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An Hour Spent Upside Down, Underwater

Roll, roll, roll your boat


The roll is by far the most counterintuitive, perplexing, black-magic part of whitewater kayaking for me. For those unfamiliar: When the river current flips you underwater, you have to be able to roll your boat back up--unless you like the feeling of your head bouncing against boulders.

After many frustrating practice sessions on Quinn's Pond last summer, some of which ended in throwing my paddle aside and a deep desire to give up on the sport forever, I finally started getting my roll with some consistency--even nailed a handful of combat rolls (unplanned rolls taking place in the river). But that wouldn't have happened if it weren't for several roll clinics.

On a recent Sunday night, I headed back to the downtown YMCA for a clinic put on by Cascade Raft and Kayak as a start-of-the-season refresher. About 20 other folks and I bobbed around in the pool, trying not to bump against the water slides, the pool sides and each other. Cascade provides the kayaks, paddles and spray skirts.

For every three confused and scared-looking novice boaters, there's an instructor wading around, there to help. One of them is Jeremy Shoemaker. He's 23, with long, curly surfer hair and a kind, encouraging demeanor. He started teaching roll clinics three years ago and he said getting kayakers to the pool is no problem. Teaching them the proverbial kayak roll is a little tougher.

These instructors know that the less time you spend struggling with your roll, the less time you'll spend feeling frustrated.

"The funny thing is, the lightbulb goes on and off," Shoemaker said. "So you'll do your roll and say, 'Oh, I got it!' Then come back to me next week and say, 'I don't know what happened, I lost my roll.'"

Shoemaker said it's easy for him to look at someone like me while I try to roll upright and see what I'm doing wrong.

"You might feel like you're in the right position every time, and just not getting it. But having that little tweak... it's honestly more just finding the proper way to say it. It's making the verbiage make sense because different things work for different people," Shoemaker said.

He has lots of analogies to help his students visualize the roll. Glue your ear to your shoulder, follow your paddle with your eyes, disconnect your upper half with your lower half, lean forward, cock your wrists, smile. And the good news for me:

"I've never had anybody that can't figure out the roll eventually," Shoemaker said.

The roll clinic attracts all kinds of river rats, from little kids to older men, play boaters and river runners alike. People who have never sat in a boat before to seasoned veterans practicing hand rolls. The clinics are held every Sunday night, alternating between the downtown and West Boise YMCA.