Hood River wasn’t how I had pictured rowing school. Neither was hundreds of yards of portaging. Or the seemingly mile-long raft rail slide at the White Salmon River put in, followed by another belay. But when in Rome, right?
All that aside, the most unexpected moment in rowing school was when I was placed in a 16-foot gear boat with another student and no instructor. We were on the Wild and Scenic Rogue River headed into Mule Creek Canyon. If you know anything about this rapid, you know it’s an oar eater—a bottomless pit that mows down oars for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, never catching its fill. The deal in the rowing school was, whoever was going to row Blossom Bar (the heart and crux of this stretch of river), the other student in the boat would row Mule Creek Canyon. It was either o(a)r. Mule Creek Canyon was up first, shortly followed by Blossom Bar.
While at first glance this seemed fair and reasonable, there were some butterflies in my tummy knowing my counterpart had only rowed once before in her life on what sounded like class II rapids. Unbeknownst to me, a huge part of rowing school is getting comfortable being uncomfortable and embracing the fact that you’re the most experienced person in the boat.
Mule Creek Canyon is almost a mile long. At the entrance, my boat mate blew an oar. Looking upriver, I watched as the oar stood upright in the water (with just the upper few feet exposed) and chased our raft, just out of grasp. Meanwhile, the boat roared toward a downstream wall on river left. While the other oars woman hurriedly unstrapped the spare, I jumped onto the commissary box next to her, grabbed the right oar with both hands and double-fisted it in a pull to shed momentum.
We narrowly slid past the wall in slow motion, just as she slotted the spare into place. I passed off the right oar and jumped on the stern hoping the trailing oar would catch up to us for retrieval. It did not. I was left at the Blossom Bar scout contemplating the mismatched oars I would row through one of the most difficult rapids I had navigated in my short rafting career.
Welcome to rowing school!
Going to rowing school had been on my wish list ever since I first sat behind the sticks. The prospect of learning how to row boats from some of the best boaters in the Pacific Northwest stoked my inner (boating) nerd. I find understanding the nuance of technique, breaking down stylistic maneuvers and thinking through preferred methodologies in everything from rigging to rescue to be an absolute delight. As a detail-oriented boater, absorbing through repetition, discussion and instruction really help the finer points stick.
The best part about rowing school is that there’s a curriculum out there for everyone. Want to row but also enhance your swiftwater rescue skills? There’s a course for that. Are you a female boater who feels more comfortable learning alongside other females? There are all-women rowing clinics. You can take one-on-one instruction and really work through your strengths and weaknesses as well. There are even virtual clinics that break down everything boating starting from square one.
For me? I needed a mix. So, I took multiple courses and learned a wide variety of skills through a variety of teaching styles. There are some skills that all boating schools should teach you, like righting a raft, tying the right knots, reading water, safety and rescue basics, etc.
In one of the rowing schools I attended, multiple times each day, the instructors would secretly release a mannequin into the water to mimic a swimmer. The mannequin was constructed of fabric sewn around rocks and air-filled water bottles. It was so difficult to lift its dead weight into the raft and a great simulation for rescuing unconscious paddlers. Did I earn my swiftwater rescue cert from that school? No. But I learned some essential skills that could save someone’s life.
All rowing schools teach flip drills, but I must say during my very first rowing course, I failed miserably during these drills. I like to blame the cold water and excessively large dry suit, which felt like a flying squirrel suit in the water. However, no matter the temp of the water or what you’re wearing, if your raft flips, it’s on you to right it. What started as a soft spot that needed firming is now a rock-solid skill. I owe this to the repetition of flip drills at rowing school.
The biggest technical takeaway rowing school gave me was clearly understanding the difference between rowing away from danger, shedding momentum, slowing things down, and performing the downstream ferry used to bust a lateral or pierce through an unruly eddy line. The downstream ferry is my fav.
Have I convinced you to take a course yet? You don’t have to be like me and double-triple-quadruple up the instruction. Do your research, both internally as a boater and externally and you can choose the best course for you. Here are a few components to consider as you’re choosing a school.
When is the school happening? Spring works well to give you a solid knowledge base going into boating/guiding season. Additionally, higher water raises the bar and an emphasis on swiftwater rescue can be obtained. Some schools offer courses in the late winter which gives you an even bigger jump on the season. Got kids? A “real” job? If boating isn’t how you make your money and learning ahead of the season isn’t a priority, private boater rowing schools are offered in the summer months, making it easier to take the time off. Think about what your goals for the season are and what timing will best help you accomplish those goals.
Length of school
There are weekend courses and weeklong courses. How much time do you have and what can you gain from more time? The upside to a whole week is that you really get to marinate in the material and spend tons of time with your instructors. Over a week, you have the time to realize your weaknesses and still have time to improve upon them. This was true for me with shipping oars. Making the jump from rarely crossing them over my lap to pushing the grips out and shipping them forward. Or, even better, shipping one and maintaining one for balance, stability and steering.
Some schools occur on a multiday river trip, so you’re on the water the entire time. Others follow a basecamp model and students meet up each day and venture to a new stretch of river. In the case of the latter, is accommodation excluded? One of the schools I attended rented a large house and we could opt to stay there or arrange our own lodging. Staying in the house made the experience feel more like a boating summer camp because students ate together and planned future boating adventures together in the evenings. As a result, team bonding was high.
Class III or IV
Decide what difficulty of school you want to attend. Class III schools focus more on reading water and tackling rapids while advanced class IV schools might focus more on bigger-picture boating, like team boating—a method of constantly communicating with the other boats in your crew. This encompasses having your head on a swivel, being ready to eddy out on a dime, maintaining boat spacing, performing rescue strategies on the fly and passing information down the boat line through hand signals.
I first learned this term and practice at rowing school and my biggest takeaway was learning how to safely configure the boat order of a given group so that each person’s skillset is considered and accounted for. Although I think the students in the course (and many boaters) have likely touched on all the concepts that fall under the umbrella of team boating individually before, when presented as a methodology or a way of thinking, it was very impactful.
Rope Work: The Fundamentals or the Advanced
Learning knots, anchors and rope systems is a critical part of boating, both for commercial and private groups. Knots can be hard—both knowing which knot to tie and how. If you’re new to boating, look for a program that teaches these hard skills in a progressive sequence that you can build on. In the past, I’ve observed instructors teach knots on the fly as the need arises without leaving time for practice.
When you’re enrolled in a school with an emphasis on the fundamentals, often what could be considered complicated subjects are simplified and made clearer through tactile experience and expert explanation. On the contrary, if you’re a former cub scout and can tie a knot in your sleep, perhaps you’d prefer a more advanced school that will focus on rope work beyond the knots: think z-drags and mechanical advantages.
Reading reviews can give you a lot of information on what style of teaching to expect in the course. One of the schools I attended incorporated lots of games and a humorous round of charades with flashcards to help imprint and memorize terminology and hand signals. This exercise helped the group bond. It also reinforced the vocabulary terms and how difficult it would be to communicate over the roar of rapids, in an actual emergency.
In another activity, during a z-drag demonstration, students were asked to use close pins to identify the units of force on each component of the rope system. Looking for a teacher who resonates with your personal style of learning is key. I prefer a female lead instructor and a welcoming atmosphere to bring my best abilities as a learner forward.
Alternative rowing schools or instructors just getting their feet wet for the first time are often the least expensive. I found a digital rowing school offered by Northwest Rafting Company to be the most effective for the price for someone who isn’t able to get away for multiple days at a time. The producer, Zach Collier, also created a series called Gear Garage on Youtube which is a treasure trove of rafting knowledge. Google it and get rolling on rowing information from the comfort of your couch.
While at the bottom of this list, if your end goal is to become a professional guide, endorsements should be closer to the top. Taking a rowing course from an internationally certified agency (International Rafting Federation Guide Training and Education) or a nationally certified instructor will give you an added endorsement from that organization. For example, Nature Nicole Whitewater Courses, including their rowing school, offers an endorsement from the ACA (American Canoe Association). Ask schools about what endorsements they offer. You may think resumes don’t matter in the dirtbag world, but they do. Boost your boater resume with a rowing course that has some cred.