There is nothing like getting together after a good day of paddling and telling stories! While the group consisting of Maria Noakes, Whitney Lonsdale, Beth Rypins and Juliet Jacobsen Kastorff could not work it out to actually spend a day on the river together, we were able to take time out of busy schedules to enjoy some reminiscing, stories and laughs.
In the beginning….there was a whole group of women here in the States who were daring enough to enter the male world of whitewater kayaking—the Barb Snyders, the Kennedys, the Bunny Johns, just to begin the list. They boldly paddled rivers from one coast to the other, and then onto other continents; all the while in 13’2” fiberglass boats, smelly wool sweaters and scuba diving ¼” wetsuits. Today women continue to make their own statements, paddling off waterfalls, matching men in their freestyle moves, traveling the globe, teaching and guiding. Our impact is such that even the industry has found themselves wanting to address the female gender with women-specific boats, pfds, helmets and jackets.
It is too easy to get so caught up in the “now” of our sport, forgetting about those who paved the way for us. Looking for a group that somewhat bridged the gap between the early US paddlers and those of today, the following group came to mind: Beth Rypins of California, Whitney Lonsdale of North Carolina, Maria Noakes of New Zealand, and myself—fellow north carolinian. In bringing the four of us together, I tried to get us to agree that we were the “bridge” between generations. They vetoed me on the bridge image, but agreed that we were all lucky to have found kayaking—and to still be kayaking today. We are but a small reflection of the incredible group of women that continue to paddle today all over the world! And here is what came out of the four of us reminiscing over a couple of beers:
What brought you to kayaking?
Beth: It was 1979 and I was your classic inner city at-risk youth and I happened upon it by accident.
Maria: During an overseas adventure to Nepal, I was subjected to kayaking, rafting, amazing whitewater persona, and ultimately a 360 degree turn in lifestyle.
Whitney: Complete random chance got me on my first river trip on the Green River in Utah. I fell in love with paddling then but wasn’t totally aware of it. After my first trip to Nepal in 1993 I think I was 100% hooked on traveling and paddling.
Juliet: I was living in Washington DC, struggling to learn how to windsurf. I went on a rafting trip on the Gauley, which fired me up to go home and buy a kayak. Windsurfing took a back seat when I realized I had found the first thing I had ever done that made me think “I really want to be good at this.” It was the moment I decided to trade heels for flipflops.
How about some of your first boats?
Maria: My first boat was a borrowed squished pirouette. From then on it was adjust, heat, melt and move seats. Every boat I had was put in the oven, heated with a heat gun; then one of us would put loads of socks on and sit in it, while somebody else jumped up and down on the nose. Anything to make that RPM cartwheel! Then the LL Skip came out, my world was changed forever as I could finally cartwheel and hock my body around as I had been trying to do for years.
Beth: I learned to paddle in a Hollow form! And then my parents bought me a Mirage as a high school graduation present. When the Dancer came out I thought I’d won the lottery.
Juliet: After my kayaking class I made a bee line to REI and bought a Mirage that was about twenty feet long! Soon after I upgraded to a Wave Sport Laser. But it was not until I got a Jetti that I figured out how to stay right side up.
Whitney: Can’t ever forget my first boat – a Dagger Crossfire – I loved that thing. I hauled it to a few different foreign destinations and was sad to part with it when I finally sold it in Chile. The Perception Supersport felt like a revolutionary surf machine; I never thought there would be a better kayak than the Perception 3D; the Liquidlogic Session changed my world, and I think the LL Skip was one of the best, first women’s boats.
When you began paddling, who were the women on your radar screen?
Juliet: I’m not sure I even met a female boater until I visited North Carolina. Even then, I mostly paddled with men. But I had such respect hearing the stories of Bunny Johns paddling Overflow (in a borrowed Quest), Kathy KB Bolyn running the hole at Terminator on the Futaleafu, Risa Calloway paddling the Green and Arlene Burns traveling the world. More remarkable than their talent on the river was their attitude–they were all so low-keyed about who they were.
Beth: There really weren’t women that I looked up to until I met Nancy Wiley on the Paucartambo expedition in Peru (1986); she had grown up around boats and water, and her comfort level in big water and tough situations was totally inspiring to me.
Whitney: Becky Weiss, a long time raft guide at NOC, was the first woman I knew of who paddled the Green and Gorilla and although I didn’t know her at all the boys would tell stories – she ran the Green and Gorilla and she could supposedly pee out of the window of the rafting bus and kick your ass in a minute. Not that I aspired to be just like that, but I imagine hearing about her running the Green inspired me somehow.
Maria: From the beginning I had a passionate bunch of paddlers to gain momentum from, the likes of the Whitneys, Tommies, Daves, Shanes, Dougies of the world provided me with a whirl of inspiration. The only female I knew who kayaked was Whitney. We became fast friends, and over the past 12 years, we have coaxed, cajoled and consoled each other.
What part of paddling became your main center of focus?
Maria: From learning, instructing, guiding freestyle and creeking—each has played a major role in my paddling career and the diversity has created a continuing passion that keeps my interest and growth in kayaking.
Whitney: Traveling around the world, loaded up in any variety of vehicles with a group of teenagers from World Class; paddling, studying and being immersed in other cultures.
Juliet: For me kayaking is not about me-but about sharing my passion with others. Being able to balance between instructing and guiding is what keeps me going. I am not sure which is more thrilling—paddling down a remote Class IV jungle river or helping someone kindle their own passion for paddling on a Class II river.
Beth: Expedition boating. That’s where the magic happens. I remember when the video 7 Rivers Expedition came out and I loved it cuz I thought they were telling my story. My life is really different now as I have a family to care for; multi-day self-support kayaking expeditions down hard rivers are now a thing of the past, but any day I can get on the water is special.
What keeps your passion for the river going?
Whitney: The community of people that surround rivers worldwide has been a huge part of what has kept me excited about paddling for so long. The river is amazing also in that it offers so many different experiences – it puts you on top of the world one day, and then humbles you the next, scares you one day, then chases away all your worries the day after. It’s all there.
Maria: It’s a necessary “soul food”. The “feel good “ aspect of paddling just doesn’t seem to diminish with time. I get out there and I just want to start beaming from ear to ear
Juliet: I have given up trying to figure out my “favorite” river; it is being on the river that makes me happy.
Beth: I’m no longer out on the cutting edge, but I still enjoy it tremendously.
What is your favorite “luxury item” to bring along on a paddling trip?
Juliet: Some great nail polish for my toes. And contact solution.
Whitney: Peanut butter.
Maria: My two boys – really!
Beth: Good lotion.
Let’s hear your most memorable quote:
Juliet: I was recently on the Cheoah with two of my staff, and after asking when I began paddling they both said “wow, I was two years old then.” I hear that way too often—especially coming from fellow staff who I once taught to paddle when they were like 10 years old. And it is awesome!
Maria: I was kayaking one day with my nephew on the Narrows of the Green and this “kid” told me, “Wow, Maria, I hope I’m still kayaking the Green when I’m your age.”
Whitney: We were on a month-long road trip with Willie and Johnny Kern one spring, and one night Willie said, “Yeah I figure you have until you’re 30 to kayak really hard.” And Maria said, “Well, I guess I have about 5 more days.”
Any words of wisdom for women entering the sport today? Or just random thoughts?
Beth: Train hard! Get a good foundation in the basics and don’t be in a hurry to run the biggest rapids. It’s better to take a little longer and develop solid skills.
Juliet: Don’t use kayaking to try and prove something to someone else. This sport is about challenging yourself; and that challenge comes in becoming a better boater, exploring new rivers and sharing cold beers with friends after a great day on the river.
Whitney: Paddle with people that make you happy.
Maria: Why not go ahead and replenish your soul today with some wicked paddling.