Do your best to ensure non-paddlers have a good impression of paddlers in general. Consider yourself a River Ambassador - I know I do. River access has been jeopardized on many popular runs due to the thoughtlessness of a few inconsiderate paddlers. Key areas to pay close attention to are:

  • Change clothes in private
  • Ask permission to park near personal property
  • Be friendly to the locals
  • Watch your speed in rural neighborhoods
  • Don't liter
  • Watch drinking in public

By following the above simple courtesies, you will gain many unexpected rewards. I have been given special permission to park right up next to rivers, had many great shuttles, learned about great places to eat, and much, much more. Local fishermen along the Savage River in Western Maryland have returned many lost paddles over the years. We have enjoyed our inside look at SAR (Search & Rescue) and ambulance services in West Virginia.

No Peer Pressure

Swiftwater rescue certainly has an element of risk involved. Proper training and practice helps to reduce this risk but never eliminates it. This class can have boaters with a very wide range of boating experience from novices to experts. I think the Clint Eastwood saying "Man has got to know his limitations" is very appropriate to this course. Each individual needs to determine for themselves whether to participate in any given exercise (and how they participate). When people are frightened, they tend to make mistakes and sometimes these errors can lead to injuries. When a rescuer becomes injured, the overall incident becomes much more complicated. Please respect each individual's risk tolerance.

Proper gear is essential for safe paddling trips. As a trip leader, it is essential to inspect your trip participants gear for suitability and make certain they wear this gear whenever they are on the river or close by. Two pieces of gear deserve special attention:

  • PFD AKA: Life Jacket
  • Helmet AKA: The Brain Bucket

Life jackets provide a number of benefits but only if you wear one:

  • Helps you keep your head up where you can breath
  • Some impact protection against rocks and abrasion
  • Improved visibility when swimming in water due to bright colors. Some even have reflective tape.
  • Pockets for small amounts of gear like keys, safety whistle, small camera, etc.
  • Also added insulation and some wind protection

We will dive into more detail on these two essential pieces of gear later on in the course. Besides having a suitable PFD and helmet, they must fit properly. Check the life jacket for fit by tugging on the shoulder straps. You should be able to lift the person out of water and on to shore (or a raft) by their shoulder straps. Also check the helmet for rock back - no more than 1/2". Helmet rock back is a very common cause of forehead concussions. Here is a great safety video from the ACA called Life Jackets Float. Do you?

The primary emphasis of the ACA (American Canoe Association) is making paddling a safer sport through education, stewardship, and special events. The ACA is the leading paddlesports education body that most commercial paddling schools recognize as the authoritative source for instructor certification. The following link provides more details about the ACA: Your ACA.

Liability Waivers

To ensure we can continue to offer ACA skills courses like this one, we require each participant to sign a liability waiver. All of our instructors are certified and meet rigorous training requirements. We do our best to ensure each class is quite safe but rescue by it's nature does have risks. The ACA liability waiver forms are located at: ACA Adult Liability Waiver Form. Please take the time to read, sign, and provide as part of the class registration. Minors (under the age of 18) require a different form: ACA Waiver Form For Minors.

Since I run this class for the Canoe Cruisers Association (CCA), they also require their owner liability waiver: CCA Liability Waiver Form.

Assumption Of Risk

A key skill we will teach in this class is judgment. To be safe in this sport, every paddler needs to make their own conclusion on what is safe or not for themselves on that specific day. Although we paddle with others, we are always responsible for managing our own safety and this can't be delegated to others. A key rule when conducting these classes is challenge by choice which is described next.

Challenge By Choice

The ACA teaches "Challenge By Choice" but what exactly does this mean? Everyone has their own unique risk tolerance. I have seen exceptionally skilled paddlers take their good natured time in pursuing more difficult rivers waiting until they were 100% certain they were ready. I used to run Iron Ring on the Upper Gauley all the time but seldom do so these days. Let's face it, I am getting older and don't get as much exercise and paddling time these days. Could I run that rapid sucessfully - probably. Can I do so safely - yes. Quite frankly, the risks outweigh the rewards for me and I really don't mind the carry. You will be exposed to a great deal of new skills in this class, many of which have risks associated with them. We do our best to provide full details on each exercise and set suitable safety. Everyone needs to make their own decision on whether they feel like participating in each exercise. Every participant needs to support each student's decision - no dares! If someone needs to portage, offer assistance and respect their wishes.

Medical Disclosure

A key safety protocol is to know your participant's medical issues. Unfortunately, this is very sensitive information. Many continue to enjoy this sport with ailments like:

  • Previous heart conditions
  • Asthma
  • Panic disorders
  • Previously separated shoulders
  • Severe allergies
  • Diabetes
  • And many more

I have been on many paddling trips with all of the above. Although every instructor has current first aid training - we are NOT medical doctors. Please share your condition with an instructor or helper and any special treatment instructions. If you require special medications like an inhaler or epi-pen, make certain you bring it with you and let us know where you are carrying it. This topic also carries into judgment. If you are not feeling well enough to paddle, take the day off. Paddling is a strenuous sport, especially when trying to learn and master new skills.


The goal of this class is to provide a safe environment to try new skills. Studying books, watching films, listening to instructors are fine but to really master a skill - you have to perform it. Repetition will cement the skill which is why we perform throw ropes skills quite frequently. Instructors and helpers will do their best to provide guidance and safety. Participants need to evaluate their own risk tolerance and take incremental steps with these new techniques. Over time, what was once quite scary will become second nature. As instructors and helpers, we will keep a close eye on technique. If poor technique is observed that may cause injury, we will do our best to halt the exercise, explain the danger, and perhaps try again. You will have plenty of chances to try out these new skills in this class and in future workouts outside this class.