Improve Your Paddling Not By Running Harder Rapids But By Making Rapids Harder
By Jessica Subido - 2007
Some people improve their skills by running harder and crazier whitewater. This may not be a good way of doing it since a paddler may unnecessarily expose themselves to hazards and consequences.  Instead you can work with slalom gates on class II and class III whitewater making class V moves. Everything that you practice in slalom you actually use while running rivers.
Slalom allows you to see if you have what it takes to move up a notch on the whitewater difficulty scale.  I created a general outline of how you might be able to use slalom as a reference point for evaluating your readiness for paddling harder whitewater:
Expect to successfully run most of the gates in the slalom course.
Develop skills such as power sweep strokes, jet ferries, catching eddies with precision, and peeling out of eddies with a controlled and deliberate angle.  Develop a good paddling posture, with an efficient forward stroke and vertical shaft.  You reach the finish line sucking wind big time but it’s OK because the photos are dramatic.  Swimming a slalom course may happen on occasion – but it’s OK -- many paddlers along shore and on water to assist and provide support!
Expect to successfully run all the gates in the slalom course.
You are able to recognize the necessary boat angles and strokes to make the moves – “Ok I need a good pre-turn angle then a sweep to get well into the up gate”, for example.  Develop a “Plan B” for when things don’t go exactly as you anticipated.  You may roll but you don’t swim. You should begin to get a feel for using the water as efficiently as possible instead of using muscle power.  Examples of these include using miniature surf waves to ferry, the backwash of a hole to help turn you into an eddy, establishing the correct angle of approach to penetrate an eddy line.
Expect to successfully run most of the gates in the slalom course cleanly (no touches).
Class IV requires more technical moves in rapids and running tighter lines. Being “online” means staying on a line four feet wide.  Now you’re not just focusing on boat angles and strokes, but boat placement. You will need to visualize the moves that need to be made, allowing you to mentally “run the course” as you would when scouting a challenging rapid.  You use mostly “positive” strokes like sweep strokes or bow draws instead of reverse sweep strokes and braking strokes.  All your strokes are deliberate and well-planned.  Develop advanced whitewater reading skills which will allow you to use the water efficiently with the least amount of effort.
Expect to run all the gates in the slalom course cleanly and finish within the top 10 overall (most Sierra Cup races).
Expert-level boat control is what this is all about.  Boat angle, boat placement, precision edging, torso rotation, stroke placement and appropriate cadence should be practiced.   Being “online” and being “offline” is measured in inches.  Develop skills that allow you to control the boat to within six inches of the fast line through gates.  Know precisely the combination of strokes you will need to execute the moves for each gate.  (For an 18-gate course, you’ll need to memorize at least 25-30 moves).  You are on top of your mental game and are able to paddle with your mind in “the zone”.  Know your pace: identify areas of the course to finesse and areas of the course where you will need to sprint.  Your edge control is precise: you paddle with a flat boat and drop an edge only when necessary. You need to maximize the use of the water to your advantage.  You should be capable of critiquing yourself on how you can improve your moves even better and even faster. However you can always still get another’s opinion too!
I hope this gives you ideas on how you can improve your skills by making rapids harder with slalom gates.  Instead of running harder rapids, you can develop your skills in a much safer environment in a slalom course! Don’t let the words “slalom race” fool you because racing isn’t what it’s always about. It is just a measurement of how you can put the big picture of your whitewater skills together all in one. (And how many of those dumb hanging poles that are in your way you do, or hopefully, don’t touch.) But it’s not about the destination it’s the journey. And slalom is not about racing, it’s about improving yourself as a paddler. To me, races are about camaraderie with old friends and creating new ones while working on your paddling skills. It’s about making memories and telling stories about them. It’s about visiting another river with your fragrant wet-gear friends where you escape your busy schedule and have a few genuine laughs.
P.S.  The Sierra Cup Slalom Series is composed of several races in California: Kern River Festival, Cache Creek, Truckee Race, American River Festival, Miracle, Eddy Hop and the Moke Race.  I hope to see you on these races and can help answer your questions and be available to run the course with you. You don’t need a slalom boat to paddle slalom!  Longer boats are a preferred (if you have two boats choose the RPM over the Kingpin) -- but whatever you have bring it out!
Sierra Club Loma Prieta Paddlers
Moke Races Home Page