The Inland Paddler: The End of a Season

The Inland Paddler: Outdoor Instructor Life

When you are passionate about something, there is nothing more rewarding than introducing someone to the thing you love the most. And for almost every weekend during the warm months over the last five years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to introduce total strangers to the thing I love to do the most – paddling.

The program I was involved with has had a great run in my area and for business reasons, it is moving to a different location, starting next year.  As we finished our last weekend of paddle classes recently, I’ve had pause to reflect.

Now, our classes were introductory – basic technique and safety. Designed to get people on the water and paddling with reasonably good form and always with leash and PFD. In our more advanced classes, we spent a lot of time undoing bad habits that inevitably come when someone is self-taught. We worked on pivot turns, rudder strokes, a little footwork and we spent lots of time on rescue technique. There’s the safety piece again.

Most of our students didn’t even know there was such as thing as a SUP race – let alone one at Wrightsville Beach – the largest race on the East Coast – that took participants at the highest level out into the ocean. They’d never even heard of something called downwinding. When I’d explain different board designs and mention that a particular shape and size was good for surfing, there was always one person in class who, with a look of consternation on their face, would ask “You can surf one of those boards?”  These weren’t folks who were ever likely to end up in a Paddle Monster clinic with Larry Cain. To be sure. Although I can say some did get inspired to take their paddling to that next level.

Sometimes, it was, well…frustrating. Sometimes I felt like I just wasn’t communicating all that well when a student would insist on holding their paddle backward. Or not putting their entire blade into the water to load the paddle. That first year, I did a lot of questioning of my ability to teach.

But for every flipped around paddle, there were triumphs.

The young boy who was the only one in his family who could do a pivot turn.  The older lady who didn’t think she could balance and/or get back on her board if she fell who actually could. The students who saw bald eagles for the first time during one of our classes. The students who learned that if you aren’t falling, you aren’t challenging yourself. The students who overcame big, and I do mean big, fears in just two hours of being on the water.

The countless numbers of people who left our classes with big smiles on their faces.

But the biggest learner of all was me. I learned that it is totally okay if someone doesn’t do a forward stroke exactly right, as long as they are having fun.  I learned to be a better instructor by being a student myself…taking advantage of classes and clinics as often as possible.  It didn’t matter if it was an outrigger session with Danny Ching or sup surf class with Zane Schweitzer – keeping an open and receptive mind to learning new things – cultivating “the beginner’s mind” – helped me make better connections with my students.

Every time I would take a clinic, or do private work with a pro, I’d not only get something that would improve my own paddling, but it would make me a better teacher, too. I would learn how to instruct from people like April Zilg, Jeremy Riggs, Suzie Cooney, and Larry Cain. I had a HUGE “ah-hah!” Moment of my own watching Larry teach his students how to load the paddle during a Paddle Monster clinic in Maryland. And it was awesome to chat with him about it after his class.

Being a teacher pushed me to continue to learn new things, take more classes and be a better paddler myself.

In the end, I am sure that I learned more than my students did in the process.  I am grateful for the opportunity, I am grateful to everyone who signed up for a class and came, and I am especially grateful for all the wonderful instructors and mentors I have had along the way.

So, as I wrap up this experience and ponder what the next one will be, I’ll say this: take clinics. Take classes. No matter what your level of experience, no matter if you are a teacher or instructor, no matter if you want to be a better racer. Take all the classes, try all the things. Try being a teacher.

You will be surprised at what you take away.