Girlfriends' guide to boating
Staying afloat in paddlesports takes gumption, guts and grace

Sidebar: Animas River Days beckons to local boaters

Local female paddlers make their way down the Animas from the 9th Street put-in Sunday./Photo by Todd Newcomer

They’re mothers, girlfriends, wives; Realtors, teachers, waitresses. But they all have one thing in common: an addiction they can’t seem to shake. They’re whitewater junkies.

“It was just so exciting and scary, I couldn’t stop,” said local paddler Michelle Brown, a teacher off the water. “I started doing it every day, sometimes twice a day.”

Lynn Brown (no relation), a Durango mother of two who does triathlons in her spare time, also admits to a once-a-day habit.

“I go every day,” said Lynn, who has been boating for close to two decades. “I boat for the excitement. You just don’t get that with biking or Nordic skiing, and that’s what makes boating so great.”

Julie Barber, a Durango massage therapist who started boating this year, admits her addiction came about as a result of peer pressure.

“I started because I knew I wouldn’t have any friends in the spring if I didn’t,” she said.

All three are among a growing group of local women sharing the eddies that have traditionally been male-only domain.

“I definitely think there are more women on the river today,” said Nancy Wiley, the middle sister in Durango’s powerhouse kayaking trio, which also includes sisters Amy and Janet.

And Wiley says she welcomes the company.

“I’m always psyched to see more women on the river, out doing tricks in the holes,” said Wiley, who was surfing Santa Rita in her Hollowform before she could drive. “It’s exciting for me to see.”

Of course Wiley, who started boating in 1975 at the tender age of 13, admits there was only room for improvement in the male-female boating ratio.

“When I started there were only about four kayakers in town,” she said, rattling off a short list of men, one of which was her father, the late Milt Wiley, arguably the father of Durango boating. “I started because my dad wanted me to learn so he’d have a buddy to go with.”

And while a lucky draw in the gene pool, abs of steel and biceps like lead cans (which, incidentally, all these women possess) can’t hurt one’s paddling quest, all agree these things are by no means a necessity. In fact, Wiley insists there’s a lot more to be said for finesse vs. brute force.

Lynn Brown, left, and Julie Barber make final preparations prior to launching for a Sunday afternoon paddle. /Photo by
Todd Newcomer

“There’s no way a man or woman can overpower the river,” she said. “While sometimes men can get by on their strength, women learn how to use water to their advantage.”

In fact, next to her father, Wiley cites her biggest influence as Ellen Perry, a pioneering boater from Carbondale.

“Ellen Perry was my first female inspiration that women can do it, and do it gracefully,” she said.

Of course, the only way to do this is to start from the bottom up – quite literally.

“My advice is to start at the pool and boat the river at every level or it’ll get away from you...and get a lot of ibuprofen,” said Barber, who admits to hitting her combat roll “most of the time.”

Which, of course, brings up the all-important issue of the roll – often the bane of any boater’s existence.

“The first time I flipped I was out of my boat before my head hit the water,” said Wiley, speaking to the fear that plagues anyone with enough sense to know being upside-down underwater can have detrimental effects.

Yet, a solid roll can spell the difference between success and failure – not only from a safety standpoint but a self-confidence one as well.

“Get your roll down and take your time,” said Michelle Brown, who’s been playboating for about eight years. “Playboating’s not scary – if you have a roll, you can do it.”

Lisa Wilk, another matriarch of the local boating scene with more than 20 years under her belt, also stressed the importance of the basics.

“If you really want to do it, you’ve got to get out there and do the flat water, practice those strokes and put the time in,” she said.

Self determination – as well as a little hard headedness – also plays a role in keeping the novice boater’s dream alive, she said.

“I can’t believe I stuck with it,” said Wilk, whose first boat was a used, fiberglass Phoenix Savage. “I had some terrible swims and yard sales, but I really, really wanted to learn.”

Barber agrees that a tough mental attitude has helped her progress in the sport as well.

“It’s one of those things where you know you can do it, so you have to do it,” she said. “There’s no reason you shouldn’t.”

Nevertheless, having a friend around to share in your sorrow and triumphs, or just to fetch your boat when you swim and laugh once she knows you’re OK, makes the whole process a lot easier.

“Find a friend; find a buddy,” said Michelle Brown.

And oftentimes – with all due respect to womens’ male boating/life partners – this comes in the form of a fellow female boater.

“Although I have fun with the guys, it’s such a different vibe with the girls,” said Joanne Farley, a longtime paddler who gave up her kayak several years ago in favor of an open canoe. “It’s always more fun with your friends.”

Alli Gober, a waitress and local slalom racer who recently began a foray into the world of rodeo boating, agrees – although she admits it may get her into trouble with her male counterparts.

“Boating with women is so great,” she said. “Women don’t have that ‘I’m gonna kill the river’ attitude.”

In fact, any attitude at all is best left on the shore, the women agree. And a healthy sense of humility and humor can’t hurt, either, especially when the laugh is at your own expense. There isn’t a boater out there who doesn’t have her own tale of woe and anxiety.

Farley, the canoeist, told of a story when she inadvertently got stuck in a hole with a large crowd watching.

“People were cheering me on because they thought I was trying to do tricks,” she said. “Eventually I flipped and swam out of the hole and thought, ‘Well, there goes my cover.’”

Another boater, Tina Reed, a Durango real estate agent, holds what she thinks is the record number of swims in one season in Smelter Rapid – a record she proudly challenges anyone to beat.

“I swam Smelter 22 times my first summer,” she said.

Reed isn’t the only one troubled by the crux move on Durango’s town run. Even the most experienced women spoke to the “cleansing” effect of the rapid.

“Boating’s the best laxative,” said Lynn Brown. “I still get nervous every time I run Smelter. I just hit that right line and keep on going.”

Even Wiley has had her share of mishaps there, including one a few weeks ago in her canoe.

“I ran Smelter and wasn’t prepared for those waves right afterward,” she said. “I had stopped paddling and was just sitting there, and before I knew it, I had turned sideways and got tipped over.

“I was laughing that the river had gotten me 85 and it also made me realize that I need to practice swimming.”

As Barber so succinctly sized up the grounding effect of the river: “Whenever you start to feel like hot shit, go boat.”

Of course, all these tales of terror on the high rivers may make any potential boater question whether the pain and suffering, and bruised shins and bruised egos are worth it. But these women agree that it all pays off – in more ways than one.

“There’s always going to be a swim around the next corner, there’s always going to be a better boater than you, but if you stick with it, you always get better,” said Wilk. “And I’ve never stopped getting better.”

Gober, who was boating Class V in her second season of boating, said even she has her off days.

“The other day, I was having the worst day, flipping all over the place,” she said. “And then I found this one wave and said, ‘Ok, I’m just going to try to front surf it.’ And I ended up having the longest surf. Every 30 seconds I said, ‘thank you river, thank you river,’” she said.

And it’s those little, serendipitous experiences – rather than the big drops and churning holes – that keep her coming back for more.

“Every time you go out, I think it’s important to appreciate the river and what a gorgeous place it is,” she said.








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