Don Boehmer, left, helps Leo Ginty work on his kayak roll technique at a pool session at the Mylan Park Aquatic Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

There’s a strange feeling that comes over you upside down in a kayak in the middle of whitewater. Sounds muffle, the river takes you where it wants — where it’s been going for hundreds of years. 

If you know what you’re doing, time slows down, you focus, get your bearings, make your move.  

Sometimes you catch that roll on the first try and pop right up. Sometimes you don’t. The fight-or-flight instincts kick in. Most of the time there’s nothing wrong with the latter. You start swimming.

But how do you get there? From Ohiopyle in Pennsylvania to West Virginia’s Gauley River and New River Gorge, we’re surrounded by some of the country’s best whitewater. How do you get to the point where being upside down in it becomes second nature, even amusing? How do you get to the point where swimming in whitewater isn’t a terrifying proposition and where do you start? 

“You have to learn how to be humbled,” says Don Boehmer, a kayak instructor and owner of Highwater Hobbies, a paddling gear shop across the Maryland border near Ohiopyle.

 “It’s all about staying within your skill level,” says Boehmer. “Pool practices in the winter are the best way to get into kayaking. You can learn a ton there, and you can take it to the river.” 

Neil Blythe rolls upright after flipping his kayak in a rapid on Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

From November through March, Boehmer runs the pool sessions at the Mylan Park Aquatic Center in Morgantown, West Virginia. Along with 3 Rivers Outdoor Company‘s weekly open pool night at Woodland Hills High School, they are currently the two main options in the Pittsburgh area for instruction.  

“I wish I would have had a roll in the pool first,” says Sarah McCarter of Morgantown, remembering how she got started. Her kayak humbling came early trying it with friends. “My first time out, I swam three times, and felt super embarrassed.”  

But with practice and lessons, she’s gone from beginner to paddling some of the area’s more difficult rivers in under a year. “I think it all just clicked at one point.”  

McCarter credits repetition to the point of muscle memory as well as having refined her skills in a pool. 

“Somebody told me, ‘be upside down as much as possible,’” she says.

With the right help, rolling in whitewater situations can become nearly second nature, and so can swimming it. There are also a host of skills to learn that can help you avoid flipping altogether. Learning swift water rescue techniques through an on-river course can also be a big confidence builder. It’s important to know what to do when things don’t go as planned.

“For some, it comes immediately. For others it takes time,” says Andy Smith, owner of Riversport kayaking school in Confluence, Pennsylvania near Ohiopyle. “For me, kayaking was one of the hardest sports to learn. But once I did learn, I fell completely in love with it.”

Bob Frankeny paddles through a rapid on Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

For dedicated whitewater kayakers, there is no off-season. When the snow flies many hit indoor pool sessions to keep their skills fresh. Some even paddle our region’s rivers year-round.

“The biggest thing is to stay the course,” Smith says. “Keep that roll and always practice.” 

Speaking to the frustrations of beginning kayakers, McCarter adds, “ Don’t be afraid to try. Don’t get discouraged; for some people it can take months.”

For an aspiring paddler, the pool can be a great place to start. Winter pool sessions attract paddlers of all skill levels and there’s a real community around the sport. 

“It’s the only place you can have class V (expert) boaters and class II (beginner) boaters together and share experience,” says Jen Damon, a kayaker with Three Rivers Paddling Club, a Pittsburgh area kayaking group. Damon runs the 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. winter pool sessions. 

Kevin Simpson, center, talks with Jeff Wilson, right, and Laura Vaughn, left, during a 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. kayaking pool session at Woodland Hills High School. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Remembering her early days in paddling Damon says, “It seemed like such an out-there thing to do. I thought it was a really cool sport, but I never thought I could be one of those people. I just thought I’d try.”  

So she bought a kayak and drove an hour and a half to her first pool session. 

“I was not a natural by any stretch of the means,” she says, looking back on her first river experiences. “I got my ass kicked and I went back for more.” 

Now in the spring and summer, Damon hosts a free Wednesday evening paddle clinic for newer, as well as experienced, boaters on a short stretch of the Lower Yough at Ohiopyle called “The Loop.”

Nolan Warble, 17, works on a kayaking trick during a 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. kayaking pool session at Woodland Hills High School. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Where to start

If you think whitewater paddling might be in your future, there are a number of places to start in and around the Pittsburgh area. Through his Highwater Hobbies shop and with advance notice, Boehmer is able to supply loaner gear for his sessions at the Mylan Park Aquatic Center.  

The pool sessions offered by 3 Rivers Outdoor Co. do not include gear or official lessons. But if you can find gear or borrow it, it can be a good option to get a feel for the sport in a comfortable environment. While there may not be formal lessons, more experienced boaters are always willing to lend a hand and share some pointers.

When the weather warms, Riversport offers lessons for both kids and adults, including youth summer camps. Wilderness Voyageurs in Ohiopyle also offers similar programs. 

Before even committing to kayaking, a guided whitewater rafting trip can be a great place to get a feel for the river. That’s where McCarter fell in love with the sport. 

“Since I rafted first, I saw how cool it could be,” she says. “I think that is what fueled the fire.” 

It’s important to keep the danger in mind, however. While for an experienced boater, whitewater kayaking is actually a fairly safe sport, it’s easy to get in trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing.

“Start places that are easier than your skill level,” Boehmer says. “Go with someone that knows what’s going on.” 

McCarter adds, “Don’t let anybody talk you into something you’re not ready for. If it doesn’t feel right don’t do it.” 

Neil Blythe flips his kayak in a rapid on Slippery Rock Creek at McConnells Mill State Park. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

We have a number of rivers in the area that are beginner friendly. You don’t have to jump right into expert-level whitewater. It’s important to note, however, that a river can change with higher water levels and become much more difficult.

Smith compares it to skiing. 

“What’s great about kayaking is it can be a lifelong sport. If you want to do something mellow like a green run you can. Or you can step it up,” he says.  

In the spring and early summer the Three Rivers Paddling Club (TRPC on Facebook), hosts beginner clinics on Slippery Rock Creek, below McConnells Mill State Park. The Middle Youghiogheny is also a good starter river. Riversport and Wilderness Voyagers host their lessons there as well as at the reservoir above it. There is also the Casselman River near the Youghiogheny and some sections of the Cheat River in West Virginia. Facebook is a great place to find paddling groups and ask questions and also find used gear for sale.

“It’s a great community,” McCarter says. “I love how inclusive it is.”

And when it comes to paddling, Boehmer reminds boaters, “If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.” 

The Outdoor Guide Series is underwritten by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council as part of its effort to promote the outdoor recreation economy in Pennsylvania and neighboring areas.

Sebastian Foltz

Sebastian Foltz is a Pittsburgh-based freelance photographer and writer with contributions to newspapers and magazines in Pittsburgh, Oregon and Colorado. An avid whitewater kayaker, mountain biker and skier, Sebastian has a background in news, sports and outdoor journalism.