School Time: 7 paddling schools to get your game on

Top-notch instruction at the Zoar Outdoor Center.
Don’t worry…there’s no detention at these schools if you don’t get it right. Only dunkings. Beginner, intermediate or even advanced, if you want to take your paddling to the next level – be it canoeing, whitewater kayaking or touring -- there’s no better way to do so than by enrolling in a school. So put one of these on your New Year's resolution list...

Expert instructors will find nuances you didn’t even know you had, be it incorrect blade entry or robotic torso rotation, and have you stroking in the right direction in no time. But don’t settle for just any school. Head to one of the following destination schools that have the best paddling pedigrees on the planet.

Zoar Outdoor Center

A word to the wise: take a class at Charlemont, Mass.’s Zoar Outdoor in the fall and the multi-colored hues of your kayaks will be surpassed only by the colors of the magnificent New England foliage lining the banks of the Deerfield River.
Of course, the destination paddling school is great the rest of the year also. Located on 85 acres of river frontage on the Deerfield, Zoar has campsites and a guest lodge on site, as well as a well-stocked outfitters shop with kayaks, canoes and an assortment of accessories. The only thing better than its layout are its cadre of instructors.

“They’re the backbone of our instruction program,” says owner Bruce Lessels, who won the American Canoe Association's Excellence in Instruction award in 2005 and authored the Whitewater Handbook and Northeast Whitewater Guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club Press. “Combined with our facility, that’s what makes this program what it is.”

Joining Lessels is school director Janet Cowie, herself the author of Game On!, a book on activities for Paddlesports. She’s also collaborating on another instructional book due out this summer. Other instructors have produced instructional videos on paddling, many of which have aired on Its instructional program and premises are so conducive to kayaking and canoeing that the facility founded the National Whitewater Symposium in 2003 and has hosted it twice, drawing the industry’s best instructors to its banks to share and learn.

Which is exactly what you’ll you be doing in its classes. With a Class I-II section of river right outside its guest lodge and the Class III Zoar Gap just upstream, Zoar runs programs for all levels of paddlers, including 1-, 2-, 3- and 5-day beginner kayak and canoe courses, freestyle kayak clinics, swiftwater rescue, special creeking classes and family and kids' clinics. “Our kids' programs are a major part of our programming,” says Lessels. “We get a lot of families who come to learn together.”

If all that’s not enough, there’s plenty to do off the water as well, be it sampling a new zip line canopy tour, renting mountain bikes or going rock climbing. As many options, in fact, as there are colors outside your door. Info: (800) 532-7483,;

Madawaska Kanu Centre, Madawaska River, Ontario

This is a big year for the venerable Madawaska Kanu Centre (MKC). The paddling school on the banks of the Madawaska River celebrates its 40th anniversary, making it the longest-running commercial whitewater paddling school in North America, if not the world.

Your hosts, Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijk and husband, Dirk, are not only owner/operators, but more importantly, competitive paddlers. And their daughter, Katrina, also an instructor, is a former Canadian national slalom champion currently training for the 2012 Olympics.

The season begins in May when snowmelt fills Bark Lake, allowing for daily releases of warm, clear water into the Madawaska River, which flows right by your doorstep (the top two inches of water flow over the dam, providing its warmth). Dine at the lodge, suit up in your cabin and walk to the river. Come snacktime, sip a cup of Kicking Horse coffee and nibble a freshly baked pastry from the in-house café before going back for more.

Of course, the reason you’re here is the paddling, not the pampering, and there’s plenty of that. Choose from weekend or five-day-long courses on the Madawaska all summer long, with a variety of meal and accommodation plans, and further refine your skills on the Ottawa just an hour away. New is the Combo-Course slalom and freestyle week, taught by Katrina and world freestyle kayak champion Emily Jackson to help you finesse your way through gates and get your freestyle groove on.

Other programs include Seniors Week for the 55+ set, where paddling and discussing it are equally balanced; Ladies Retreat Week, focusing on building healthy adventure seekers for life; and Family Week, where parents and kids vacation and learn together – the parents amongst their peers and the kids theirs. Children as young as 2 can also join in on a two-hour raft trip down the Madawaska. Info: 613-594-KANU (5268);;

Otter Bar Lodge, Cal-Salmon River, Forks of Salmon, Calif.

One of the most pristine paddling lodges in the country, Otter Bar sits on the banks of the Wild and Scenic Cal-Salmon River in Northern California. After navigating the one-lane road up the river, you’ll be greeted by owners Peter and Kristy Sturges, as well as a long-running fleet of top-notch instructors.

Otter Bar is known for its prestigious kayak school, which conducts weeklong classes from April through September. Beginner to advanced classes are held on the free-flowing Cal-Salmon and nearby Klamath, both designated as Wild & Scenic waterways.
This year the school celebrates its 30th anniversary, and two onsite rolling ponds and a variety of gin-clear river stretches ensure you’ll emerge light years better than when you arrived. You might even be lucky enough to have Peter’s son, Rush, a popular whitewater filmmaker, as your instructor if you can catch him when he’s not gallivanting around the globe.

When not paddling, relax on private beaches, frolic in swimming holes along the Salmon, or jog or mountain bike a network of trails crisscrossing the mountainside. There are even yoga courses to help summon your inner paddler. “Our concept is simple: keep it small, personable and first class,” says Peter.

Deluxe amenities include a large main lodge with stone fireplace and hardwood floors, private cabins with French doors and private decks, and an outdoor hot tub and wood-fired sauna for after the day’s paddle (hint: book your trip during a full moon). Perhaps best of all are the meals—including fresh baked goods and vegetables from the Northern California garden—and, of course, the masseuse to soothe whitewater weary muscles.

With two full-time chefs, it’s the only kayak school to ever appear in Bon Appetite magazine. You’ll understand why when the Indonesian Gong rings at 7:30 p.m. signaling the start of the buffet counter. Let’s see…what’ll it be? How about fresh-rolled sushi, baked Brie with raspberries and crustini, and steamed artichokes with lemon-parmesan aioli for starters, followed by blackened salmon with fresh mango salsa. Info: (530) 462-4772,

Sundance River Center, Rogue River, Merlin, Ore.
Sundance River Center sits at the end of the road...literally. It’s the last building you’ll see on the road paralleling the Rogue River before the Wild and Scenic portion begins. This means it’s also the perfect place for a paddling school. Out the door of its 16-person lodge is a Class II rapid, with nothing but Wild and Scenic river below.

While the lodge has changed ownership four times in the past decade, it’s back in solid hands with long-time river guide and owner Zach Collier, who purchased it two years ago to emphasize multi-day, river-trip-style instructional outings. “That’s been our specialty all along, and it’s the perfect location to take that concept to a kayaking school,” he says.

Choose from a three-day private trip, six-day intermediate/advanced trip on Mule Creek Canyon of the Rogue (billed as “an instructional expedition”), or eight-day beginner class, which includes three days based out of the lodge and five on the river. The beauty of this type of set-up is that you learn far more than strokes; you also learn the ins and outs of camping on the river, all while paddling six to 12 miles a day down one of the most pristine rivers in the country.
You’ll learn from one of five instructors, including stalwart hairboater Heather Herbeck and globetrotter JR Weir, who took his first-ever kayaking class at Sundance with his dad when he was a kid and has worked for every owner since. If you’re lucky you might even score a trip on the nearby Illinois River.

Don’t expect five-star pampering. While the lodge has two rooms in the main building and six double-occupancy cabins, two with decks overlooking the river, it’s all about paddling. Cell phones don’t work, and TVs are non-existent. But after the day’s float, there’s nothing better than retelling the day’s tales during happy hour on its riverside deck and then settling into gourmet fare and a rub-down from the visiting masseuse. “But the best meals we serve are on the river,” says Collier. “We’re not going to serve shrimp scampi to you in a hot tub.” 541-386-1725,

Nantahala Outdoor Center, Nantahala River, Wesser, N.C.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) was founded the year Deliverance was made in 1972. And with raft guides and kayak instructors all living onsite in a sort of commune on the banks of the Nantahala River, it delivers one of the best paddling instruction experiences you can get.

During the school’s instruction season -- which lasts from March-October on the Chattooga, French Broad, Ocoee, Pigeon, Nolichucky and Nantahala rivers -- as many as 35 instructors are on hand offering tips on everything from whitewater canoeing to kayaking. Olympians on the roster who have taught there include Wayne Dickert (K1, 1996), Scott Shipley (K1, 1992, 1996, 2000) and Chris Ennis (C1, 2004).

“We’ve provided top-notch instruction in all aspects of whitewater for 40 years,” says paddling school director Jon Clark. “Collectively our team has more experience than any other whitewater instruction program in the world, and we’re constantly researching new techniques to give students the best instruction possible.”

Choose from single-, three-, five- and seven-day lesson packages, all designed around your ability level. Oftentimes your class will end right at the lodge where you can warm up in a hot tub before dining.

New for this year is the NOC Surf School, designed to get kids in boats via a 30-minute, $10 class that hooks kids on whitewater. Last summer the program introduced 65 kids per day to the sport. Also new is the River Leadership Camp, designed to help young paddlers become river leaders by learning judgment, swiftwater rescue and wilderness first aid. The camp combines seven days of paddling with Swiftwater Rescue and Wilderness First Aid certification courses, with skills learned in real, river-based scenarios. Private classes offer video analysis via a camera mounted on the instructor’s helmet, with students getting a personalized video at the class’s end to take home.

To refuel, choose from three eateries—River’s End, the original restaurant on the river; Relia’s Garden, with its famous herb and flower garden; and Slow Joe’s Café, for those on the move—before settling down into one of 150 guest beds from bunkhouses and motel rooms to 10-bedroom vacation cabins with decks, woodstoves and kitchens. The school also offers camping platforms for those on a budget. Info: (800) 232-7238,

Girls at Play

If you’re a gal and want to paddle with your peers, be them nervous beginners or XX experts, the setting doesn’t get much better than hooking up with Girls at Play. Run by world-class paddler Anna Levesque, the school is dedicated to inspiring women and enhancing their lives through kayaking and yoga retreats—sometimes both at the same time. “Our workshops and classes provide an environment where kayaking feels accessible, fun, inspiring, adventurous and supportive,” says Levesque, who combines 15 years of kayak guide, instructor and competitor experience with more than 300 hours of yoga teacher training, certifying her as a registered yoga teacher

For a sample of her technique, check out Girls at Play, an instructional video made specifically for women. The idea for it arose when she was thumbing through an instructional book on the shores of the Ottawa River. “I enjoyed the instruction, photos and layout, but was disappointed there were only two photos of female kayakers,” she says. The result: her own instructional video, as well as the Girls at Play Summer Tour to support it. More workshops, adventure trips to Mexico and DVDs followed, and the process continues today with a full line of instructional trips and workshops. Out this spring: a new DVD entitled Yoga for Kayaking with Anna Levesque and Joe Taft.

Women wanting to benefit from her watergirl wanderlust can join her for special women’s week clinics at the Nantahala Outdoor Center or, for the more adventurous, eight-day instructional trips to Mexico. You’ll stay at a small hacienda-style hotel with private bath and learn everything from bracing to rolling – and how to slice perfect lime wedges into your Coronas -- on the such crystal clear rivers as the Veracruz, Antigua and Actopan. This summer, the school is also offering a Girls at Play Kayaking/Rafting/Yoga trip on Idaho’s Main Salmon Aug. 12-17. It’s also incorporating morning yoga classes into all of its weekend and four-day whitewater clinics.

“I’m super grateful to be on a continually evolving path of teaching and inspiring women to surpass what they believe is possible,” she says.And if you’re ever a little sore from one of her sessions, it’s nothing a little Downward Dog can’t help. Info:;

Body Boat Blade International
To get your sea kayak skills up to snuff – and practice them in one of the most pristine paddling destinations on the planet -- there’s no better place than Body Boat Blade International on Washington’s Orcas Island in the San Juans.

The school is owned and operated by Leon Sommé and Shawna Franklin, two of the most qualified and dedicated instructors in the Pacific Northwest. Coaches and coach educators for nearly 20 years, they’ve both earned their British Canoe Union (BCU) 5 Star Sea awards (Franklin was the first U.S. woman to do so), as well as 4 Star awards in whitewater and surf and 2 Star open canoe awards. Want more accolades? They circumnavigated Iceland in 2003 and Haida Gwaii in 2007.

“We specialize in high quality instruction for paddlers of all skill levels,” says Franklin, adding that the school also offers courses taught by world-renowned guest coaches and that all of its instructors are BCU-certified. “Our goal is simple: have fun, be safe, and offer the best coaching available for everyone from beginners to experts.”

Course topics, many of which include video stroke analysis, include boat-handling skills, safety and rescue, ocean currents and tides, surf, rough water, navigation, expedition skills, whitewater and guide training, available via private lessons or with student-to-instructor ratios of no more than 4 to 1. Expedition courses put students in leadership roles to better learn chart and compass skills, calculate current speeds and ferry angles, watch weather, help plan and prepare meals, and motivate other paddlers when personal limits get pushed. Top-of-the-line equipment comes with all courses.

Of course, perhaps the best part of the whole program is its location. Year-round courses range in length from three hours to five-days, all based out of Orcas Island, which offers protected bays and lakes, tidal races, complex navigation, the chance to paddle with whales and more. No matter how many days you’re out, you return to your Bed & Breakfast or vacation home accommodations on Orcas a seasoned paddler. Info:, (360) 376-5388

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