Growing Old in Whitewater

Many of the whitewater boaters that I paddle with began the sport thirty or forty years ago. Now, we’re in our sixties, seventies and a handful in their eighties.

We’ve witnessed much of the evolution of the sport which first became popular nationally in the seventies. Many people including myself credit the whitewater adventures depicted in the movie Deliverance as a major source of the initial widespread enthusiasm. The most exciting scenes were filmed on the Chattooga River and Warwoman Creek in Georgia. Not long after the movie was released in 1972, those waterways became the focus of frequent pilgrimages by whitewater wannabes. An unfortunate consequence, a hazardous section of the Chattooga attracted large numbers of paddlers and has been the site of numerous fatalities.

Early whitewater canoes were traditional wilderness tripping boats lacking maneuverability and far too heavy. Most of the kayaks were homemade fiberglass creations. Prototype crafts had a commonality they were much too long and didn’t give adequate consideration to comfort, safety and the inherent risks involved in whitewater.

By the eighties whitewater boating had become a much more conventional activity and boat designs improved accordingly. Larger kayak cockpits greatly reduced the chance of entrapment undoubtedly saving many lives. Both canoes and kayaks were shortened providing greater quickness that facilitated descending steep constricted rapids. Hull shapes resembling bananas called rocker were developed allowing paddlers to turn their boats with relative ease. Probably the most significant innovation was the use of plastic to construct boats that were extremely durable and almost unbreakable. Empowered paddlers began challenging rapids and even waterfalls that were previously deemed impossible to navigate.

While we seniors have witnessed the remarkable growth and advancement of whitewater paddling, we’ve changed too. We’re older. Our physical abilities have diminished, mental acuity has declined and many of us have endured health problems. Twenty years ago, we were in our prime and the boats we chose maximized performance often at the expense of comfort and sometimes safety.

My personal experiences are perhaps emblematic of the issues faced by many aging boaters. I started paddling whitewater in canoes, which required kneeling for effective boat control and stability. A knee replacement rendered regular canoeing difficult and painful. Kayaking became the means to continue an activity I loved. Recently, arthritis in my hips has caused uninvited pain when kayaking. After some experimentation, I’ve ordered a kayak ergonomically designed to provide greater comfort. While the new boat will place some limitations on performance, the singular goal is to extend my paddling life.

Shoulder issues and tendonitis particularly in the elbows are also common physical problems encountered by aging whitewater devotees. Little things like getting in and out of boats have become more problematic. What used to be simple activities that were easily accomplished often require planning and sometimes assistance. Unlike the past when we did our own heavy lifting, loading and unloading boats is usually a team effort. It’s not unusual for me to sit in my kayak at a takeout nursing sore hips and contemplating an exit strategy that will avoid falling in the water. I never decline an offer for help.

Mental acumen is an essential element of effective whitewater paddling and something that tends to diminish with age. Paddling difficult rapids requires confidence and presence of mind. Quickly identifying required maneuvers and decisively executing them is crucial. Anxiety, fear and indecision are the enemies. Many of us have found the need to lower the level of difficulty and excitement we’re willing to engage to address this issue.

Age has its advantages. I now have a cadre of retired and semi-retired paddling companions who are regularly available for whitewater adventures. Instead of being limited to weekends, we choose the best weather days when water levels are at a premium.

A recent trip on the Sheepscot River in Alna is a good example. The water level was near perfect and the forecast sunny and warm. My longtime friend, eighty year old Brunswick resident Carolyn Welch proposed a last minute trip. Three of us retired duffers took our meds and signed on for the midweek escapade. Youthful paddlers would probably have chuckled at our boats which were relics from a previous era but we had a most excellent excursion.

For many of us gray-haired geriatric paddlers, whitewater boating is a passion we will never willingly surrender. An abiding romance with a pursuit that consumes us each spring, we’ll continue to make concessions and seek alternatives to stay on the water for as long as possible.

As we say in the paddling world, see you on the river.

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.