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DU’s river rats

Kayaking club members celebrated Earth Day by cleaning garbage from a six-mile stretch of the Platte River. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

When they’re not ripping down the Colorado River, they’re paddling around the Ritchie Center’s swimming pool. Sure, conditions are a little tamer than a rocky river, but the University’s kayaking club needs space to learn the basics, like learning to “wet exit” and “roll.”

Before members are even allowed to enter the pool, each is required to learn the “wet exit” technique — the most basic but important safety skill, says kayaking club Vice President Kevin Thompson, a senior finance major. “It’s the ability to get out of the kayak while upside down in the water with the skirt on,” he explains.

After that it’s about rolling — which allows a boater to right the kayak after capsizing.

“The pool is really the safest place to learn,” says club President Chris Ruff, noting that most of the club’s 35 members are learning the sport for the first time. “The water really isn’t going anywhere.”

Of course that changes when they hit the rivers. “There’s always that factor of fear with water,” says Ruff, a junior geography major. “The pool is safe and warm. The river is less safe but infinitely more fun.”

Despite the danger of becoming caught up in rocks or submerged wood, Ruff contends that kayaking is much safer than rafting. “You can pick and choose the currents you want to go with, but you can’t do that with rafting,” he says.

The kayaking club makes a couple of river trips each year, including an overnight on the Colorado River. When they’re not on the river, members practice at the pool for two hours each week and hit local waterways whenever possible.

Kayaking, which once was part of DU’s popular Alpine Club, became its own entity in 2002 and has grown steadily since. In the last two years club membership has doubled, Thompson says, and newcomers show up at the pool most weeks.

Ruff says one reason for an increase in popularity is simply visibility. “In the ’80s [kayaking was] a ditch sport not many people could do. It was very prohibitive — [kayaks] were 10 feet long, hard to maneuver and you had to put a lot of work into it.” Now, he says, a wider variety of kayaks are available, including designs suited to beginners.

“A lot of climbers talk about problem solving. Kayakers talk about the same thing, just on a river,” says Ruff, a Colorado native who has been kayaking since high school. “It’s a lot of planning; it’s very meditative for me.”

But the club isn’t just about having fun. It’s about having good, clean fun.

“Kayaking as a sport is geared toward stewardship of the environment,” Ruff says, noting that club members help clean up trash in and around local rivers. “We hate to see our rivers being polluted.”

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