"Welcome to the first ever ACA River Kayak Hand-Paddling Instructor Endorsement Workshop" a Reflection by Mary Pedrick - ACA

May 10, 2022

“Welcome to the first ever ACA River Kayak Hand-Paddling Instructor Endorsement Workshop” a Reflection by Mary Pedrick

handpaddle workshop1
L-R: Keith Sprinkle, Kenny Andrews, Mary Pedrick, Lisa Haskell, Matt Henry, Garrick Taylor, Amanda Gladys, Robin Pope, Kyle Thomas 

“Welcome to the first ever ACA River Kayak Hand-Paddling Instructor Endorsement Workshop.”

I’ll never forget those words and that moment. Partly because I heard it, then asked Kyle Thomas to say it again so I could capture it on video. It was a moment I wanted to memorialize forever. Four years in the making had finally come to fruition.

For months I had this aching, pinching, restricting knot in my shoulder blade. My husband calls it our kayaking knot, because he has the same one. But, mine definitely gets worse when I’m not making time for boating. I think kayaking may cause some soreness in that area, but it for sure also helps work out some of my tension that builds up between paddles. This knot was probably the size of an extra-large golf ball right before the workshop. Yes, THE workshop. The one that I had been waiting for…building up to…anticipating…it was finally on the horizon.

The hand-paddling curriculum had been published to the American Canoe Association (ACA) website for almost a year, but nobody had actually been able to access it, because nobody was endorsed to teach it. We had to complete the roll-out of the program before Instructor Trainers and Instructor Trainer Educators could begin endorsing instructors to teach it.

The roll out plan required the attendance of “Minimum of 4 participants, with a minimum of 2 currently certified ITs/ITEs in good standing. At least one IT/Es should be certified at L4 or higher.” Initially, I thought that would be easy-peasy. I sent an email out to all Instructor Trainers and Instructor Trainer Educators across the United States inviting them to express their interest in the program.

Some of the responses were less than enthusiastic:

  • “Seems like a niche that doesn’t warrant an endorsement”
  • “Does not look that fun to me and we have a lot of flat water between rapids”
  • “Not sure this is really a need”

But, some of them were very enthusiastic:

  • “This seems like a great idea to figure out the proper paddling technique for hand-paddlers and I would most definitely add it into my course work. I’m very interested in this workshop!”
  • “I think this is a wonderful idea”
  • “This is great! Lots of people want to learn hand paddling.”
  • “Great idea! I have used hand paddles a lot as a backup, on steep creeks, play boating, and squirt boating. Looking forward to exploring the potential of hand paddling as an instruction tool and as a recognized discipline of kayaking.”
  • “No questions, I’m super excited for this. I’ve been hand paddling 200 days a year for the last 3 years. So I am excited for this endorsement!”

The initial roll-out plan was outlined, but needed to be detail-finalized. In other words, the dream team needed to be assembled.


We scheduled it for Easter weekend in order to accommodate the extremely busy schedule of a VIP in the hand-paddling and ACA communities: Robin Pope (left). If it weren’t for Robin’s enthusiasm and support of the program, it may have never seen the light of day. As a Level 5 River Kayaking Instructor Trainer Educator, his ability to be present for the roll-out workshop was a crucial factor.

That’s me on the right. ACA L4 Whitewater Kayaking instructor, President of Foothills Paddling Club, Voting member of the ACA River Kayak Committee (former Secretary and Vice Chair), and author of the ACA River Kayak Hand-Paddling curriculum L2-L4. If you want to know more about me, go back and check out my first blog post for Foothills Paddling Club.

Kyle Thomas (center), a Jackson Kayak team member and long-time ACA leadership volunteer, currently serving as the Chair of the River Kayak Committee, was my counterpart in this whole process. When I initially joined the RKC to ensure this curriculum saw the light of day, Kyle was the one who immediately jumped on board and offered to help me work on it. He’s not a full time hand-paddler, but he was the first to compete in the Spring Cedar Slalom Race with them in 2022! Kyle has such a unique working personality, in that he is very data and goal driven, but he also never fails to let his passions saturate his work efforts. Kyle is the man responsible for the two “subject matter experts” who collaborated with us for the occasion: Keith Sprinkle and Amanda Gladys.

Keith is a six-time Green Race Hand-Paddle Champion, which, in his humility, he equates to being “the fastest one of 300 slow people.” Keith is a unique and unassuming personality and within minutes of meeting him you will find evident his skills, his love for the sport, and his passion for the river ecosystem.

It was my pleasure to meet Amanda Gladys, Board Chair of the Chattooga Conservancy.  Ever since I began hand-paddling, I’ve received compliments like, “you look like you’re floating” or “it seems like you’re not even trying” when people watch me kayak through rapids. I get it, because all of our work as hand-paddlers happens just below the surface. But, for Amanda, all of it is so very resoundingly true.  She really is, to date, the smoothest kayaker with whom I have ever had the pleasure of boating.  

Kenny Andrews and Garrick Taylor are buddies of mine and both members of Foothills Paddling Club.  Kenny is an outstanding paddler and a teacher by trade. He was a shoe-in when he applied for the FPC instructor scholarship program. I was very proud to have him be a part of this exciting weekend.  Garrick Taylor is also a proud club boater. He has volunteered his time with both Foothills Paddling Club and Carolina Canoe Club. Garrick is an L5 Whitewater Kayaking Instructor, and he excels at it. Garrick is a smooth paddler and a succinct instructor; able to analyze and explain paddling to anyone on the spectrum from beginner to advanced whitewater kayakers.  

Lisa Haskell and Matt Henry represented the  Georgia Canoe Association. Lisa had been offering hand-paddling clinics for the GCA and CCC for a few years. Lisa essentially wrote the book before the book was written. I was very happy to have her on board to share her experiences and breadth of knowledge. Matt had worked with Lisa on some of those classes and was very excited to be a part of the roll-out workshop for the ACA. He is a kind and patient instructor with a keen eye for evaluating technique. 

Rounding out the dream team was Charles D. Bray IV. He makes his own hand-paddles from busted up boats and bypasses his stuffy name by telling everyone to call him just Bray. Bray is a skilled kayaker who volunteers his time helping veterans and their families on the water through Team River Runner.      

The conference room was quiet on the top floor of the medical office building. We arrived one by one and sat down at the table along with quick introductions as each joined. None of us really knew what to expect from the day. Sure, Kyle, Robin, and I had a general idea based on the daily agenda, but really it was a crapshoot. All we could hope for was that the result would be positive.   

Kyle welcomed everyone to the meeting (video) and got started with some ACA information and an overview of the weekend. After he wrapped it up, I stepped up for bullet point number two on the agenda: hand-paddles. I was supposed to lead the portion on types, styles, uses, and features of hand-paddles. I started by having two volunteers draw on whiteboards: a whitewater kayak, a shafted paddle, and a hand-paddle. The first two looked more or less the same, but the hand-paddles were different. The shape of them and the strapping configuration was different. That prompted me to uncover the 5-6 pairs we had laid out on the tables to begin showing them some made of plastic, some made of wood, some that were large, some that were small, some with curvatures one way and some with curves the other way. As I was holding up another set to point out, a hand raised in the air.  

“I’ve got a couple more sets in my car that look different,” said Bray.  

“Yeah, me, too,” said Amanda 

“Great! Everybody go get everything you have and bring it in,” I prompted the group to disperse.   

When they returned, the plethora of hand-paddles flooded the table-top.   

Kyle and I both turned to look at each other, his eyes as wide as mine, and we both smiled. The moment was incredible. Who knew the diversity of hand-paddles was so vast? The conversations and explanations of different ones as they were passed around the table was so informative and enlightening.  We were all particularly entertained by Keith’s home-made sets and some stories he shared about how they were developed. Particularly his primary pair that were formed from the bottom of a barrel, and he incorporated the 90 degree angle from the side (bottom right, blue). He talked about how he uses it to grab and scoop things.   

After we wrapped up the conversation on the paddles, Robin stepped up to the plate to talk about safety and biomechanics when using hand-paddles. With his experience in the medical field as well as a Swift-Water Rescue instructor, the lesson and discussion were unbeatable. He drew diagrams, and we talked about the muscle groups and joints that are used and how it differs from using a shafted paddle. It was very informative and engaging.   

After the classroom portion was wrapped up, we broke for lunch and packed up to drive to the river. We put in at Lena Davis Landing River Access and took out at Locust Creek Access Area. It was a PFD (personal first descent) for me on that particular section of flatwater on the Tuckasegee River. This was the L2 portion of the workshop. We used this section to practice teaching and learning paddle strokes and safety scenarios. The biggest takeaways from that first day were (a) paddle strokes are not as defined and prescriptive as with a shafted paddle – it is more about individual technique and preference, (b) rescue scenarios can get interesting with hand-paddles, specifically boat-to-boat rescues and Hand-of-God rescues. We all left that evening with a lot on our minds knowing that we would need to revisit a lot of the content the next day.     

Saturday morning we reconvened for the L3 portion of the workshop, to be held at the main gorge of the Tuckasegee. That day, everyone took turns with teaching topics as we made our way downstream. We covered eddies, ferries, strokes, and the other essentials. We also took time to dive back into the rescue scenarios to work out the kinks of the self- and assisted-rescue techniques and discuss the most efficient methods of conducting those with hand-paddles. We all left for the day exhausted and cold. Ready for a good night’s sleep.  

Easter Sunday, we all went to “church” on the first portion of Chattooga Section IV (Highway 76 Bridge to Woodall, also known as section 3.5 for some) for the final L4 portion of the workshop. Due to the nature of the course and insurance restrictions, we skipped the Bull (a class IV+ rapid according to American Whitewater) and put in at the Highway 76 Bridge beach downstream from the rapid. We used that pool to start the day revisiting the self- and assisted-rescue techniques, including towing a swimmer with hand-paddles.  

As we worked our way downstream, the instructional demonstrations continued. Everybody tied their instruction back to how the skills and techniques might differ with hand-paddles, or how they might be more challenging (or easier!) with hand-paddles.   

At one point, Amanda asked me, “Why do all of the instructional topics and discussions go back to shafted paddles? What if someone has never used a shafted paddle? And why is there so much technical jargon? I honestly don’t understand half of what you guys are talking about because you’re using a lot of terminology I’ve never heard or used before.” It was a valid string of questions. 

“Well, the majority of people who enter the world of kayaking start with a shafted paddle, because that’s what someone else loans to them or tells them to buy. Most people who are going to be taking hand-paddling instruction, are going to be learning how to use their emergency backup tool, and will be more familiar with paddling techniques with a shafted paddle.” I explained that even using the term “stick” to reference a paddle was something we kept out of our curriculum, and there was extensive debate over the best terminology to use, even though everybody present that weekend verbally referenced them that way in casual conversation.  I also explained that the technical terms are educated paddling language because we’re in an educational setting.   

That was the best answer I could think of at the time. What is the right answer, though? Are we continuing to put up more barriers for people to enter the sport of paddling by using language and curriculum that seems unappealing or daunting to them? Do they avoid taking classes from the ACA because they feel like it’s over their head or it’s going to be too unrelatable for them? These were great questions, and the answers are definitely something to be pondered.   

At the end of the day, Robin and Kyle gave us all individual feedback and they asked for feedback from us. We were, after all, in an “endorsement by committee,” situation where even they, too, were being endorsed to teach hand-paddling by the rest of us. We all passed at our highest level sought based on our instructor certifications and daily attendance for the workshop. It will take a little while for Robin and Kyle to enter all the data and individual evaluations into the system, but, in a couple of weeks, we will officially have our hand-paddling endorsement certificates and be able to teach L2-L4 hand-paddling classes through the American Canoe Association. I look forward to framing that bad boy on my wall. Four years in the making since I first started this process when I was going through my initial instructor training class and I asked why I couldn’t do it with hand paddles. Four years.   

Over the weekend after returning home, we were all very excited to share our excitement along with some photos to social media, and the emails and comments started coming in.  

“I am an exclusive hand paddler. Is it possible for me to get my hand paddling endorsement and all of the prerequisite courses by exclusively hand paddling?” 

“This is very exciting news…Keep up the good work on giving hand paddling the recognition it deserves.” 

“I’ve been teaching hand-paddling for a while, and would love to do so with a little more knowledge and a certification.” 

“Thank you for progressing the sport of hand paddling. We deserve a voice, equality and respect.  Please let me know how I can advocate and help.” 

As I read the posts, comments, replies, and emails on Monday, tears welled up in my eyes. I was honestly so taken aback by the amount of people out there who have been craving this and it was unavailable to them. Other individuals and groups had been giving hand-paddling lessons, other people had been creating hand paddles, other people had been teaching themselves because they didn’t know who to turn to for help. Out of my own stubbornness, of wanting my tool of choice to be a recognizable and accepted tool to use in an official capacity, had been born something that was much larger than myself. It was bringing people out of the woodwork to cry out that they, too, were hand-paddlers and wanted to get involved. People who had not considered working with and through the ACA previously, because of the barrier of the shafted paddle requirement that was keeping them out, were now asking how to get involved and desiring to take classes and help the program flourish.   

“I believe we should consider a path to allow members to become instructors using only hand paddles.” -Robin Pope 

We were all so taken aback by the success of the weekend, and Robin, in particular, by the awakening and realization for just how different hand-paddling is from shafted paddling and for the outcry of support for the program. They are not solely stored in sterns as a backup device for many people anymore. They are a preferred tool of choice for a lot of people who have shied away from the ACA because of their inability to take and teach classes with their tool of choice.   

We don’t know yet the best way to approach this shift that will need to happen within the ACA.  Uncertain if it is as simple as working to make hand-paddling a stand-alone discipline, or if it is more complicated than that. Is it a matter of reevaluating all of the curricula to revise the language to be more inclusive of various tools of the trade? Or is it about a shift in the mentalities and opinions of the SEIC members to start opening their minds and instructional doors to outside-the-box thinkers?  

Only time will tell. I know that I will be there to see this through. I will stay on the River Kayak Committee and keep pushing until there is a resolution. I started it, and it might take another four years to finish it, but I fully intend to stick around until it is finished. In the meantime, I’ll be out there spreading the word and sharing the fun of hand-paddling with anyone who is interested! Find one of us who are endorsed, on social media or through the ACA website, and schedule your hand-paddling lesson so you can take them out of your stern or perhaps even find your new preferred paddling tool!

SYOTR (See you on the river),

Mary Pedrick