UPSIDE down, underwater, half-encased in plastic, caught in currents traveling thousands of cubic feet per second ... could this be Houdini's last great escape? No, it's white-water kayaking. Once shunned as a ``fringe sport'' for ``extremists,'' kayaking now pulls new recruits into its wake each day. Enjoying consistent growth since the early '70s, the sport attracts everyone from doctors to homemakers. And, in 1992, Olympians.
``This is what life's all about!'' says Mary Hipsher, a registered nurse in her 10th season as a paddler. In fact, Ms. Hipsher put her nursing license in the drawer when she discovered the sport. One year after taking up kayaking, she left her obstetrics clinic in Birmingham, Ala., and went to work for the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in Bryson City, N.C., which offers instruction in kayaking and other paddle sports. She now practices nursing only in the off season. She speaks passionately about the sport, saying that kayaking gives her ``a way to be in the environment without being dependent.''
NOC, nestled in the lush greenery of the Nantahala Gorge in the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of the largest and most respected white-water centers in the country. The center is an example of how the sport has grown internationally and professionally (a recent ``peace paddling'' rally here attracted kayakers worldwide, including the East bloc) as well as recreationally. Measured in ``guest days'' (total guests times total days spent), its kayak instruction program has grown 51 percent since 1985.
Brad Nicholes, national sales manager for Perception Kayaks, says estimates of a 20 to 25 percent yearly increase in kayaking are ``conservative.'' White-water kayaking began to catch on in the early '70s with the introduction of lighter, more durable plastic boats, Mr. Nicholes says, and the sport ``has exploded since then.''
Interest in the sport does not seem confined to any particular geographic area. Kayakers brag of runs made on rivers from Chile to Nepal, and paddlers appear to be at no loss for enthusiasm or venues here in the United States.
Dick Eustis, president of the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) here in Howard, Colo., explains that while ``organized boating is much more established in the East,'' it has gained a strong following throughout the country. ``What's happening in the West happened in the East 15 years ago,'' he says. ``Kayaking is becoming Everyman's sport.''
US rivers are classified by a system established by the American Whitewater Affiliation. The ratings range from I (``easy'') to VI (``extreme risk of life'').
CAROL MAY, an NOC instructor in her eighth season, says people misinterpret the thrill of kayaking. Frustrated with the image of paddlers as people looking for a life-or-death thrill, she offers a different view. She coins the phrase ``in the moment'' to describe the exhilaration of the sport:
``In the moment, nothing else matters ... there is no future, no past, just that single moment in time,'' says Ms. May. With the pace and complexity of life in '90s, ``something else is always on your mind ... making it very hard to get in the moment.''
``Risk,'' says May, ``is the vehicle for putting people in the moment.''
Every kayaking instructor interviewed for this series stressed the need for safety and preparation, a point brought home by a tragic incident during this reporter's visit to NOC: Two canoeists unaffiliated with the center capsized above the falls. One of them became trapped in the rocks and drowned before rescuers could free him.
Charles Walbridge, safety chairman for the American Canoe Association, says there are from six to eight kayak-related drownings each year, including flat-water and white-water boating.
While participants acknowledge the risks, they maintain that precautions minimize the danger.
``You can control the environment to make it safe ... there's only a small risk if you do it properly,'' says Billy (BR) Richards, a former attorney now in his ninth year as an NOC instructor.
Simple rules of river safety can avert many accidents, experts say. Kayaking properly means not only knowing the sport, but knowing your limits, general river dangers, and the characteristics of the specific river you're on. An inviting stretch of river may hide obstacles in unexpected places - obstacles that may even cause a current to suddenly turn upstream, a switch that can flip an unsuspecting boater.
Can anyone kayak? ``Absolutely!'' says Mr. Richards. ``If you can get through an aerobics class, you can do it.''
Kayaking requires mostly the use of waist and hips, making it ``not a strength sport, but a finesse sport,'' says Lisa Chaple, a fifth-year RMOC instructor. ``Men are more likely to just get out and power through like other physical sports,'' she says, but ``women learn better than men.'' Women may excel in this sport currently dominated by men, says Ms. Chaple.
An investment in kayaking involves more than just time on the river. A new boat runs about $700, and with the additional necessary gear - paddle, spray skirt, life jacket, and helmet - the cost can run well over $1,000. A complete used package can often be found in the $600-$700 range. Rentals are scarce because of liability concerns.
The future of the sport is considerably brightened by the inclusion of white-water kayaking as an official event at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. That means funding from the US Olympic Committee, potential corporate sponsors, and publicity. Flat-water racing has been an official event since 1936, but whitewater has been included only once before, in the 1972 Games in Munich, West Germany.
The problem has been finding a proper venue, says Leslie Klein, assistant executive director for the US Canoe and Kayak Team. That was the case in Los Angeles in 1984. In Barcelona, water will be diverted from a river through a man-made, concrete course.
With Olympic recognition, can kayaking as a spectator sport be far behind? Last year the world championships for white-water slalom were held in the US for the first time. And in another first for the sport, $75,000 in prize money will be offered in a privately sponsored international competition this year. First in a three-part series. Tomorrow: A trip down the river.