Reg Lake and Creek Hanauer, kayaking instructors with suspiciously perfect names, want me to paddle upstream toward the line that separates smooth, black eddy from gushing white water. They want me to leave our temporary shelter behind a large river boulder, raise the left side of my boat to meet the onslaught, and let the current sweep the bow 180 degrees downstream. The move, called a peel-out, seems foolhardy, and I know from recent experience what failure brings: an upside-down boat, a nose full of water, and a trout's-eye view of the world.
We're on northern California's Klamath River, a glittering green ribbon wrapping through a deep gorge of pine, fir, and granite. The sky is an unbroken blue overhead, but at the moment I'm fixating on the froth in front of me. "Just like this," Lake says, peeling out with a look of beatific calm on his face; he could be contemplating the divine or savoring a tasty caramel. My turn next. I paddle hard and-whoa!-water splashes, the canyon blurs, the river roars. A wobbly few seconds later, much to my delight, I'm cruising downstream. Three days ago even this basic move would have scuttled me. I'd been river rafting and sea kayaking before, but white-water kayaking was completely new, and the boat seemed tiny, squirrely, and cramped. Fortunately, I was enrolled in one of the nation's best high-end kayaking schools-Otter Bar Lodge.
The lodge itself is situated two miles downstream from the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Salmon, perched on a grassy bench where the river makes a long curve between steep mountain flanks. Lodge founder Peter Sturges, 55, discovered the 62-acre property in the late 1970s when he was working as a fishing guide. "It was large, flat, and gorgeous, and one of the only places on the river with three beaches," he says as he gives me a tour of the place.
Otter Bar is off the grid, and Sturges proudly displays the solar panels, hydropowered turbines, and generators that supply the juice. We pass through the main lodge, which has four bedrooms, a spacious living room, and a fireplace-warmed study, and head outside. Beyond the three outlying guest cabins is a large shed that houses the kayaking gear; parked in front are half a dozen mountain bikes that guests can use on the region's copious fire roads and trails. In addition to boats and gear, Otter Bar also offers an arsenal of luxuries to keep students in a positive frame of mind-gourmet cuisine, a hot tub, a sauna, and an on-site massage therapist. All you need to do is show up with a bathing suit and surrender your will to the resident Yodas of white water.
Otter Bar hasn't always been this cushy, and learning to kayak here wasn't always easy. "In the early years, our approach was to get people crashing down big rapids right away," Sturges says. Nasty wipeouts were common. "People would survive the week but they wouldn't ever come back," he says ruefully. Things work much differently now. "It's a revelation to many people that kayaking doesn't have to be a death-defying sport."
Indeed, the popularity of white-water kayaking has exploded in the past 20 years, with nearly two million paddlers in the United States today. Crafts have become lighter and more agile, and improved paddle designs have increased energy efficiency and control. Combined with the pedagogy as practiced at Otter Bar, kayaking yields far more pleasure (and far less water up the nose) for newcomers.
Hanauer, 57, attended the very first Otter Bar class 24 years ago. Lake, 61, has been instructing at Otter Bar for nearly as long and is a shameless "kayakaholic." In the eighties, he logged first descents of Sierra rivers with mountaineering legends such as Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard. In addition to teaching at Otter Bar, he leads sea kayaking trips in Chile, mounts month-long solo expeditions, and builds his own boats. He and Hanauer both teach with the zeal of cult members eager for new recruits.
They take us out to Otter Bar's on-site training pond to practice basic paddle strokes and edge control. We work extensively on the Eskimo roll, the art of righting your capsized boat without bailing out. Hanauer talks about converting from your "lizard brain, which works on land, to your salamander one, which works in the water." It's mumbo jumbo at first, but his words begin to make weird sense when he physically guides me through the motions. I learn how to position body and paddle, how to snap my hips, swing the paddle, and roll upright, head counterintuitively coming out of the water last. Like a golf swing, a successful roll is elegantly simple, and a failed one maddeningly complex. "The perfect roll," according to Hanauer, "is like that Zen koan about the sound of one hand clapping."
The day is clear and mild, and we're on the water by 10 a.m. Our Kool-Aid colored armada of kayaks-blueberry, raspberry, lemon-lime, and fruit punch-drifts down the Klamath, following a horseshoe bend around a forest-cloaked dome. The river accelerates. The sound of water coursing over rocks grows louder. Then I'm in it, the Dillon Creek Rapid, a Class III that funnels to a ribbon sweeping along the left bank. At the bottom, I power into a broad right-side eddy. Go, salamander brain. A few days ago, in an almost identical situation, I flipped the boat and had to bail out. Not this time: I'm reading the river, identifying tricky currents and features.
Running rapids in a raft is great, but running them in a kayak is even better. It's like the difference between driving a school bus and a Porsche. I ride low to the water, sleek and nimble, slaloming between rocks. "We can teach people in one week what would otherwise take two years to learn," Sturges likes to say, and he may be right. At first, I was losing my balance on river features barely perceptible to the naked eye; now I'm tackling small and medium rapids with relative ease. If my boat goes over, I can attempt a roll or easily "wet exit," sliding out of the boat and swimming to the surface.
The next morning, we come to the last and largest rapid: Sandy Bar. It's rated Class III, and the water is a wild mess-swirling, jumping, crashing against rocks, piling into giant waves. I take it straight down the middle, bouncing over rollers, diving into troughs, colliding into exploding walls of water. My body, my paddle, everything is reacting to keep me upright. Soon I'm at the bottom. I yell, triumphantly pump my paddle in the air, and hear, if just for a second, the sound of one hand clapping.
Where to Stay: Hotel Arcata ($79; 800-344-1221) features claw-foot tubs and an antique ambience. WHERE to Eat: In Arcata try Cafe Tomo (www.cafetomo.com), a family-style Japanese restaurant below the Hotel Arcata, or the Plaza Grill (707-826-0860) for steaks and fixin's. At the Bar: Otter Bar Lodge offers seven days of classes, meals, lodging (shared occupancy), kayak equipment for beginners, and communal mountain bikes ($1,950, all-inclusive; www.otterbar.com). Massages are extra ($65 an hour).
Other Kayaking Schools: White Lake, Wisconsin's Wolf River Guides' two-day beginner class ($220; www.wolfriverguides.com) teaches the fundamentals, with optional intermediate classes. Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole Rendezvous Kayaking Camps ($1,920 per person for five days, includes classes, lodging, gear, and some meals; 307-732-5600) has a low student-to-instructor ratio and immerses participants in the unspoiled beauty of the Snake River and Jackson Hole environs. North Carolina's Nantahala Outdoor Center ($795 for four days, includes classes, lodging, meals, and gear; www.noc.com) out of Bryson City is considered by many to be "the Harvard of paddling schools." - Jeff Gangemi