This weekend was the annual Punch Brook Slalom race, which is held on a small Class II section of the Farmington River in Unionville, CT.
If I had to describe slalom, I would say that it is the more refined side of whitewater. Even at a small event such as this, people still arrived with their polished glass boats, and it’s a very different atmosphere and paddling style when compared to river running or play boating. As described by one of the paddlers there, you have to go where the gates are, and use the river to help you get there.
I had not planned on participating, only because I wasn’t a huge fan of slalom to begin with. And…weekends are usually a teenager’s time to sleep in, so that added a little more reluctance to compete. I woke up at 11 on Saturday and was on the river less than an hour later practicing for the race the following day.
I had been offered to borrow a friend, Denise Dieli’s slalom boat, but instead I used Jeff Magee’s Prijon Hurricane.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Hurricane, it is 10’2” of solid plastic and a throwback from before I was even born. But it worked perfectly for me this weekend, and Jeff was extremely generous, and allowed me to use it for the rest of the season.
I spent an hour or two on Saturday working parts of the course, and getting lots of tips from more experienced paddlers. It was my first time running gates in a boat longer than 6 feet, and it felt amazing to be picking up speed and carving into eddies and through upstream gates.
After a day of great practice, I knew that I had just gotten hooked on the discipline of slalom boating. I loved the element of even higher concentration necessary in order to control your boat in such a precise manner.
It’s also no secret that navigating through the course and using the water to your advantage makes you a better paddler overall. I probably would have slept all day on Saturday if it weren’t for fellow team member Elaine encouraging me to compete in the downriver and slalom competitions to improve my paddling skills earlier late last season. Props to Elaine for getting me hooked on slalom!
On Sunday I woke up early so that I could get a run in before the race started. We arrived at the parking lot which parallels the popular rail trail for walking and biking, and I walked to the top of the course.
I went through the motions and practiced some of the things that I had been told yesterday that ended up making a big difference in my performance. I felt really pumped after a clean warmup run, and I carried my boat back up to the top and attended the racer’s meeting.
The basic rules for slalom are:
a) Don’t touch gates
b) Don’t miss gates
Missed gates count as a 50 second penalty to your overall time and touching one of the poles counts as a two second penalty(for kayaks). Shortly after the racers meeting, I was back in the Hurricane, and I felt the anxiety begin to build as I watched the first racers navigate the course.
I had done plenty of competing before, especially in hockey, so I was able to get in ‘the zone’ before starting. A British gent I met on the river, who probably knows Zoar’s own Phillip (because everyone knows all Brits know each other) gave me a great pep talk beforehand and told me not to worry at all.
After what seemed like an instant, I found myself sitting in the starting eddy and staring down the first gate, which was green, meaning it was a downstream one. I heard the countdown from the walkie talkie and I took a big forward stroke as soon as the voice got to “one.”
The course went by so fast, but also felt like slow motion. Each stroke that I took carried me faster through the maze of gates. After I had passed through a few gates, I felt my nervousness melt away and as I turned into the upstream gate #10, I felt the burning sensation intensify in my arms, and I let my adrenaline take over to get me through the rest of the course. I was so laser focused, I found myself bolting through the last gate and cruising through the finish.
I was really pleased with my first run, and my second run was pretty much identical, and I ended with both runs taking a time of 134 seconds, which got me first place in Junior Women’s and the fastest time by a woman in the whole race. Not bad for my first time. I think I might be hooked.
I was really happy that I didn’t let my teenage laziness overcome me on Saturday because I discovered a whole new part of kayaking that I can’t wait to explore further. I was really hesitant and nervous about trying it, but I was so glad that I did. I have no regrets! If you’re anxious about trying whitewater kayaking for the first time, I really encourage you to try it. It’s better to find out whether it’s for you or not through experience rather than making assumptions. You might surprise yourself!
Cheers for now,