Braving the Big Waves

The Jackson Hole Kayak Club gets the valley's youngest whitewater enthusiasts out on the rivers

Rainer Kenney and Reed Hutton lead a group of eight tiny humans, each balancing a kayak and paddle precariously in their arms, down to the banks of the Hoback River, a river with class two rapids just south of the town of Jackson. This is the first time many of these kids have ever paddled the Hoback, and their fear and excitement fills the air noisily.

“What do we know about the Hoback?” Reed asks the tiny tribe of paddlers, a group of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys plus one fearless, steadfast girl.

“Big and gnarly!”

“Scary! Cold! Fast!”

“AWESOME!”

The responses resound across the canyon walls, and a flurry of elbows and paddles fly in all directions as they clamber into their boats. Their youthful enthusiasm finds focus when Reed raises his voice to speak to his mini mavericks.

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“Ok, guys,” he says, “we are ready for this. Do we have our group and our coach? Are we holding our paddles the right way? OK, lets GO!”

Away the diminutive fleet slips and slides into the river like a raft of happy otters, ferrying across their first rapid and bracing themselves for the unknown at the ages of 9 and 10 years old.

The Jackson Hole Kayak club is a nonprofit organization started in 1996 by Aaron Pruzan, owner of Rendezvous River Sports, because he believed children in Jackson should learn how to kayak, just like they learn how to ski. His dream was to provide affordable kayak lessons to local kids, in a sport that is inherently expensive. Aaron began the club by taking a group of five passionate kids out on the river at 7pm when his shop closed each day, keeping them out long after sunset.  A few incredible paddlers came out of this original group, and since then the nonprofit has expanded with support from fundraisers, private donors and fundraising groups like Old Bill’s fun run. The club now employs six coaches and executive director Rainer Kenney, and runs programs all summer long divided into the Muskrat, Beaver, Otter, and Explorer groups, based on age and ability.

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Coach Reed, who started out as a Muskrat in the Jackson Hole Kayak Club ten years ago, continues to be inspired by his role model coaches who helped him progress in the sport. As a teenager he began helping coach the younger kids in exchange for club membership, and is now an official employee when on summer break from Middlebury College. Reed explains that the connection he feels to his “kayak club family” wasn’t exactly love at first sight. “My first year sucked,” he admits with a grin. “It was cold and scary. Then I learned how to roll, made friends, and it got awesome!”

Rainer explains how helping kids work through their fear and stay interested in the sport through the first year is often his greatest challenge, and one that has taken years of experience to perfect.  Rainer laughs as he tells us how his adorably novice paddlers “get into tiny little kayaks, with their little skirts on…and we’re like ok, now flip over. When you flip over you feel like you’re trapped, it’s a very scary thing. So we try to take it slowly… if by the end of the first session they feel comfortable flipping over and getting out – called a wet exit – then I feel pretty good.”  

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Rainer has been a passionate educator for as long as he can remember, even helping coach his sister’s 4th grade team as a 6th grader himself.  He fondly remembers living in his truck his first summer in Jackson, fresh out of college and chasing his dream of teaching whitewater kayaking to youth. He jokes that as his students found out he was technically homeless, they would say things like, “you can come stay with me Rainer, I’ve got bunk beds! And their parents were like, no, your homeless kayak coach isn’t coming over to hang out.” Rainer also remembers accidentally emptying a kayak over his head that first summer that had, unbeknownst to him, been peed in moments prior by one of his giggling students (you know who you are), a hazing ritual of sorts anyone who teaches children can relate to.

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Rainer has paddled with all 70 of the kayak club’s current members, watching many go from scared and timid children to hard charging semi adults (who may or may not still pee in their kayaks). Rainer says, “Watching these kids get better is what makes me truly happy. I’ve seen them grow from being terrified of the water, going down Flat Creek terrified to flip over, to surfing Lunchcounter, flipping over all the time, becoming better than I am.” Risk management gains utmost importance when working with the rapidly progressing teenagers in the Explorer group, and as kids grow into their fearless, often egocentric teenage years, the sport is here to remind them of their own limitations.

Coaches stress slowing down and analyzing each situation on the river, and teach kids how to assess whether or not to run a rapid based on their own ability. Besides imparting invaluable lessons on high pressure decision-making, Rainer and Reed are attempting to give these kids a sense of self-reliance, and teach them how to be cool, man. “There’s more to kayaking than paddling,” Rainer explains. “We go camping, make a fire, eat and sleep outside… try to teach them what it means to be a real kayaker. We say, you guys tie your own boats down, carry your own boats, you put your gear away and hang it up… you’re gonna be an adult today.”

The Beavers learning to navigate the Hoback River will indeed one day be adults, and they are the new generation of stewards to our planet.  Kayaking takes these kids to some of the most beautiful, remote places on earth, and allows them to see our world from the unique viewpoint of the rivers themselves. Members of the club have chosen to do projects in school on whitewater management, such as research on the rivers in Yellowstone. The kayak club paddles Flat Creek in town every spring picking up trash, since the only really effective way to clean the creek is from a boat.

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Today, the Lost Boys (and girl) of the Hoback River surpass their coaches’ expectations yet again, each of them stopping to try their hand at surfing a rapid and many of them practicing their rolls and wet exits. In these moments, they hardly appear as kids at all, until Ruby cries out to Rainer to inspect a suspicious looking bug that has burrowed its way into her life jacket. Atticus, after crushing the rapid, asks his buddy Reed, “the cool coach,” to help warm up his freezing hands. Still, at times it is hard to tell the coaches from the kids, since wide-eyed joy and youthful grins are plastered across all of their faces equally.

“This is the most fun day ever,” exclaims one little fear-conquering paddler as he wobbles through the brush under the weight of his boat, exhausted and full of stories to tell his parents at the dinner table. Rainer nods and agrees, “This is the best day I’ve ever had.”

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 To learn more about the JH Kayak Club check out their site here 

 

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Images © Taylor Glenn