Flying my kayak

Whitewater kayaker, James Shimizu shares his perspective on running waterfalls and why he flys in his kayak.

Kayaking is whatever you want to make of it, and waterfalls are not for everyone. 

Some of the earliest videos I ever saw of whitewater kayaking displayed kayakers running waterfalls will style and grace.  I was so intrigued, I had no idea that it was even possible. Ever since that first exposure to this aspect of the sport I’ve felt a calling to waterfalls.  One of the beauties of the sport is that kayaking is whatever you want to make of it, and waterfalls are not for everyone. 

The first waterfall I ever ran was back in 2014, Jungle Creek Falls in Northwestern Montana. A couple of friends and I drove up the South Fork of The Flathead River to paddle the Meadow Creek Gorge.  After that lap on the way back home, we stopped at a bridge and peered over.  Below us was Jungle Creek Falls, a small tight crack that funnels you into a 10-footer.  Having no idea how to boof or really kayak that well at the time I just plugged off it with my paddle over my head leaning back and resurfacing upright.  I didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of an addiction.

Photo by Dave Fusilli

Some people think that running waterfalls is just about sending it and being “ballsy” and that it’s just a roll of the dice.  However, I believe it is possible to make it a very calculated activity and break it down into every little variable, turning it into a scientific process.  Variables include the drop itself.  What is the entrance like? How is the transition? What speed do I want coming in? What are the dangers below? Should I tuck or throw my paddle? Water level? 

These are just a few of the things to consider when running a waterfall but I believe it goes far beyond that.  I think if you identify all the variables and do everything in your power to put those variables in your favor, running waterfalls can be a safe and predictable element of kayaking.  Taking care of the body is a big part of making it a sustainable activity.  Shoulder PT, yoga, stretching, running, eating, and sleeping well beforehand, all of these can make your day of kayak flight go the way you dreamt!

Photo by Caleb Wallace

Visualization is a big part of this process as well, days if not sometimes weeks before I run a big drop I will start visualizing the line.  For some drops, I plan out every stroke from the eddy to the pool and for others, I end up just being present in the moment and doing what feels right.  Regardless, visualization is crucial.  How will it feel? How will I react when it feels different? Having multiple plans in your mind will help you prepare for all possible eventualities and lead you to a positive outcome.

One of the last steps I take as I get into my kayak is to breathe consciously. 

Your heart rate is already elevated by walking around and once you sit down in your boat you need to get your heart rate as low as you can.  A big breakthrough with kayaking for me was realizing that the more I can slow down my heart rate while kayaking the more I can slow down the whitewater. 

This goes for waterfalls especially. Above a drop, I will sit down in my boat, close my eyes, and breathe in the nose and out the mouth, with each breath trying to slow my inhale and exhale and in turn my heart rate.  After a few minutes of this, I typically will feel a wave of calm and presentness rush over me, that’s when it’s time to go.  Green light.  

Much of what I discussed above can be taken and applied to all facets of kayaking!

Photo by Darby McAdams

But why? Why paddle a perfectly good kayak off of a cliff? 

For me, it’s a special experience and one of my favorite disciplines of the sport.   It is another level of focus and being present in that moment that draws me to it.  Everything else fades away from the moment I’ve reached the point of no return to when I hit the pool.  It is just you, your boat, and the waterfall.  All the other things in your mind fade away and for me, there is a feeling of calm and peacefulness at that moment. Completely focused and present in doing what you need to do to have a good line and make it to the bottom.  It is one of the best feelings for me when I have a plan, execute it the way I wanted to and roll up at the bottom with little to no impact smiling. 

Written by James Shimizu | Obsessed whitewater kayaker with a propensity for finding and flying his craft off waterfalls.

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