NORWAY AND THE FREESTYLE-CREEKING CROSSOVER
“We could go paddling in Norway”
This simple-sounding suggestion by Alex was to lead to a trip unlike any I had been on before. Notorious for its immense waterfalls, hard-core whitewater and lack of useful ferries there from the UK, reaching and then paddling in Norway was already going to be a challenge. So we naturally decided to go via the Alps. While I wouldn’t recommend this less-than-logical route to Scandinavia, it meant we got to start our summer with three awesome weeks paddling in France, Switzerland and Austria with Cambridge University Canoe Club on their annual Alps trip! (Check out Squarerock Team Paddler Hugh Mandelstam’s recent blog on the trip)
We left the UK at the end of June as a team of 2 paddlers, armed with 2 creek boats, 2 playboats, one swiftly ageing car (about the only thing it did ‘swiftly’) and abundant kayaking-keenness. We returned at the end of August having paddled over 20 rivers across 4 different countries with 24 different people along the way…and with a car that still trundled along despite its collection of minor ailments! As a mostly-freestyle paddler, this was by far my greatest exposure to the world of creeking. In spending so much time paddling on so many styles of river with so many styles of paddler, differences between how I paddled and how those without any freestyle experience paddled started to become noticeable. Using these experiences from Norway, I thought it would be interesting to show how I found a background in freestyle benefited my creeking… and then some of the skills I was lacking!
Starting with an obvious one- the roll. When beginners learning to roll ask me which technique I use, the answer is that I don’t really know. It’s generally whatever movement will get me up the quickest, be it back-deck, screw or anything in between, but doesn’t require any thought at the time. This is quickly developed in most freestylers, where a speedy role means retaining the feature and getting a longer ride (and critical to winning the obviously highly sought after title of king of the wave)! As well as speed of rolling, no discipline prepares you for capsizing in, and rolling up from, the most bazaar positions like freestyle does; a great skill for dealing with any unusual underwater antics when creeking.
Any capsize I took in Norway (and there weren’t many, I am pleased to report) was therefore a non-event, as I was often upright before anyone had even noticed I temporarily hadn’t been. On Norwegian rivers where there can be siphons, rocks, undercuts and random huge waterfalls around each corner, I was certainly thankful to my freestyle background for a rapid roll!
I surfed a lot of holes in Norway. Much as I would love to claim each instance was highly intentional, the truth is that some were not. But having played in holes for fun for most of my paddling life, I had little fear in finding myself on a side-surf, unlike some creekers- a fact I had not fully appreciated before. I rarely experienced the panic that sets into many people as soon as they become stuck in a hole; none of the tensing up with arms extended in a wild high-brace over the head, as so frequently occurs. Freestyle has set me up not only to be chilled when riding out a bouncy stopper, but also provided the boat control skills to get myself out again.
As one paddler commented when I was having an especially surfy day on the Gråura canyon (an exciting but siphonous stretch of the Driva): ‘‘you are funny to watch… I turn around and you’re in a hole but looking like you meant it!”
Not quite sure that’s a compliment, but I’ll take it…
Big volume runs in Norway provided perfect opportunities for throwing moves in big boats, but I was amazed to discover that this isn’t something everybody does! Where some paddlers saw a wave train, simply to be bobbed along to get to the next ‘exciting’ bit (for example on Åsengjuvet gorge), we saw kick-flip, wave wheel and surfing options abound. A bouncy hole on the Sjoa playrun wasn’t just for boofing over: it was for looping in (and there are few moves more fun than looping a creekboat). I think a background in freestyle teaches you to squeeze the most fun out of a river like few other disciplines, and others wanted in on it! “Wow how did you do that?” was a common question from many people we paddled the playrun with, and who then proceeded to have an awesome time trying the moves for themselves!
- Animal skills
Okay, so other than herding geese at HPP or negotiating swans on the Cam, this isn’t a skill hugely enhanced by freestyle, but was critical to creeking in Norway! Persuading sheep and cows to amble off the road/ away from the kayaking kit was a common task, while moose-spotting was obviously a top priority on any drive (for the record, we got 5).
- Portaging (inc. abseiling)
While at uni I kayaked most days and took up jogging pre-trip, determined for neither a lack of strength nor fitness to hold me back in Norway. This was largely successful for my upper body, however my feeble freestyler legs were a different story. They were in no way prepared for the amount of walking, clambering and scuttling creeking can involve, especially in Norway where there’s nothing uncommon about coming across a 30+ metre waterfall mid-section that needs a portage (Etna), a ‘put-in’ where you can barely even see the river in the valley below (Frya highlights section), or a mid-gorge portage requiring an abseil (Finna). Paddling a Jackson Zen 55 certainly helped my cause here. Weighing only 16kg (unloaded) means it is a dream to carry, so much so that other paddlers have told me they’d “carry this around just for fun”, which is an offer I won’t forget! Nonetheless – need to get stronger legs!
I have already mentioned the reputation I gained for surfing holes when in Norway. While some surfs were for the fun of it, others were the result of my initial difficulties in keeping the bow high and dry. Whilst a small jerk of the knees keeps a playboat flat during free-fall, the longer zen seemed far too eager to explore the river’s depths – apparently an issue of timing. And it is here I must apologise to the poor boat: for a fair while I blamed its limited rocker for the sogginess of my boofs, especially after paddling the newer (and more rockered) 2015 Zen. Turns out it was user-error; after practice and technical adjustments on the Hira (a later boof stroke and weight shifted further forward throughout) I finally had it working! Carrying speed through holes and forward momentum off drops opened up so many more lines, rapids and rivers to me, as well as partially redeeming my sketchy reputation.
- River signalling
I thought I had a good handle on river signals before this trip. While I knew that every group of paddlers had their own extra signals and variations, surely ‘stop’, ‘eddy out’ and ‘it’s good to go’ would be fairly universal? It seems not. Paddling and chatting with kayakers from across the world highlighted how many differences exist: while some used a raised horizontal paddle held in the middle to mean ‘stop’, for others that meant ‘hit the centre line’! And then there were more obscure ones. Hunched down body with arms swatting and thrashing in front of the head thankfully didn’t mean ‘fight off the bears’ (as much as that is what it resembled), but instead it was used for ‘wrestle through the tree’ (still a fairly alarming signal to receive). Lesson learned: talk through your signals before paddling!
Overall, it was a fantastic trip that taught me a lot about the cross-overs between freestyle and creeking. I have only focussed here on the freestyle-to-creeking direction, but there are obviously so many benefits creeking can bring to freestyle too (e.g. strength and forward paddling technique, to name just two). Each discipline therefore teaches skills that can assist and enhance the other one. However, I’ve found that neither sets you up entirely for the other style of kayaking, despite what some paddlers at the top of their respective disciplines may claim.
The solution? Do both!
For me this means plenty of creeking alongside my normal freestyle this winter- a resolution I am excited to stick to!
Thank you to Alex for suggesting and then embarking on this mad trip, everyone we paddled with for such great company on the water, Ralph and Damian for their photos and, of course, Squarerock for all the brilliant kit and support