Becoming an ACA Instructor

Over the past five years, I have volunteered a tremendous amount of time to the American Canoe Association (ACA). I have been teaching whitewater and sea kayaking for the past decade, but have only been ACA certified for the past five years. Teaching has always gone hand-in-hand with my learning of kayaking. I started whitewater kayaking ten years ago and a few months after that, I entered Outdoor Recreation Georgia Tech’s (ORGT) Instructor-in-Training program. While it’s kind of crazy to rationalize learning to teach a sport that I just started, it was effective for me.

As a kayak instructor, I spent as much time learning how to execute a skill as learning why to execute a skill. I was expected to meet or exceed a certain standard of paddling skill, wilderness medicine training, CPR training, and swift water rescue training. I learned a lot of best practices from the get-go, and I learned from some of the best paddling educators I know. It was at ORGT that I had my first experience with the ACA, taking an ACA skills course in sea kayaking. I learned to be a strong individual paddlers as well as a strong team member.

Recently, I got an opportunity to co-teach an ACA Level 4: Whitewater Kayaking Instructor Develop Workshop (IDW) and Instructor Certification Exam (ICE) with ACA Instructor Trainer and Jackson Kayak teammate Heather Herbeck. For those who don’t already know Heather, she’s one of the best in the business in kayak instruction, based out of the White Salmon, WA area. I immediately jumped on this opportunity to work with Heather and to train more kayak educators in the PNW.

First things first, I find Heather to be quite effective in making kayak instruction fun, engaging, and easy for all skill levels to understand. For almost every skill taught in whitewater kayaking, she had a fun game or activity. Learning whitewater kayaking can be a stressful experience, or it can be a fun and exciting one. Chances are that a student will continue paddling if they have an enjoyable experience. For example, during one particular forward stroke activity, we worked on locking out our arms to work on torso rotation (i.e. engaging the big muscle groups in your body). This activity is often referred to as the “Frankenstein” drill. To add some spice to this exercise, Heather had us all make our own interpretation of what Frankenstein would sound like. Whether it be a “Grrrr” or a “Uhhhhh”, I could see laughter across all the instructor candidates.

In another example, we worked on edging. This can be a nerve-racking skill for students to learn, as it involves moments of instability and the possibility of capsize. Heather kept it simple, breaking it down into three “levels”. Level 1 involved applying pressure to one butt cheek, then shifting your weight to the other. Level 2 involved raising one knee/thigh into the thigh brace. Level 3 combined Level 1 and Level 2. To make it fun, Heather encouraged instructor candidates to think about trying to juice oranges on their sides. Heather did a wonderful job building up confidence and taking the moment of highest stress and making it the most fun.

Now I know there are folks out there who don’t foresee becoming a kayak instructor, and I have no problem with that. My path of learning kayaking is by no means the only way of learning the sport nor is it the most effective path for everyone. But I do find that both my instructor skills and personal paddling have improved through the process of becoming an ACA instructor. Teaching paddling skills have caused me to take a deep dive into the mechanics of skills, how to generate more power, how to be more efficient, and how to prevent injury. I have been able to paddle for ten years with limited wear and tear to my body.

It has also taught me a lot about proper trip planning and group management. Preparing for the unknown is a challenge. But through becoming an instructor, I have learned the proper skills for rescues, guiding a group safely down the water, and working as a team while on the water. It became a lot easier for me to respond to a rescue when I had educated the group on how to communicate while on the water, knew where the nearest medical facility was, and knew how to organize a rescue without causing additional people to need to be rescued. It’s amazing at what I was able to learn in a 5-day IDW and ICE.

All and all, I had a wonderful experience co-teaching the ACA Level 4: Whitewater Kayaking IDW and ICE with Heather Herbeck. The Jackson Kayak Nirvana and Antix were fantastic kayaks to teach out of. If you’re looking to get certified for the first time or update or upgrade your existing certification, I highly recommend you reach out to Heather or myself.

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