Kate Stepan grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. Her life changed forever when, at 5 years old, Kate’s dad signed her up for flag football instead of cheerleading. In high school, barely knowing how to ski, Kate became a ski instructor at Blue Mountain in the Poconos. Ski instructing led to raft guiding, which led to kayak instruction, which led her to Buena Vista, Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in 2009. With a degree in journalism from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Kate also did a two-year stint in southern California as an editor at Canoe & Kayak magazine. She started guiding in 2003 on the Lehigh River, then worked as a raft guide and video boater on West Virginia’s infamous New and Gauley rivers. Kate has paddled in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, California, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. She has surf kayaked off the northern California coast, and sea kayaked in Alaska and Florida. Kate learned to canoe when she took a NOLS River Instructor Course in 2014. She has taught expedition-based leadership, whitewater raft/kayak and canoe courses for NOLS on the Green River in Utah, the Main Salmon in Idaho, and the Kali River in India. She’s boated in Chile, Mexico, Ecuador, New Zealand, Fiji, India, and Nepal. Kate now teaches whitewater kayaking, rafting, swiftwater rescue, wilderness first-aid/CPR at RMOC, where she is a staff manager and trains new guides. She lives in Buena Vista where she is still learning to ski while teaching lessons at Copper Mountain.
Can you please describe your role and with Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center and progression as a kayak and rafting Instructor to Instructor Trainer?
Currently, I am the summer guide manager, which means I hire and oversee training for new guides. I also guide full-time and spend a few days a week in the reservation office. I became interested in becoming an Instructor Trainer early in my career at RMOC. Kent Ford was one of the first of my peers to work, who was an amazing whitewater kayak mentor, toward my kayak Instructor Trainer certification. I felt compelled to share my experience teaching beginner kayakers with new instructors. I also wanted to bring the movement analysis concepts that were drilled into me as a ski instructor to the boating world. Later, when I started teaching for NOLS, I improved my rowing skills and started teaching students to row. Which is arguably one of the most terrifying things we do — let a student take the oars of an 18-foot gear boat! I came to the RMOC with more than the 1,500 commercial miles required to be a raft guide trainer on the Arkansas, so it made sense to help out with rookie guide training. The Arkansas River is heavily regulated by Colorado State Parks, the Bureau of Land Management, and Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. This makes it difficult when experienced guides apply from out of state, not all rivers or states are created equal in their raft guide training programs or documentation. At the RMOC we started thinking it would be great if there were more standardized training for raft guides and I started pursuing the Raft Instructor Trainer route.
Are there any current initiatives you are working on that would like to highlight for the ACA community?
We envision a time when raft guide instructors/trainers across the country or globe adopt the ACA standard of instruction! Until then, I’ve been instrumental in bringing rowing courses for private boaters to the RMOC. This program has taken off in the four years we’ve done it as families from the Front Range are wanting to buy a raft and float the Upper Colorado River. With my IT training and experiences teaching rowing to NOLS students, I’ve been able to coach fellow ACA instructors in other disciplines to adopt a rowing curriculum, which I developed. We offer a progressive group lesson program as well as private instruction with students’ own equipment. We’ve also been able to incorporate some rowing for fishing as well as whitewater, and those two can be unlikely boat fellows! The first time I saw a 350-pound fishing frame rigged with an anchor system, the swiftwater rescue instructor in me was not on board. But, much like with our whitewater kayak and SUP programs, we are trying to make self-sufficient boaters. That includes teaching students proper biomechanics and how to read the river and use the current to assist their maneuvers. It’s especially satisfying teaching smaller rowers that on the river, working smart is the way to go because working hard is not an option.
How do you stay active during the winter when living in Colorado?
The transition from no paddling to teaching in fluctuating river levels seems challenging! I keep my instructional skills sharp leading groups of little shredders and ski students of all ages and abilities on Copper Mountain. I’ve also gotten into backcountry ski touring and am trying to find a pair of cross country skis. Occasionally, on a sunny winter day we’ll get out on the Numbers or Fractions — but the Colorado spring is definitely full on. I usually get back into paddling shape with raft guide training. The rookies usually flip us a few times so I can practice my self rescue!