A kayaker completes a roll below The Slide on Canada Falls in northern Maine.  Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

A reliable roll is essential for difficult whitewater kayaking. Many solo canoeists survive the sport without a roll; however, acquiring one is a game changer.

I started out canoeing, so I learned the canoe roll first. Most people consider the canoe roll to be more difficult. That was my conclusion when I began kayaking, since the kayak roll came easier. No longer a canoeist due to a knee replacement, the quality of my kayak roll has diminished in recent years as a result of old age and less practice.

The reliability of a paddler’s roll tends to follow a fairly common pattern. Normally, inexperienced whitewater boaters learn to roll. Since their river skills are lacking, they frequently capsize, which facilitates development of a dependable roll. As their paddling journey progresses and capabilities improve, they rarely need to roll and its effectiveness gradually declines. An old man, I’ve devolved into the latter category.

In April two years ago, I missed a roll while descending a difficult pitch called Staircase on the Swift River in New Hampshire. I’d successfully run the same rapid for many years and was bewildered to find myself upside down in turbulent frigid water intermittently bumping my helmet on submerged rocks. That’s when I had a startling revelation; I wasn’t confident I could execute a roll.

Confidence and muscle memory are two essential elements of a successful roll. A couple of pathetic failed attempts later, I bailed. In the ensuing effort to save my boat, I lost my paddle. About two months later, a national park ranger found it on the shore 5 miles downriver. My experience typifies the consequences of failing to roll in challenging whitewater.

A canoeist finishes a roll at the end of a rapid.  Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

The need for a high level of competence and faith in the roll increases with river difficulty. A few years ago, some friends and I were paddling the demanding Tourilli River in Quebec at high water. We stopped in a tiny eddy at the top of a long canyon with sheer cliffs on both sides. As far as we could see downriver, there was nothing but large exploding waves, undoubtedly concealing unpleasant holes and unforgiving rocks. It was apparent to all of us that if anyone failed to roll, they would swim the entire canyon, since no one could help them; possibly losing their boat and paddle, maybe worse.

Probably the result of enhanced anxiety, a couple of us had to roll shortly after. Fortunately, everyone stayed in their boat during that thrilling endeavor.

While dejectedly dragging my kayak up a steep bank on the Swift River two Aprils ago, I resolved to start practicing my roll once the waters warmed. What I found in the summer was that my roll was only moderately dependable in balmy flat water. When my outdoor club, the Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society, scheduled pool rolling sessions last March, I immediately signed up. Another cost of the pandemic, they were cancelled.

Fast forward to this spring, my friend Ken Gordon was able to arrange two hours of rolling practice in the pool at the Lewiston YWCA in late March. This year, I was getting a head start with my roll. At age 73, I need all of the help I can get.

Twelve enthusiastic paddlers met at the pool. We consisted of a combination of kayakers and canoeists. Since everyone had previously learned to roll, the primary goal was to refine skills in anticipation of the upcoming spring paddling season.

Most of us partnered up in two-person teams. While one attempted to roll, the other observed technique and provided the option for an assisted rescue if the roll failed.

A kayaker rolls up in turbulent water.  Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase

Rolling sounds easy. After flipping, shift your body tight to the boat, get the paddle above water, sweep the paddle perpendicular while simultaneously snapping your hips, and keep your head down. Actually, it’s not easy.

Initially, varying levels of success were achieved. Two hours is a longtime to practice rolling. By the time we finished, everyone was consistently hitting their roll. I was happy with the quality of my rolls but disappointed with the pain experienced in my left hip. The insidious consequences of old age seem inescapable.

The practice is over. Now it’s time to test the results in real river situations where the ramifications of failure are more significant than a short swim in calm warm water. We’ll see how this senior citizen does. Stay tuned.

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Ron Chase, Outdoors Contributor

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is now available at northcountrypress.com/maine-al-fresco.html. His previous books are...