Written by Chandra Brown
As summer starts to wane here in Montana, we are still getting out on the river to celebrate the lingering sunlight, electric larch leaves, and the approach of winter. We are lucky to call Missoula home, and equally fortunate that our home river is the Clark Fork of the Columbia. A little more than a month ago, the Alberton and Tarkio Gorges on the Clark Fork hosted the annual Girls on the Gorge kayaking clinic, a three-day skills camp for emerging female paddlers. I had the opportunity to instruct alongside talented river phenoms Jess Huckins, Devon Barker-Hicks, and Anna Fischer. At G.O.G., first-time, beginning, and intermediate kayakers have the opportunity to learn from some of the whitewater industry’s finest, and there is little doubt that the instructors are inspired and moved by their students’ persistence and progress. Girls on the Gorge can be a transformative experience for all involved.
Girls on the Gorge was set in motion over fifteen years ago by legendary Montana paddler Tracy Bowerman. Since that first clinic, some incredible lady kayakers have organized subsequent annual incarnations of G.O.G. These women are truly great – with their tremendous skills, patience, and smiles – and I felt honored to be a part of the crew this year.
It’s interesting to see what develops when you mix a cocktail of equal parts moving water, deep-seated fears, and feminine energy. Kayaking is an emotional sport. The whole thing counters our human logic of survival. Simply put, we cannot thrive (i.e. breathe) with our heads underwater, and water moving downhill can be downright scary. The sport seems to summon our otherwise hidden fears and insecurities to the surface – our faces become transparent and our strange little shells quickly eroded away by the river. Tears and smiles come easily. Maybe you never really “knew” you were so scared of asphyxiation, of rocks, of unseen crawly things along the river bottom, of being upside down in a tiny plastic boat and at the mercy of the greatest force on Earth. Your first few days of kayaking will introduce you to your fears, or at least remind you of the ones you already knew you had. Your first few days of kayaking will also show you what you’re capable of. You will be reminded of what real laughter feels like, how it feels when fresh water hits your face for the first time in the morning, what it means when a new friend sends some much-needed encouragement your way. Kayaking, at all levels of the sport, is rich with mutual support, love of water, and unparalleled challenge. For these reasons and more, Girls on the Gorge is a wonderfully unique event.
Some of our ladies had never been in a whitewater kayak before. For these girls, the first day of G.O.G. was quite probably one of the most difficult of their lives. I happily took the group of “never-evers”: the ladies who had never before sat in a kayak, who couldn’t tell drain plug from nose plug, who maybe didn’t know what they were getting into. The first steps in kayaking necessarily involve getting wet: intentionally rolling your boat upside down and learning to calmly (without sustaining any bruises) slip out of the cockpit and float your neoprene-clad body to the surface. The dreaded “wet exit.” It’s got to feel strange when an instructor you met not two hours prior is now telling you to “tip the boat over, hold your breath for three counts, and then calmly come out of your kayak.” The beauty of the place (in this case, Sandy Beach on the Clark Fork, a giant peaceful eddy flanked by vermillion rock walls) is forgotten as soon as it comes time to tip the kayak over.
I remember my first-ever kayak clinic, a week-long test of emotional fortitude at an idyllic fairyland in northern California. Somewhere around day three, as tears welled in my eyes, my contact lenses shifting around with every wretched splash that pummeled my face, my instructor pulled my boat closer to his. He put his patient hand on my helmet and reminded me to “look around; don’t forget where you are.” The place was beautiful, stunning. But I was terrified. No measure of beauty could un-cloud my vision or slow my pounding heart. When I think back to memories of that first clinic, and I put those difficult moments next to images of what I do in my kayak now, they seem really far away, long ago, laughable. Working with these lovely never-evers at Girls on the Gorge – listening to them talk it out, overthinking and overanalyzing their reluctance to tip the boat upside down, fighting back tears and shaky hands, and ultimately doing the thing, finally tipping over – I was acutely aware of the process we all go through in this sport. And I was so proud of them.
Over the next few days we would work on paddling strokes, Eskimo rolls, ferrying, and eddy-turns. The ladies cheered one another on throughout the day and exchanged hugs and glasses of wine in the evenings.
One of my sweet never-evers, on day one, as afternoon lightening sizzled in the not-so-distant distance and rain pelted our tranquil eddy, sat on the beach and cried. She was so scared: of drowning, and of failing. Eventually, though, she got what she needed from the day and found her victory. The next morning, when we graduated to moving water, she negotiated her first riffle with tremendous grace, finding enough balance and poise to shout I’M KAYAKING! as she floated past. Truly, a magnificent moment for teachers and students alike.
Girls on the Gorge is one of those things that makes you really glad to be a girl. It’s that magic happens when women work to build each other up, bring levity to difficult situations, and pass on what they’ve worked so hard to learn themselves. The river is my favorite place to be, and it’s always seemed important to share rivers with the people dear to my heart. G.O.G. successfully gets a crew of strangers together to experience the river in a new way, in maybe the most intimate way imaginable.
To learn more about the Girls on the Gorge clinics, contact Zoo Town Surfers in Missoula, Montana.
And thanks to Jess Huckins and Dave Gardner for the beautiful photos.