Volume IV, No. 2, Winter 1976



Written and illustrated by Emery Savage

As white men began to settle in the Ozark region, they began to look for a boat that could be used to fish the deep eddies but that floated high enough in the water to make it over shallow riffles. This lead to the development of the homemade wooden johnboat which reigned over the Ozark streams for many years. Then in about the mid 1950's johnboat floaters began to see a newcomer on their streams. Not often at first, but soon more and more frequently were seen the light, newfangled, factory made aluminum canoes. It wasn't easy for a lot of johnboat patriots to accept, but with the canoe's surprising stability and easy handling, it didn't take too many years for the canoe to overthrow the johnboat and become the new king of the Ozark rivers. Along with the title of "king," canoers inherited a sense of pride--a feeling that theirs was the best water vehicle around and that nothing could possibly be better than a canoe...

But watch out canoe enthusiasts! There's a newcomer on Ozark streams----kayaks. With all the thrills and excitement that they bring, kayaks are bound to make big waves.


Denny Bopp demonstrates the proper paddle hold and use. The canvas spray skirt prevents water from entering the kayak. Maneuvering in rapids is much easier in a kayak than in a canoe or john-boat since the kayak has less drag against the water.

My first experience with a kayak was in late March when the effects of winter were still evident by the bare trees and cold wind blowing across the drab gray sky. It was rainy, dark and drizzly as we pulled down the twisted little road to the river's edge. We unloaded two canoes and something strangely new to me. It was a short yellow plastic boat that was completely enclosed except for a large hole in the top. The kayak belonged to Denny Bopp whose excited enthusiasm got us all anxiously underway.

We hurriedly unloaded the boats carried them to the edge of the river. After getting everything in order, Denny put on his odd looking skirt and slid into his kayak, fastening his spray shirt around the cockpit of his boat. With a quick movement of his paddle, he was off. I jumped in my canoe and followed, amazed at the speed and maneuverability of the kayak. Denny could reach a good speed in just a short distance and could then stop and turn on a dime. We paddled on downstream to the first swift riffle. There he showed me some basic moves like eddy turns and how to ferry across a rapid. I thought these maneuvers all looked simple enough, so he gave me my first chance to try paddling a kayak.

I soon learned that even getting in a kayak wasn't simple. Once in, I began to paddle upstream. At first I felt very uneasy because it felt like trying to balance on a narrow pole. After a few minutes of paddling around, I felt that I was ready to tackle the riffle and surprise everyone with a perfect eddy turn. I pointed my bow toward the "V" of the swift water. The cold wind blew in my face as I began building more and more speed with every stroke. Then when I got about half way down the riffle, I thrust my paddle down, shifted my body, leaned out over the water, and was swept downstream sideways! After playing host to several jokes and wisecracks from various Bittersweet members, I quickly gave Denny's kayak back to him. From then on I listened closer and took things Denny said more seriously.

As we paddled farther on down the river, Denny explained and demonstrated several ideas and techniques, so that by the time we reached the next stretch of swift water, I had a much greater respect for the kayak. Denny again demonstrated some good kayak techniques. When he offered to let me try again, I was more than ready.

This time the kayak had a new feel to it. For one thing I had learned that you don't sit in a kayak, you wear it, and you must learn to use it like it was a part of you. This made it easier for me to understand the turning and leaning methods used in a kayak. Soon with some practice and a lot of patience on Denny's part, I was doing eddy turns and ferrying across riffles--not very skillfully, but I was doing them. As we went on down the river, I became more and more at ease with the kayak. By the time we reached our take-out point, even though it was cold and wet and nasty, I wasn't anxious to leave.


Above--The first time I sat in a kayak I felt as if I were balancing on a narrow beam. I soon learned you don't sit in a kayak, you wear it.

I didn't get a chance to go kayaking again until early in July when I was invited to go on a float with Kim Hunt. She has competed and done well in many canoe and kayak white water races. Denny and I were certain she could teach us much, but we were most excited about learning to do an eskimo roll.

It was a hot sunny day and all of us were looking forward to the cool water as we unloaded the boats in the hot sun at Moon Valley on the Niangua River. We hadn't gone down the river very far until Denny got anxious to see Kim do a roll. We both watched as she leaned over, capsized her kayak and popped back up on the other side. Denny gave me one of those, "Hey, that's simple" looks and said he was going to try. Before Kim had time to persuade him that he wasn't ready, he had his kayak capsized and was fighting unsuccessfully to get himself back up. Things aren't always as simple as they seem.

Though Kim had a hard time trying to get Denny to wait until we got to a shallow place where she could help him, I couldn't help but admire his enthusiasm and determination. We went farther down the river to a small gravel bar where the water was only about waist deep, which is a good depth for practice. Kim stood in the water next to Denny's kayak. She had him capsize and while he was underwater, moved his paddle through the proper motion before pulling him back to the surface. After much practice, Denny was ready to try again on his own, making several close but unsuccessful tries. Kim told him to quit fighting, take his time and to concentrate on what he was doing. This time when Denny went under, he was down longer. His paddle skimmed across the top of the water into the proper position. Then suddenly he snapped up out of the water.

Now it was my turn. I slipped into Kim's kayak and paddled out to where she was standing. First she held the paddle and instructed me to hold on to it, too, while I leaned over far enough to get my shoulder wet. Next she took my paddle away and instructed me to capsize and tap the hull of the boat slowly three times. This helped me to get the feel of being suspended upside down in a kayak.


After I did so she turned me back up straight. Next I capsized again and made a wet exit. After emptying the water from the kayak, I got back in and once more I capsized. I held my paddle as she moved it into the proper position and pulled me back up again. We did this several more times until I felt I was ready to try it on my own.

I made several attempts but was unsuccessful. Since we decided we better be moving on, I gave Kim's kayak back and got back in my canoe. We paddled on down the river going through riffles and log jams, stopping at a gravel bar to eat lunch and to swim but were soon paddling down the river once again. Kim let me use her kayak while she took my canoe.

The warm sun beat down as we glided through the still water. I felt very tiny as the large cliffs of the Niangua loomed overhead. We soon reached our take-out point, but I still wanted to do a roll by myself. I paddled upstream to a shallow spot and capsized. This time I took my time and concentrated. When I came back up, I could hardly believe how easy it was! It felt good and there was no struggle to get up.

Before last March I had never ridden in a kayak, and being a canoe enthusiast for many years, I held little respect for them. But now that I've had a chance to work with one, I can safely say that there is no greater personal relationship you can have on a river than in a kayak.

Above--Kim Hunt shows skill and patience while teaching me the Eskimo Roll. Here she helps me surface after capsizing. Below--After a long morning of working with the kayak, it's nice to stop to rest and eat lunch while reliving the earlier events of the day.


It is great to be able to feel the cool water bumping under my legs as I run a rapid and to feel the cold spray on my face as the hull of my boat splashes against the violent water. I experience a great floating sensation as the kayak glides like an arrow down the deep still eddies, feeling the warm sun rays touch me on the shoulders or the cold wind blow across my face.

I have a great personal satisfaction the first time I do an Eskimo roll by myself or successfully maneuver my way through a narrow swift stretch of log jam without any mistakes.

Even better than all this is the joy of working with and learning from people like Denny and Kim whose respect for the river could be an example for all river floaters.

I know what it's like to beach on a gravel bar and warm up to a fire while sharing food and past experiences with friends. The river creates a great feeling of togetherness as we work together to help one another.


Since kayaks are finding their way to Ozark rivers, I will give just a few basic techniques to help in the understanding of this newcomer on our Ozark streams.

The first kayaks were developed by the native north Americans of the barren Arctic. Their boats had a sealed deck covered by animal skins and a close cockpit to keep the hunter dry and warm. They were usually about 18 feet long and 1 1/2 feet wide. Today's kayaks are usually made of fiber glass or plastic and the average recreational size is usually no less than 13 feet 2 inches and no narrower than 24 inches wide.


Kayaks have an enclosing deck to keep out water. The deck is curved so that water will run off. In the middle of the deck is the cockpit hole, which is simply the hole where the pilot of the boat sits to guide. The front of the boat is the bow, the back is the stern. (see figure 1)

Around the top of the cockpit hole is a lip or rim called the coaming. It is used to fasten the elastic edge of the spray shirt to keep water from entering the cockpit. At each end of the kayak is a grab loop, used for towing or pulling a capsized kayak. They are also used in tying a kayak to the top of a car. The bottom of the kayak is called the hull. It is usually made a little heavier than the deck to withstand collisions with rocks and logs. The shape of the hull is most important to the way a kayak handles.

On the inside of a kayak, consisting of several different parts, is the bracing system. This consists of the h/p brace which is part of the seat that keeps you from sliding around, foot brace which can be either a metal bar running across the hull or pedal braces which are simply foam blocks, and finally knee braces which are foam pads on the deck against which knees are pressed.

The seat of a kayak usually hangs from the coaming or is braced from the hull to give about one-half inch of room for the hull to flex in case of a collision.

The air filled flotation bags keep the kayak from sinking in the case that it fills up with water. These fit in the bow and stern. Also water tight storage bags can be used in the stern to store dry clothes and food.

The spray skirt is a skirt worn around the waist of the person and stretched around the coaming to keep water from splashing in and to prevent the kayak from filling up when doing an Eskimo roll. They are usually made of either neophrene or coated canvas.

The paddles for a kayak vary greatly in material from aluminum to laminated wood. The paddles have blades at both ends. (see figure 2) The blades being "feathered" (turned at right angles to each other), decreases wind resistance. While one blade pulls through the water, the other slices into the wind. The blades are usually curved on the business side to push more water.

Though there are left and right handed paddles, it is easy to adapt to either one. When paddling, one hand must be held slightly looser than the other in order to rotate the blades. (see figure 3)

Figure 2, --The blades are feathered (turned at right angles) so that when one is being pulled through the water, the other slices through the air. This cuts down on wind resistance.


The three figures show position of paddle. When paddling one hand is held slightly looser than the other in order to rotate the paddles. Breathing is also important. You should inhale on one stroke and exhale on the next. This allows you to go greater distances without tiring.

Figure 3


The first thing to learn about a kayak is how to get into one. Assuming you are on the right bank pointing downstream, park it parallel to the bank in shallow water. Hold the paddle behind you. Now facing the bow squat down, and still gripping the paddle, reach across the cockpit catching the coaming with your thumb. This puts the paddle shaft just behind the coaming with the right blade resting on the bank. Now crouching with hands behind you and putting your weight on the shaft, enter the cockpit sideways, sliding your feet down toward the bow and slipping into the seat. This technique balances the boat and also prevents crushing it while entering. The thing to remember is that you don't just jump in a kayak. You have to slide in, like putting on a pair of pants.

There are many strokes in paddling a kayak, but the three basic strokes are draw, sweep and scull. The draw stroke is to pull the kayak sideways. The draw stroke is used more in a kayak than in a canoe.

A sweep is a stroke used for turning. To do a sweep place the paddle near the boat a few feet in front of the cockpit and sweep out and back causing the kayak to turn.

A scull stroke is used when you must lean in the boat for a longer period of time than on a draw stroke. They are both alike except that a scull stroke makes a figure eight in the water fast enough to keep you up while leaning.

One thing you will want to know if floating an Ozark river is how to do an eddy turn. In kayaking terms an eddy is a still pool of water found on either bank of a riffle or behind a protruding log or rock. (see figure 4) Eddies make excellent places to stop and rest or to think out the next moves. To make an eddy turn enter the riffle with strong forward strokes, and then when you reach the eddy, thrust the paddle down into a sweep or into a stationary position and let the current propel you into an eddy. It is much like running as fast as you can then suddenly reaching out and grabbing a tree. The force of your run will spin you around the tree. Only in the case of a kayak, the force is the current and the tree is the paddle.

When you have turned into an eddy, you are usually facing upstream. To come out of the eddy and continue downstream angle the boat into the swift water then set the paddle stationary in the water, and lean so that the bow turns sideways to the current. The current will then turn the bow downstream and you can continue on down the river.

Figure 4 -- A--An eddy (in kayak terms) is any still pool of water occurring on the river. B--Moving at an angle is called ferrying, named for the way old time ferry boats carried people across the river.

To go up a riffle, or ferry, you must aim the boat up the riffle at a slight angle, paddling up and across the riffle. If you get at too much of an angle in either direction, the swift current will catch the bow of the boat, turn it and drag it downstream. The sharper the angle the faster you will cross the riffle, but too much of an angle will send you back downstream.

There are many many techniques and moves used by white water kayakers that would never be used on small Ozark rivers, so I'll not attempt to explain all of them, but one final move I would like to describe is the Eskimo roll. The Eskimo roll is very important in case you capsize. It is a difficult maneuver and should not be attemped without some personal instruction. Before you try a full 360° roll, you should first learn to do a 180° half roll, which requires both the same paddle brace technique while upside down in the water and the same strong snap of the hips as a full roll. It would be good when trying this for the first time to have someone to turn you back up for the first few rolls. I will start with a half roll to the right.


First place the paddle parallel to the right side of the boat. Your right hand should be placed near the back end of the shaft. Your left hand should be near the center of the shaft with your palm down. Now you should lean forward and tuck your head. The front blade of the paddle should be facing up. (see figure 5)

Take a deep breath and capsize to the left. When you are completely upside down in the water, keep the paddle against the side of the boat and open your eyes to get oriented. (see figure 6)

You are now ready to begin the paddle brace recovery.

Swing the forward blade away from the bow about one quarter of a turn. The blade should be sticking out of the water on the right with the power side up. (see figure 7)


Figure 5-- Lean forward, tucking head in. Hold paddle at right gunwale, with business side of blade sticking up.

Figure 6--After capsizing, hold paddle parallel to the side of the boat.

Figure 7--Now swing your forward blade % of a turn. The power side should face up to prevent the blade from diving as it skims the top of the water.


Lean back and snap your hips to bring you out of the water, coming up on the right. (see figure 8)

When you come up you should be leaning back with the paddle in front of you. (see figure 9)

If you capsize and can't do an Eskimo roll, get out by means of a wet exit. To practice this simply capsize in shallow water. Pull the spray skirt free from the coaming. Straighten your legs to release your knees from the knee braces and lean forward, rolling out of the cockpit. When you do this, the boat will fill with water. Empty the kayak by putting the stern on the bank and raising the bow to let water drain out of the cockpit.

But the most important thing of all before attempting to master the kayak is to learn to respect and understand the river and its ways, for as Kim said, "You can't beat the river. You have to work with it because you're in its home, and if you try to fight it, you're going to lose."

Continuing the Eskimo Roll. Figure 8-Using your paddle, lean back and give a strong snap with your hips. If you don't make it, try again. If you haven't made it by the third or fourth try you will have to wet exit. Figure 9--This is the position you should come up in, leaning back with your paddle in front of you.

Although tired and wet, no one is ever ready to leave at the final point at the end of the day. Even though we must say good-bye, we always leave with a lot of good memories and new experiences.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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