The Lasting Effects of “Cousins Kayak Camp”

Cousins Kayak Camp circa 2009


There I was, upside down in 35-degree water on the Wolf River in northern Wisconsin. I pulled my skirt and vowed I would never kayak again. I was ten.

Two of my cousins, my brother, and I were at “Cousins Kayak Camp,” organized by my Uncle Dan, an avid whitewater kayaker. His paddling career had spanned multiple decades with descents on most major Western rivers.

Uncle Dan was optimistic that after four days of kayaking lessons on the Class II/III section of the Wolf, we’d be hooked. He was right–eventually.

Cousins Kayak Camp circa 2002

Every day, my two cousins, my brother and I would hike to the gear shed from our gravel campsite. Uncle Dan had booked instruction through a look outfitter for the weekend. Our instructor, JJ, would set us up with damp booties, musty wetsuits and faded PFDs. The neoprene would prove to do little to keep out the cold.

JJ would then help us get our kayaks to the river and patiently hold the skirt on the back of the cockpit while we stretched it around the perimeter.

We paddled around in slow-moving current. JJ taught us how to peel out of eddies, how to ferry, how to master the ever-important wet exit.

Uncle Dan paddled around effortlessly in his yellow surf boat, helping JJ clean up the carnage each time we flipped and pulled our skirts, which we did every couple of minutes.

Cousins Kayak Camp circa 2002

After practicing our peel-outs and ferries in Class I, it was time to float downstream and progress our skills with more current. Our orange and blue boats scraped into each other in a clumsy bid to be next to JJ, paddling skills forgotten. Our bickering echoed through the Wisconsin forest as we pushed each other out of the way with our paddles.

We floated into the Class II section. The riffles might as well have been waterfalls as cousin after cousin flipped on every eddyline, crashed into every shallow rock. Children were strewn about, flaunting our perfectly executed wet exits. We floated proudly downstream with our feet up as JJ had told us to do, paddles and boats abandoned. Uncle Dan and JJ frantically collected the debris, shouting at us to swim to the muddy shore.

At the end of day one, we dragged our feet back to camp, exhausted from paddling and, mostly, swimming. Uncle Dan helped us carry our kayaks back to the warehouse, our booty-clad feet squelching with cold water.

The next day, after a hearty breakfast of Uncle Dan’s pancakes made on a Coleman griddle, we headed back to the same stretch of river to dial in the basics with less chaos.

Things started clicking for the four of us, our hips a bit more reactive to waves and current, our paddles in the water rather than windmilling about. JJ even introduced us to surfing small standing waves.

Grouping up at the end of day two, JJ announced that he thought we were ready for Class III and the iconic rapid: Gilmore’s Mistake.

In my memory, the rapid was a torrent of frothing whitewater, boat-eating holes, sieves and strainers around every bend. American Whitewater describes it as a bit friendlier but not without warnings.

JJ led us in the process of scouting Gilmore’s Mistake from shore. We stood shivering on the rocky bank, our eyes wide. We tightened our sunbaked PFDs and donned our nose plugs.

Cousins Kayak Camp circa 2005

Uncle Dan set safety at the bottom. My cousins went first, followed by my brother. They all avoided a wet exit, paddling desperately to reach our smiling Uncle Dan in the pool at the bottom.

Meanwhile, I paced around on shore, my 10–year–old heart rate approaching medically concerning numbers.

I felt like I was breathing through a straw as I dropped into the first ledge, and with seemingly no transition, I was upside down yet again. I pulled my skirt as the current ripped out my nose plug and water streamed in. My cousins watched silently from the pool where they bobbed below as I swam ungracefully with my kayak toward the shore where JJ stood. Uncle Dan walked up the shore to return my paddle.

Cousins Kayak Camp circa 2009

Without pause, he said, “Follow me.”

I heaved my kayak onto my shoulder, knees buckling. I followed him back toward the top of Gilmore’s Mistake.

“Stick right behind me,” JJ said.

I followed JJ paddle stroke for paddle stroke, gasping as I plunged past the ledge that had been my downfall. JJ watched me the whole time, head turned, blindly navigating the rapid.

I paddled recklessly through the last drop, my eyes squeezed shut. I smiled in relief as Uncle Dan waved me over. He gave me a paddle high-five, and I tentatively smiled.

We celebrated over Uncle Dan’s steak and potatoes that night, all of us bragging about our lines through Gilmore’s Mistake. Little did I know, this would be the first of hundreds of post-rapid debriefs, boaters describing perfect lines and carnage with equal enthusiasm. And the first of many years attending Cousin’s Kayak Camp.

Fifteen years later, on the Arkansas River in Colorado, I once again found myself upside down in frigid water, this time under a flipped raft. And once again, I vowed I would never do this again.

I was with five other raft guide trainees in mid-May, lapping Browns Canyon twice a day for 18 days. We would learn how to maneuver rafts of up to seven people in Class III/IV whitewater, practice reading and navigating the river, and of course, what to do with swimmers and flips.

We alternated roles, purposefully flipping rafts to experience what both the guide and the guests would experience in that moment.

To further embody the guest experience, we wore only wetsuits and splash tops despite the early-season ice. I had a hunch this was also mild hazing.

Browns Canyon; © American Whitewater

In the beginning, we traded off controlling the guide stick throughout the canyon. We daily fought over who got to guide the boat through Zoom Flume and the Staircase. The loser had to guide Toilet Bowl and Widowmaker, the sequential rapids that haunted our nightmares.

Our trainer, Zach, had described to us in vivid detail how the Toilet Bowl could flush you to the bottom of the Arkansas. You’d then pop up with your eardrums burst, heading straight toward a handful of sieves.

That fateful day, I had lost the argument, and it was my turn to be on the guidestick for Toilet Bowl and Widowmaker.

Zach told me to flip in the middle of the Staircase and have everyone back in the boat by the bottom. The Staircase consists of seven back-to-back rapids with huge standing wave trains.

I hit a wave sideways in Stair 5, pulling on the chicken line to finish the job. It fell on my head, and I was under the boat. Pushing myself out from under the raft, I saw yellow helmets bobbing down the wave trains and swirling in eddies. I pulled and pulled on the chicken line, legs kicking to try to pull myself onto the bottom of the boat, each time growing more exhausted. Zach shouted, “Get on that boat!”

I made eye contact with another trainee, who had already been pulled into Zach’s boat, and we both started to cry.

“I can’t!” I shouted back at Zach.

He rowed over and plucked us one by one out of the water. I hung my head in defeat. Three out of the six of us were in tears; the other three were pale and shaking. I was relieved to see all my friends accounted for, as I was sure they’d been fatally flushed into Widowmaker. At that moment, I decided I would quit.

A senior guide picked us up at the takeout for Upper Browns Canyon. After we’d stowed away the raft and donned every piece of fleece we owned at the outpost, Zach sat me down on an old bus seat that served as a bench. He looked at me with concern. He told me it was ok if I’d found whitewater wasn’t for me. But then he said, “You don’t seem like a quitter to me.”

Browns Canyon ©️ Leland Davis

The next day, Zach told me to get on the sticks going through lower Browns Canyon. This consisted of Siedel’s Suckhole, which at high water approaches Class IV and is just as terrifying as it sounds. You can either plug the hole and hope to come out on the other side, or more commonly, make an S-move to slip the raft between the hole and Kidney Rock. But we weren’t here to run sneaker lines.

Zach, his smile evident from afar, said he would set safety below Siedel’s. As he rowed away, he turned back and shouted, “Gut it!”

He disappeared over the ledge, oars feathering in and out of the current easily.

I meekly called out forward strokes, and as I saw the frothing, sucking beast over the ledge, I called out a squeaky “All forward!”

Our raft stopped dead, turned sideways, and began to buck. I saw legs kick and the bottoms of my friends’ neoprene booties as they were tossed out of the boat. My foot slipped farther under the thwart where I’d braced myself, and looking around frantically, I realized I was the only one left in the raft.

Other rookie training classes gathered on shore in multi-colored masses of red and blue and yellow, watching from the scout path. I heard cheering and clapping, saw fists pumping out of the corner of my eye. Finally, after what felt like several minutes, my legs flailed and I too went headfirst into the Arkansas.

I came up seconds later, spitting water out of my mouth. I swam toward Zach’s raft, where my fellow trainees sat. The swim at Siedel’s went into a gentle pool, and we could see Zach on his oars the whole time. He’d also already proven that we could trust him after the disaster in the Staircase. So instead of being terrified, I was able to enjoy the moment for what it was—training.

As the others pulled me in, they high-fived me and clapped me on the back. Our laughter echoed off the canyon walls, and I made eye contact with Zach, who smiled and nodded. We watched as our raft got surfed for another ten minutes.

That night, we sat around the campfire debriefing our runs through Browns. We discussed clean lines and carnage with equal enthusiasm.

I would have clean, beautiful lines again, like the second time through Gilmore’s Mistake. I would swim again, like when I got washed out of my oar rig in Lava Falls. There have been times, like flipping my friend’s bachelorette party in the Numbers on the Arkansas and losing all but one of our paddles, that I swore I would never get in a boat again.

As I now enter almost a decade of boating, logging hundreds of miles both commercially and privately, I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter how clean your line is or which rapid you swim. It’s about the people like Uncle Dan and JJ and Zach and countless others, waiting in the pool below, and the people sitting around the campfire at the end of the day.