How do you come to terms with a sport that can both give you so much, but take it all away in a moment of indecision? Katrina Van Wijk explores her relationship with risk and reward in the sport of extreme kayaking.
23-year-old Katrina Van Wijk sits poised at the top of a rapid, her six-foot frame partially hidden by her purple LiquidLogic kayak. She is the second-last person to run the Lower Zigzag today, her final rapid on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon River. The river is much higher than normal and the spring melt adds difficulty to the already class five rapid. It is faster, pushier, and today it runs at a formidable 5000 cubic feet per second, almost twice the normal rate for this river. Due to the high water Van Wijk and her crew of six (including some of the best white water kayakers in the world) have scouted the well-known rapid for new features caused by high water. They have found that the powerful water flows through a narrow canyon towards a sizable log jam – a feature they must avoid. It is what they classify as a “must run” rapid, with a dauntingly long portage as the only alternative.
At the last second, Van Wijk hesitates uncharacteristically, but then urges her kayak forward with a few deft strokes. As Van Wijk’s boat hits the eddy line she realizes that her entry angle is off. It’s too late to make a correction and her boat is forced perpendicular to the flow of the river. She is pushed towards a large hydraulic feature of recirculating water, and in a matter of seconds her kayak is claimed by the hole. She lets out a strangled yell to the last kayaker, signalling that she has missed her line as the feature grabs her, catches her stern, and flips her backwards into the roiling water. She tries to execute a roll, but loses strength as the water beats her down. After a fifty second struggle underwater she is faced with a choice: sink or swim.
Upside-down and running out of air she finds the toggle of her spray skirt, and pries the tightly fitting neoprene away from her boat. Placing her hands on either side of the kayak, she ejects herself from the cockpit in a somersault, letting the river take her. Buoyed by her lifejacket Van Wijk rises quickly to the surface, but the current sweeps her quickly down the river towards the mass of logs and debris. She swims hard towards the shore, resisting the current, and aims for a small, sheltered eddy – so easily reached in a kayak – but without the agility of her boat she only just makes it.
“It felt like an hour,” laughs Van Wijk, now 25. “Looking back I felt a little strange when we were scouting the rapid, but I had never really felt that way before so I didn’t listen to it.” Up until that point, the Ottawa Valley native felt that she had been gaining confidence and moving forward in her career as an extreme white water kayaker, but the incident on the Zigzag rapid prompted her to reassess the risk she was willing to take. “I remember stepping a little bit back after that…” she says. “Okay, like maybe half a step back in the next couple months. It didn’t knock me too far off my path, but it did make me think about it more, and try and listen to my gut feeling.”
Van Wijk is one of the top white water paddlers in the world. She is deemed as “one of the guys,” by many of her male cohorts, but she is quick to emphasize that gender should not be a limiting factor, and she has been commended for both her fearless attitude and numerous safe descents of class five rapids (characterized as the most extreme of runnable rapids). Yet for someone who shreds on the river, she is surprisingly laid back, with only the odd cuss word thrown in for emphasis when she gets really excited. Her vocabulary is peppered with “sick,” and “rad,” but she simultaneously speaks from her heart about her process of healing.
Van Wijk is what you might call a nomad. She splits her time between Whistler and Vancouver, and currently lives out of her Honda Element. The SUV is a hand-me-down from her parents, Claudia Kerckhoff and Dirk Van Wijk, who run the well-known Madawaska Kanu Centre and OWL Rafting based out of Ottawa. To say that white water kayaking is in Van Wijk’s blood would be a clichéd understatement. Van Wijk comes from three-generations of white water paddlers. Madawaska is the first white water paddling school in the world and was founded in 1972 by Van Wijk’s grandparents, Christa and Hermann Kerckhoff. It has been family owned and operated since.
Van Wijk has had many influential women in her life, including her mother, who was a ten-time Canadian Champion and Bronze medalist at the World Championships in Slalom Kayak. Like her mother, Van Wijk also competed in Slalom, and earned the title of Canadian Champion three times before moving towards extreme kayaking, which she transitioned to with several of her friends from Slalom.
White water in itself is classified as a high-risk sport, and statistics show that the fatality rate in white water activities is 1 in 10, 000. These statistics encompass a wide range of water sports, and combine white water canoeing, rafting and kayaking into one category. Statistics do not differentiate between high-level paddlers and those who participate in water sports recreationally. According to a study conducted in 2013, approximately 3 million people participate in canoeing and kayaking worldwide, but a study by the USA Physical Activity Council shows that participation in watersports has increased by 2% in America alone since 2013. Extreme kayaking takes an already risky sport and makes it even more so.
Since 2013, Van Wijk has seen an increase in river related deaths within the kayaking community, and has lost six of her close friends over the past three years. All were experienced kayakers, and she believes that the kayaking community needs to make a shift in their mentality. “The past few years have been tragic for the kayaking world,” she says. “It’s not sustainable and I don’t want to be a part of a community where these deaths continue to happen.”
Van Wijk admits that she used to be “pretty rowdy” on the river, but says that her own attitude has changed. “We need to move away from the ‘fuck it and huck it’ mentality and start to promote pushing our limits in a more conscious way,” she says. “In kayaking, you’re never going to be as strong as the water, so you have to learn to use it.” Van Wijk’s views have altered drastically, especially since the death of her close friend Louise Jull, who drowned on the Kaituna River in New Zealand in March of 2015.
Jull was one the women who had inspired Van Wijk to start the initiative TiTs Deep in 2012. The group was founded with the goal to celebrate and encourage other women within the white water community, and Jull was closely involved. “Initially we – mainly Louise and I – made a bunch of stickers, and we just passed them out to our friends. We were all rocking them on our boats and helmets, and started taking photos,” says Van Wijk. “I wanted to inspire other females to motivate each other – to take their fear boundary and push the envelope.” She admits she had no idea how big the group would end up being. TiTs Deep now boasts 14, 576 followers on Facebook.
Nicole Mansfield, an extreme kayaker based in Oregon, says she met Van Wijk while on a white water trip to Chile in 2012. “Given our personalities and paddling desires, the friendship was immediate,” says Mansfield. “For a good chunk of my kayaking life, I was a definite gender minority and found myself paddling with the guys. Not because I preferred being surrounded by males, but because they were doing the same stuff I wanted to do. Since being influenced by the TiTs Deep mentality I’ve noticed I’ve been paddling with more girls – girls who encourage and inspire me on the river. It’s not ‘no boys allowed, but more ‘no boys necessary’.”
In many ways, TiTs Deep owes its popularity to a series of short video edits that Van Wijk made over the course of 2013 and 2014. The videos show clips of fast-paced GoPro footage and casual (often hilarious) interviews that showcase strong female friendships and fierce competition on the water. The ten minute segments feature the women of kayaking, and according to Mansfield, “celebrate the often underrated – but extremely capable – women of white water.” While Van Wijk is proud of this success, she discloses she would do things differently now. “I think we need to be more focused on the full story,” she says. “We need to give more context – what it took to be there and also give a bit of background – longer films help develop that full picture.”
Van Wijk’s long-term goal is to create growth within the sport, but she also realizes that with increased participation comes the risk of injuries and possible fatalities. “For some reason, people don’t fully understand – especially beginners – the savage risk of water,” she says. “The people in these videos paddle 365 days a year – of course they make it look easy!”
White water fatalities have been observed as far back as the early 1970s. Charlie Walbridge and J. Tinsley have published five anthologies on the topic, in which they focus on individual events as a way of helping others avoid similar situations. These studies found two common scenarios in which fatalities occurred. The first was perhaps the most predictable, with inexperienced paddlers attempting rapids beyond their abilities. However, Walbridge writes that the second scenario is more frequent and “involves highly accomplished boaters, usually kayakers, attempting extremely dangerous whitewater.” This is more troubling “since they almost always involve a young, healthy, active individual” and “there is often not an easily identifiable and correctable ‘error.’”
Many kayakers accept the inherent risk of their sport, and decision-making occurs on a moment-to-moment basis. “Kayaking is mental,” says Mansfield. “I am constantly allowing the whims of my emotions to affect my decisions. It’s a constant battle of risk versus reward versus how confident I am at the moment that I can nail the line.”
With that in mind, many of the most experienced kayakers admit to walking around “perceivable easy drops,” if they deem aspects of the line to be unnecessarily dangerous. In kayaking, confidence is paramount. “I was incredibly scared on the river this last spring, but it wasn’t really the situation, it was the mental state I was in,” says Van Wijk. “I think the most important thing is to know your limit, and slowly build up confidence.”
Van Wijk certainly does not seem like someone who lacks confidence. Watching her on the river, she is smooth, powerful and, as she aptly puts it, “stylin’.” With her blonde curls spilling from underneath her paddling helmet – a TiTs Deep sticker placed jauntily along the jaw piece – she emanates a sense of defiance. “What I really want to do is to get people reflecting on their level of risk, and encourage people to be more aware of their own level so that they can consciously push at that envelope,” says Van Wijk. “Putting necessary safety in place should be a priority, and I think people can easily get complacent in their own abilities.”
Now that Van Wijk has earned her degree in Graphic Design at the Vancouver Art Institute she feels a sense of renewed vigour. After letting TiTs Deep take a backseat during her degree, Van Wijk finally feels ready to take on new challenges. She has several projects in mind, and as a long-term goal Van Wijk would like to make a feature film.
While Van Wijk is not sure she will return to full-time kayak racing, she is allowing herself to be re-romanced by the idea, and recently attended a race in China. “It was my first big competition since the North Fork race in 2014, and I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I am just going to take it one step at a time. If I don’t continue to race, I still have so many big ideas and things that fully rotate around kayaking. Even if I don’t compete at the highest level, or even run the biggest drops in the world, kayaking is still going to be a significant part of my life.”
In the near future, Van Wijk will lead a series of camps called “White Water Riders,” a twelve-day program that Van Wijk designed to inspire youth. The program’s instructional seminars focus on safety, and fun on the river. The camp runs under the umbrella of Madawaska Kanu Centre, and has recently expanded to BC. Van Wijk hopes to expand the program worldwide, and will also host a camp in Ecuador this year. “The camps give me an incredible sense of purpose,” says Van Wijk. “Teaching the Riders is the most rewarding project I’ve worked on. The exchange of passion from teacher to student, and in turn from student to teacher is so rad.” With this in mind, Van Wijk hopes to create something similar for her TiTs Deep following. “There’s still so much good we can do.”
American Physical Activity Council, “2016 Physical Activity Report.” Web. 11 April 2016.
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Megaw, Brian. “Exactly how much danger is there when you white water raft?” NewZealand.com. Web. 11 April 2016.