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Kids and Whitewater

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 25, 2010

Jesse smiles. He is too much a gentleman to say that for him canoeing on the Current River is like Michael Jordan going one-on-one with Princess Di.

Jesse and his 14-year-old sister, Brooke, and their parents, Mike and Debbie, have been down wild whitewater rivers like the Middle Fork of Idaho's Salmon River.

They consider Missouri's St. Francis River a barely-sufficient warmup for real rapids, a finger exercise for a whitewater concerto. Yet here's what Oz Hawksley, author of the Conservation Department's Missouri Ozark Waterways, has to say about the St. Francis: "...should not be run by inexperienced canoeists. In high water it should be run by experts only."

Jesse and Brooke, age notwithstanding, are experts. They have their own kayaks, scaled-down versions of the whitewater boats driven by their parents. Brooke has done what her mother calls a combat roll, (popping the kayak back upright in a real rapids) on the Ocoee, a tough Tennessee river, that was the site of this year's whitewater Olympic competition.

Kids and whitewater...when most parents are teaching their youngsters how to catch a baseball, kick a soccerball or work the remote to the video recorder, two mid-Missouri couples are teaching their kids self-reliance and self-confidence in tight situations.

There are few parents in Missouri who run whitewater to begin with and fewer still who bring their youngsters into the sport.

Lewis and Susan McCann's two youngsters, 11-year-old Rebecca, and 8 year-old Colin, raft. They've been down the Chattooga, the wild north Georgia river featured in the movie Deliverance.

"I got the ultimate compliment the first time we took them down a Class Four river," McCann says. "They said, 'This is better than Disney World!'"

Whitewater river runners rate rivers on a scale from one to six, with four considered "very difficult." Only the St. Francis in Missouri has rapids that rate Class Four and then only in high water.

Lewis McCann is an engineer with the Conservation Department. He and Mike Murphy, a Columbia home builder, are old whitewater buddies. Since whitewater became a family affair, the McCanns and the Murphys have shared many tough eastern and western rivers together, as well as all the Missouri whitewater.

Sometimes the trip to and from the river is more of an ordeal than the river itself. "We'll leave in the evening and drive all night," McCann says. "The nearest eastern whitewater stream is 10 hours. We'll float four days on a 4-day trip."

Both families have rafts as well as kayaks and Murphy's 18-foot raft supported a family expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1995. The adults took turns kayaking and rafting the enormous rapids of the Colorado. Brooke and Jesse Murphy were in the party.

John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, was the first explorer to make the hazardous trip in 1869. Consider that for more than 80 years after that, less than 100 people were brave enough to do the same. And think about the courage that a couple of little kids must have to do it, even with modern equipment.

Whitewater is part of their lives. Brooke Murphy once took her kayak to show-and-tell at school. "I think the kids enjoy talking about it," Debbie Murphy says. "Not as a brag thing, but as an example of self accomplishment." She enjoys the amazement of adult boaters who see her two little children slipping down the river like otters.

"At the start I think I don't want to do it because I might drown or something," Jesse Murphy says. "But once I get on the river, I'm fine. I've been really scared, but I got over it."

When he was six years old, his folks plunked him in a raft on North Carolina's Nantahala River. "At first I really didn't want to do it," he says. "Then we went down a big rapids and I said, 'Can we do it again?'"

The four McCann/Murphy youngsters are moving into kayaking as easily as Eskimos. Their parents drifted into it more gradually. In common with several generations of Missouri canoeists, McCann cut his teeth on Oz Hawksley's canoeing guide. He was a canoeist early-on. He did odd jobs to buy his first canoe at 17, which he loaded on an old pickup at his Kansas City area home. "It was a long way to the nearest float rivers," he says. "My folks were understanding."

And in common with a couple of generations of youngsters, McCann later learned canoeing from Hawksley himself as a member of the Central Missouri State University outing club. Hawksley, a teacher there, would take intrepid students to the North Fork River for a weekend of canoeing and sleeping in primitive accommodations, where pack rats threatened to carry off anything not tied down. It was an exercise in democracy as well as recreation.

Mike Murphy started canoeing with his parents when he was 13. In college, he took a Columbia Parks and Recreation kayaking class. "I made a commitment and bought the gear before I took the class. Once I had the gear, I figured I had to put the effort into learning the sport."

Both the Murphys and McCanns have attended the Nantahala Outdoor Course, on the North Carolina river. It's the Harvard Law School of whitewater instruction. McCann feels a week spent there is worth years spent trying to learn kayaking on your own.

Debbie Murphy was apprehensive about kayaking, especially since her husband and his friends were so far advanced, so she drove the shuttle vehicle and did trip chores for a while before she finally decided to get into boating. She took easy trips at first. "It's smart to take it slow and get comfortable with the equipment," she says.

She's comfortable enough now that she and Mike kayaked 280 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, a 14-day trip. She portaged Lava and Crystal Falls, the river's two biggest rapids, but otherwise ran countless huge runs (and swam through Hance Rapids, one of the river's toughest, after she turned over).

The kayak is among the oldest of watercraft, originally developed for ocean travel, not for whitewater. Northern natives learned to pop themselves back upright after they'd turned over, the maneuver known as the Eskimo roll. It was a necessity to keep from freezing in Arctic water.

The roll involves coordination, not strength, and involves levering yourself upright with the extended paddle blade. Experienced kayakers can roll even without a paddle - a trick known as the "hand roll." Some people learn the roll easily; others never do.

Jesse Murphy had no problems at first, even did a hand roll, but then developed what his mother calls "a crisis of confidence" and lost the ability for a while. His sister took to it with magnificent aplomb and rolls easily in the toughest water.

There's more to kayaking than just running a river. Kayakers delight in "play spots," hydraulic phenomena that let them do "enders" - or surf on the crest of a wave. An ender is when the kayaker digs the bow of the kayak into a hole and becomes vertical to the water. McCann's first kayak, a fragile garage sale fiberglass craft, was crushed like an eggshell in an ender hole.

The trend in kayaks is to smaller, flatter plastic boats that allow great maneuverability. The kayak becomes the person and the person the kayak. "They're called 'play boats,''' McCann says. "They're great for acrobatic tricks."

Rafts can be either paddle-type for the smaller ones, or rowed for the larger ones. The two McCann youngsters paddle the family raft.

Rapids running is an exhilarating experience, but there is danger. Rivers, like all natural forces, are implacable. If you make a mistake, the river will not say, Okay - I'll let you go this time, but don't let it happen again.

Both McCann and Murphy have been present when people have been seriously hurt kayaking and have been on rivers when people in other parties died.

McCann had a close call when he was sucked over a 20-foot waterfall and was tumbled over and over in the recirculating wash below the drop. "I had time to get my feet downstream and utter a prayer," he says. "Somebody had died in that rapids just a short time before. I felt a rock with my feet and was able to kick just right and got out of it. But it took about a year before I got my confidence level back up."

McCann twice has contracted giardia, a bacterial disease, on a western river. "It's unavoidable to swallow some water," he says. "I know several people who've gotten sick from contaminated water."

Given the dangers, the logical question, then, is, "Why expose your children to such hazardous situations?"

"We don't take them on rivers that have a bad reputation - certain rock formations that form 'keepers' or other dangerous rapids," McCann says. "They haven't had a bad swim yet and I wonder how they'll cope if they have to swim out of a rapids. You're really on your own in whitewater.

"But if we're not comfortable with a rapids, we'll portage it. The people I float with don't put pressure on you to run anything. It would be stupid to have the attitude that you're chicken if you don't run a rapids.

"When we take the kids, we have other boaters with us that can give help," Murphy says. "The Middle Fork of the Salmon had me concerned because we were by ourselves. I took my kayak in case the raft got hung up on a rock and I had to ferry everybody to shore. You know somebody will come by and give help sooner or later, but we generally have others in the party who would help.

"And when the kids get off the river they're just beaming. There's an obvious glow of accomplishment."

The Murphys and McCanns know the exhilaration they've experienced in whitewater. It's logical to involve their children, even if it means letting them stand in harm's way. After all, nothing good comes without a price.

But beyond the thrill of beating a savage rapids, what is there in kayaking that is of value to a youngster?

Jesse Murphy broke his leg skiing some time back and had to be taken down a Colorado mountain by rescue workers. "Everyone was impressed at how well he controlled himself and dealt with the pain," his mother says. "I think that's what facing your fears in kayaking gives you - the confidence to get through a tough time and not let it get you down."

And of course there's the fun of talking about it at school, especially to that girl who goes on the Current River and thinks it's such a big deal.

Mid-Continent Whitewater

Missouri's only extensive white-water stream is the St. Francis River. The North Fork of the White River has several good learning rapids, as does Swan Creek near Branson/ Forsythe.

Arkansas is blessed with more whitewater than Missouri. The upper Buffalo, Big Piney, Mulberry and Cossatot offer challenging rapids. Many rivers must have rainfall before they develop rapids. "There've been many trips where we didn't know where we were going when we started," Lewis McCann says. "We'd listen to the weather forecasts and head for the rain."

Beginners should contact outing clubs through their local outdoor sport shops. Most Missouri cities of any size have one or more such shops.

 

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