a few). I couldn’t help but think – who named these? On the Ocoee you have Hell Hole, Diamond Splitter, Table Saw…it was almost as if someone took my suggestion and started naming rapids Pink Fuzzy Bunny Slippers just to make them sound nicer and more friendly.

Bottom line. It’s the real deal. Almost 4 miles of non-stop big creeky rapids. You definitely need to go with someone who knows the lines – thanks to the Lamby’s for letting us hang with them. And, thanks to my Crossfit Coach Kelly Olcott. A) Those 100 plus box jumps the Thursday before helped me prep for the stairs. B) When I asked him about running Oceana. He looked me square in the face and said…if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do – do it.

Also be prepared to walk like a 100-year-old person 2 days after. Those stairs once again are no joke!

Tip: Make sure you call Greg Sluder at Chattooga Sounds Campground for a lake shuttle. He’s the bomb and does them on both the Chattooga and Tallulah when it's running.

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I Am A Club Boater

  • I am a member of at least three local organizations and pay annual dues of a whopping $20 each.
  • I volunteer my time to those clubs, serving on the board, leading trips and teaching classes.
  • One of those clubs owns take-out property locally and works hard to maintain it and keep it open for recreational use. Despite how people trash it.
  • I have been yelled at as a club board member, by neighbors and other boaters, for either doing too much, or too little when it comes to that property.
  • I earned my ACA certifications and paid for them myself, all so I could follow in the steps of those that taught me. I want to continue the tradition of teaching and bringing more people to the sport.
  • I work all week at my business, load my truck late on Thursday night or early on Friday morning so that when I finish work, I can drive to find water and my friends.
  • I donate to American Whitewater, and the ACA, both for different reasons, but both are equally important to maintaining river access, and safe boating standards.
  • I am passionate about my sport, sharing it with others, and doing so in a safe manner.
  • I support outfitters in state (not many left), and out of state, by buying gear, boats, attending their events and bringing others to their store.

What I am not:

  • I am not sub-standard because I’ve never worked for an outfitter. My certifications to teach came from hard work. And, while I don’t teach every day, I do teach a lot. I’ve maintained my L4 WW kayak certification since 2004, and I’ve volunteered my time to toughen those standards. And I continue to work and build on my skills.
  • I am not a Class V boater (working on Class IV) but neither are a lot of people. And, the majority of people who want to learn to kayak just want a form of recreation to do with friends and family.
  • I am not competition to outfitters and instructors in other states or this state for that matter. In fact, if you were smart you would see that clubs feed people to outfitters for more advanced instruction.
  • I am not giving up. Over the years it has gotten increasingly more difficult for clubs to lead instruction on rivers such as the Hiwassee, Ocoee and we can’t even touch the Nantahala. The forestry service has told us we are either too late, or they don’t return our emails and phone calls when we apply. In Alabama, the majority of our rivers are natural flow. Yes, we teach on local rivers as a club, but our local season comes in the winter – not really a warm environment for a beginner.

Why am I writing this?

I hear the term ‘club boater’ being floated around as if it’s a bad thing. It’s not. At least not in my book. If we didn’t have our clubs here in Alabama we would not have a lot things that we currently enjoy like the Alabama Cup Races or access to the Mulberry. And, the Friends of the Locust Fork are doing an amazing job collaborating and trying to keep access to the Locust Fork River. Think about that when it comes time to pony up that $20 for a membership.

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Back in August 2016 my life was turned upside down (a different post later, much later). At the same time, I joined J-19 Crossfit gym off Lorna Road. The owner Kelly Olcott, had joined my BNI group and thought I would give his 101 course a try. I’m a runner, and not totally out of shape, or so I thought. But, since losing my running partner to a move, I’d lost a lot of my distance in running. And, my upper body was not getting a workout at all. In kayaking, it helps to have a strong upper body and core. It also doesn’t hurt to be in shape for some of the winter time creek put in and take outs. So, I joined.

In our 101 classes we went over terminology, how to lift properly, stretching, etc. But it was at 6 a.m. in the morning. I’m used to being up that early, but retaining acronyms is not something I’m good at. (I don’t know what half of the text messages I get say or mean.) So, once we finished the 101 portion and I went in for my first ‘real’ class I was like, what does that mean? What are we doing? I need what -- a barbell, medicine ball, and a jump rope? The coaches knew I was new and were happy to answer all my questions. In fact, they went out of their way to watch me and provide modifications to what was recommended so I wouldn’t hurt myself.

Other than being called mam. Everyone in the classes I’ve attended are super supportive. When I started, I struggled to finish the workouts that were timed. But, everyone was like, ‘you are here’, ‘you did great’, ‘you are just starting’.

Today, I can tell I’m much stronger (not quite where I want to be yet). I am up to the recommended weight in back squats, but still working on my press weight. I finish the workouts now but am still on the slow side. I never knew I could 100 sit-ups, but I can! And, I’m living for the day when I can do a pull-up without a band. There is still a long way to go.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is how much I enjoy it. I don’t check online to see what the workout is in advance, I just show up and go, okay – that looks interesting. After I feel like a beast! The coaches still watch me as much as when I first started and I think that is a good thing (hopefully not a reflection on my lifting technique, which is lacking).

When I tell people that I’m doing Crossfit they are like whoa, your throwing tires and stuff around? My response is no, not really. In the past 9 months, we’ve taken a sledgehammer to a tire, but that is about the craziest it’s gotten. Okay, there was the time we ran over a mile with a medicine ball. But seriously, other than that it’s been a terrific mix of cardio, weightlifting and other exercises that fit in tandem.

If you want to know more, give me a shout, would love to tell you more. Or you can check out J-19 online at, http://crossfitj19.com/.

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Flying home from Sausalito, CA, I had a few minutes (in fact more than 300 minutes in flight) to reflect on the conference. Let me start by saying how incredibly nervous I was to even go in the first place. Why? Well, I had submitted a presentation and it was accepted, so I was speaking. Normally talking to a group is not a big deal, but for some reason speaking to this group of incredibly experienced and well-known leaders in the paddling community was intimidating. I mean, I am just a club boater from Birmingham, AL. What in the world could I share with folks who have traveled the world teaching all aspects of paddle sports – the answer, how about my 20 something years of experience in communications.

My presentation was on how to use social media to attract customers. And, I was slotted for Sunday morning (the morning after the big ACA dinner and poolside beer reception) Yeah – sleepy, foggy headed boaters! Just kidding. All-in-all I believe my presentation went over well. There are some businesses in the paddling community that have embraced social media for their brands, but there are still smaller outfitters and individuals who are trying to figure out how to make it work. Regardless, I think I gave a few pointers that will help.

My biggest takeaways were related to my anxiety and to the different styles of paddling I was exposed to.

First my anxiety. There was absolutely no reason for me to be so worked up about this conference. Everyone there, regardless of how many credentials they had, what position they held with the ACA or their organization, showed not one iota of pretense. Everyone, of course, had their opinions, but it truly was a group of genuine individuals who respected each other's abilities and the fact that we were all there to learn.

Second, let’s talk coastal kayaking. As a whitewater kayaker, instructor and instructor trainer who has really just done whitewater and swift-water rescue training. I felt like a beginner in a sea kayak! These boats were long and harder to turn, but they went fast. One of the sessions I participated in on Saturday was “Leadership Beyond Group Management” with Michael Gray of Uncommon Adventures. I didn’t know what this was going to be about, but I liked the sound of it. During the session we worked through some rescue scenarios. First on land, then we moved into the bay. On land, I was okay, but once we moved into the bay and started talking rescues, I was immediately nervous. Michael said we were going to do a t-rescue. In my head I’m thinking a whitewater t-rescue where I tap the side of the other person’s boat with my boat, they grab the front of my boat and right themselves. Guess what, I was wrong. In sea kayaking the person comes out of the boat, then there is a way to pull the boat across yours, empty the water, then buddy up next to the boat, and stabilize it while they get back in. Kind of what I would consider a boat-over-boat rescue in whitewater. During these scenarios I did everything I tell my students not to do: I got in the way of the rescue, almost flipped over while getting a swimmer on the back of my boat, and lost my paddle! What the heck! But, as we ran through the progressively more difficult rescues I learned so much about the different techniques. In addition, it reinforced with me the importance of communication in a rescue. And, reminded me that in a training situation with other instructors it’s important to give feedback, then provide an opportunity to repeat the situation and improve on it.

My final takeaway. There is so much more to paddling than just whitewater! Even though I’m longing for rain and local rivers to come up, there was so much peace in paddling that long boat in the bay. In talking to other whitewater enthusiasts there we need to remember that not everyone wants to do Class III, IV whitewater. In fact, most just want to paddle recreationally and have a great time with their family. It’s important that we tap into that and help provide the education for people to do it safely.

Next year’s conference will be at the NOC Oct. 18-21st. I’ve already booked my cabin, and I hope a bunch of my fellow boaters from Alabama will join me!

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Tomorrow I turn 50. I have to admit, it’s something that leaves me kind of dazed. First, there were many times I doubted I would ever see 50. As I told someone earlier this week – I was not a wall-flower in college. I enjoyed my time in school immensely. Then there is the part of me that feels and acts like I’m still 25. I can’t see myself ever not kayaking. I’m not throwing cartwheels or anything down the river, but I’m holding my own.

Someone asked me this week what I had learned by this age. I really had to think about the question and the answer. Certainly I have learned a lot in recent years about owning your own business. In 2013, I finished my Master’s in Information Engineering Management at UAB. I learned a lot in the program about technology, how it works, big data, starting a business, etc. I’ve also learned a lot from all of the jobs I’ve had over the years. TV taught me that I had a soft heart. Economic Development taught me about big business, politics and introduced me to people around the globe. UAB taught me about how to work with the media and that there was more to Public Relations than just working with the media. HealthSouth taught me that some people are not what they seem -- in both a good and bad way. Regions renewed my faith that not all people at the top were bad. Southern Living taught me beauty and the politics of the North and South. However, none of those jobs will be how I am remembered. And, to be honest, I don’t know how I will be remembered. I do know the one thing that matters to me in all of the last 50 years are the friendships and relationships I’ve built along the way.

To be honest, I don’t consider myself to have a lot of friends. I do know a lot of people, but I really think I’m a sucky friend and to have a lot of friends, you have to be a good friend. I am not the type that remembers birthdays or always has a gift to send. I do however give gifts when I believe I have found the perfect one – and I do not wait for an occasion to give it. For my family, I was not the aunt who baby sat a lot. I was the crazy Aunt out having fun (still am). Now, when the nieces and nephews got to a certain age…I could, and did, show them how to have fun. To my Mom and Dad – I am horrible about calling and checking in. It’s not intentional, I’m just moving from one thing to the next. And, to my friends, I hope they know, really know, how much I do care about them. Back in my single days I remember being out one night and a girlfriend called from Tuscaloosa, to say she had broken-up with a guy. I drove there immediately to spend the night and lighten her mood. A year or so ago a dear friend lost her father. I came crying with a casserole (engrained Methodist behavior from childhood). Another friend I had worked with at HealthSouth had her baby prematurely – again I took a casserole. And, even though I hadn’t seen this friend in like 15 years, when she got sick and came home from the hospital I again took food. Not tooting my horn here, but my point is I may not talk to you or see you, but in the end you are important to me and food is my love language.

So what I have I learned by this milestone trip around the sun – It’s what you do for people that matters. At least that is what I hope matters. Your actions, your deeds and your word. It is something I’m going to work harder at in the coming years -- being a better wife, friend, sister, daughter and aunt. To me that is what is important.

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