Her knees rested on a thin cushion as she knelt and began stretching the spray skirt around the cockpit. Bit by bit, Kailey Schmidt sealed herself into the boat. The barrier of the sprayskirt would keep the frothing water out of the closed canoe as she paddled through the rapids.
“What are you gonna do?” asked her instructor Jeff Owen as he pushed her small boat away from the shore.
“The twig line,” Schmidt answered.
“OK. The water’s down, so get close to the rock, right?” he said.
“Yep,” she agreed and dipped her paddle into the Penobscot River.
With a well-practiced stroke, she pointed the nose of her wildwater canoe at the rapids ahead.
It was a Tuesday, Aug. 27, and in just two days, 17-year-old Schmidt would begin her senior year at Orono High School. But she was looking ahead to a more monumental event — something she’d been training for all summer.
On Labor Day, Schmidt will drive to North Carolina to compete in the 2013 Wildwater National Championships, Sept. 6-7, on the Nantahala River.
“It’s the next step,” Schmidt said. “This will allow me to continue my paddling career in the future.”
Traditional open canoe races are common in Maine, but many people have never witnessed or even heard of wildwater racing, though the sport has a big following in Europe, Owen said.
In classic wildwater races, special wildwater canoes and kayaks are used to paddle 4-5 miles of whitewater, according to the International Canoe Federation, which describes wildwater canoeing as “one of the most physically demanding of the ICF’s canoe disciplines.”
“It’s a new thing we’re trying out, and we’ll see what happens,” said Schmidt, who learned about the sport from Owen in the spring.
“He asked me what I saw myself doing, paddling in the future, and we just got talking and came up with this sport,” Schmidt said.
Canoes and kayaks designed specifically for wildwater racing are a compromise of features for speed, stability and ease of turning.
Schmidt’s wildwater canoe, at first glance, looks like a kayak. It has a closed body and a small cockpit. However, wildwater canoeists paddle while kneeling, while kayakers sit. And of course, canoeists use a single-blade canoe paddle, while kayakers use a double-bladed kayak paddle.
“I’m finding it to be much more challenging than the open canoe whitewater that we do,” Owen said. “In part because it’s in a style boat I’ve never been in before, and the boat is far tippier than the open canoes are.”
“These boats are simply built for speed — to go downriver as fast as you can possibly go,” he said. “The tradeoff is you have to learn to keep it upright.”
Several canoe websites stress that wildwater canoes are not for novices, and while it looks similar to a kayak, it’s much harder to paddle because the paddler is working from a higher position in the boat.
“We had a few weeks where I really struggled with it,” Schmidt said. “I had a lot of confidence issues. And it was pretty terrifying because the whitewater reacts on this closed canoe differently than an open canoe. On an open canoe, it’s much more subtle. So I really had to learn what whitewater is again, and yeah, it’s definitely terrifying, but it’s the most rewarding feeling to make it through and stay upright. I mean, it feels amazing.”
The first Wildwater World Championships were held in Treignac, France in 1959, according ICF.
Today, wildwater races come in two forms — classic and rapid sprints. In the classic wildwater races, athletes race down a course of 4-5 miles of class three to four whitewater, according to ICF. Such race courses typically take between 10 and 25 minutes to paddle. A sprint, however, is paddled in 1-3 minutes.
The 2013 Wildwater National Championships, which also serves as the 2014 Eastern Team Trials for the U.S. National Wildwater Team, will include both classic races and sprints, and Schmidt plans to compete in both.
“I definitely want to see where this can take me in the future. My dream is to make the U.S. national team. I’d love to be able to compete in Europe, and be able to travel the world and paddle, I mean, that’d be amazing.”
Schmidt began paddling during her freshman year of high school when she joined GoActive, Orono High School’s outdoor recreation group, led by Owen.
An avid canoe racer, Owen teaches earth science at Orono High School and has long been on the board of the Maine Canoe and Kayak Racing Organization, commonly known as MaCKRO. He not only teaches the students paddling skills, he takes them to participate in canoe races throughout the state.
“I used to do field hockey and softball and all that,” Schmidt said, “but then I found this — and this has just kind of been my sport, what I want to focus on and put all my time toward.”
“I just love being in the outdoors, and its just a great way to get fit and get exercise and just be out in the wilderness,” she said. “I love being out on the river. I just love the adrenaline rush you get in the whitewater. It’s a great sport.”
While Schmidt is new to wildwater racing, she has already raced on the Nantahala River twice in an open canoe. For the past two years, GoActive students have participated in the Whitewater Open Canoe Downriver Nationals, held each year on the Nantahala River.
“[Schmidt] is just so into whitewater, whether it’s the open boats or wildwater boats,” Owen said. “It’s been really fun to work with her. I think she’ll do well at these nationals.”
Owen’s confidence in her ability comes from months of training together in wildwater canoes on an especially hairy section of the river.
“Commitment is a big thing. You really have to be out here every day,” Schmidt said. “We practice pretty much every morning. We go down and run different lines over and over again, drag the boats back up and just keep running them. And it’s always different. The waves are always different. There are always new lines because the water level is always changing. So we always have something new to practice.”
On Tuesday, Schmidt was excited to see that the river was running low, which meant more rocks and natural obstacles to challenge her as she practiced the “twig line,” a route through the rapids marked by a twig sticking out of the water.
As the sun heated the day to the high 80s, Schmidt ran the whitewater several times without going under. After her last run, she paddled to quiet water, leaned to the side and purposefully flipped her canoe — a refreshing end to a hot day on the river.