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Posted: 08.22.2018 by Ben Coleman



Don’t worry … there’s no detention at these summer schools if you don’t get it right. Only dunkings. Beginner, intermediate or even advanced, if you want to take your paddling to the next level—be it canoeing, whitewater kayaking or touring—a trip to paddling school is in order. Expert instructors will find nuances you didn’t even know you had, and have you stroking in the right direction in no time. But don’t settle for just any school. Head to one of the following destination schools, which can boast the best paddling pedigrees on the planet. 




ONE OF THE MOST PRISTINE PADDLING LODGES in the country, Otter Bar sits on the banks of Northern California’s Cal-Salmon River. After navigating the one-lane road up the river, you’ll be greeted by owners Peter and Kristy Sturges, as well as their staff of top-notch instructors.

Otter Bar is known for its prestigious kayak school, which conducts weeklong classes from April through September. Beginner to advanced classes are held on the free-flowing Cal-Salmon and nearby Klamath, both federally designated as Wild and Scenic waterways.

This year the school celebrates its 37th anniversary, and two on-site rolling ponds and a variety of gin-clear river stretches ensure you’ll emerge light years better than when you arrived. You might even be lucky enough to have Peter’s son, Rush, a popular whitewater filmmaker, as your instructor if you can catch him when he’s not gallivanting around the globe.    

Off the river, relax on private beaches, frolic in swimming holes along the Salmon, or jog or bike a network of trails crisscrossing the mountainside. There are even yoga courses to help summon your inner paddler. “Our concept is simple: Keep it small, personable and first-class,” says Peter.

Deluxe amenities include a large main lodge with stone fireplace and hardwood floors, private cabins with French doors and private decks, and an outdoor hot tub and wood-fired sauna for post-paddling relaxation (hint: Book your trip during a full moon).

With two full-time chefs, it’s the only kayak school to ever appear in Bon

Appetite magazine. You’ll understand why when, after the on-site masseuse soothes your water-weary muscles, the gong rings at 7:30 p.m., signaling the start of the buffet counter. Let’s see … what’ll it be? How about fresh-rolled sushi, baked brie with raspberries and crostini, and steamed artichokes with lemon-parmesan aioli for starters, followed by blackened salmon with fresh mango salsa.

Info: (530) 462-4772,



TO GET YOUR SEA KAYAK SKILLS UP TO SNUFF—and practice them in one of the most pristine paddling destinations on the planet—there’s no better place than Body Boat Blade International on Orcas Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

The school is owned and operated by Leon Sommé and Shawna Franklin, two of the most qualified and dedicated instructors in the Pacific Northwest. Coaches and coach educators for nearly 25 years, they’ve both earned their British Canoe Union (BCU) 5 Star Sea awards (Franklin was the first U.S. woman to do so), as well as 4 Star awards in whitewater and surf and 2 Star open-canoe awards. Want more accolades? They circumnavigated Iceland in 2003 and British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands in 2007. (The duo also star in C&K’s online Virtual Coach video series at

“We specialize in high-quality instruction for paddlers of all skill levels,” says Franklin, adding that the school also offers courses taught by world-renowned guest coaches and that all of its instructors are BCU-certified. “Our goal is simple: Have fun, be safe, and offer the best coaching available for everyone from beginners to experts.”

Course topics, many of which include video stroke analysis, include boat-handling skills, safety and rescue, ocean currents and tides, surf, rough water, navigation, expedition skills, whitewater and guide training, available via private lessons or with student-to-instructor ratios of no more than 4-to-1. Expedition courses put students in leadership roles to better learn chart and compass skills, calculate current speeds and ferry angles, watch weather, help plan and prepare meals, and motivate other paddlers.

Of course, perhaps the best part of the whole program is its location. Year-round courses range in length from three hours to five days, all based out of Orcas Island, which offers protected bays and lakes, tidal races, complex navigation, plus the chance to paddle with whales. No matter how many days you’re out, you return to your bed and breakfast or vacation home accommodations on Orcas a seasoned paddler.

Info: (360) 376-5388,



A WORD TO THE WISE: Take a class at Charlemont, Mass.’s Zoar Outdoor in the fall and the multi-colored hues of your kayaks will be surpassed only by the colors of the magnificent New England foliage lining the banks of the Deerfield River.

The destination paddling school is great the rest of the year also. Located on 85 acres of river frontage on the Deerfield, Zoar has campsites and a guest lodge, as well as a well-stocked outfitters shop with kayaks, canoes and an assortment of accessories. The only thing better than its layout is the cadre of instructors.

“They’re the backbone of our instruction program,” says owner Bruce Lessels, who won the American Canoe Association's Excellence in Instruction award in 2005 and authored the Whitewater Handbook and Northeast Whitewater Guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club Press. “Combined with our facility, that’s what makes this program what it is.”

With a Class I-II section of river right outside the guest lodge and the Class III Zoar Gap just upstream, Zoar runs programs for all levels of paddlers, including one-, two-, three- and five-day beginner kayak and canoe courses, freestyle kayak clinics, swiftwater rescue, special creeking classes and family and kids' clinics. “Our kids' programs are a major part of our programming,” Lessels says. “We get a lot of families who come to learn together.”

If all that’s not enough, there’s plenty to do off the water as well, be it sampling a zip-line canopy tour, renting mountain bikes or going rock climbing. As many options, in fact, as there are colors outside your door. Info: (800) 532-7483,





THE VENERABLE MADAWASKA KANU CENTRE (aka the MKC), celebrates its 46th anniversary this year, making the school on the banks of the Madawaska River the longest-running commercial whitewater paddling school in North America, if not the world.

Owners Claudia Kerckhoff-Van Wijk and husband Dirk Van Wijk are not only gracious hosts, they’re also competitive paddlers. And their daughter, Katrina, also an instructor, is a three-time slalom Canadian national champion who crossed her traditional skills over to success in the steep-creek racing extreme end of the sport.

The season begins in May when snowmelt fills Bark Lake, allowing daily releases of warm, clear water into the Madawaska River, which flows right by your doorstep. Dine at the lodge, suit up in your cabin and walk to the river. Come snack-time, sip a cup of Kicking Horse Coffee and nibble a freshly baked pastry from the in-house café before going back for more.

Of course, you’re here to paddle, and there’s plenty of that. Choose from weekend or five-day courses on the Madawaska all summer long, with a variety of meal and accommodation plans, and further refine your skills on the Ottawa just an hour away. Consider the Combo-Course slalom and freestyle week to help you finesse your way through gates and get your freestyle groove on. Other programs include Seniors Week for the 55-plus set; Women’s Retreat Week; and Family Week, where parents and kids vacation and learn together in groups of students their own ages. Children as young as 2 can join in on a two-hour raft trip down the Madawaska.

Info: (613) 594-5268,



THE NANTAHALA OUTDOOR CENTER (NOC) was founded the year Deliverance was made in 1972. And with raft guides and kayak instructors all living on the banks of the Nantahala River, it delivers one of the best paddling instruction experiences you can get.

During the school’s instruction season from March to October, as many as 35 instructors are on hand teaching everything from whitewater canoeing to kayaking. Having provided top-notch programming in all aspects of whitewater for over 45 years, the NOC can boast its team of instructors has “more experience than any other whitewater instruction program in the world,” at the forefront of instruction technique.

Choose from one-, three-, five- and seven-day lesson packages, all designed around your ability level. Oftentimes your class will end right at the lodge where you can warm up in a hot tub before dining.

Other unique offering include the NOC Surf School, designed to get kids in boats, and the River Leadership Camp, designed to help young paddlers become river leaders by learning judgment, swiftwater rescue and wilderness first aid. The camp combines seven days of paddling with swiftwater rescue and wilderness first aid certification courses, with skills learned in real, river-based scenarios. Private classes offer video analysis from a camera mounted on the instructor’s helmet, with students taking home a personalized video.

To refuel, head to River’s End, the original restaurant on the river, before settling down into one of 150 guest beds. Accommodation choices range from bunkhouses to motel rooms to 10-bedroom vacation cabins complete with decks, woodstoves and kitchens. The school also offers camping platforms for those on a budget. Info: (800) 232-7238,



IF YOU’RE A GAL AND WANT TO PADDLE WITH YOUR PEERS, be they nervous beginners or Class V experts, the setting doesn’t get much better than the programs through Mind Body Paddle. Run by world-class paddler Anna Levesque, the offerings are dedicated to inspiring women and enhancing their lives through kayaking and yoga retreats—sometimes both at the same time. “Our workshops and classes provide an environment where kayaking feels accessible, fun, inspiring, adventurous and supportive,” says Levesque, who combines 20+ years of experience as a kayak guide, instructor and competitor with more than 300 hours of training as a yoga instructor.

For a sample of Levesque’s technique, check out Girls at Play, her original instructional video made specifically for women. Levesque found inspiration for the video thumbing through an instructional book on the shores of the Ottawa River. “I enjoyed the instruction, photos and layout, but was disappointed there were only two photos of female kayakers,” she says. The result: her own instructional videos, as well as regional Southeast workshops, adventure trips to Mexico and DVDs that followed. The process continues today with a full line of instructional trips, SUP camps and workshops. Check out her DVD, Yoga for Kayaking with Anna Levesque and JoeTaft, as well as her new book Yoga for Paddling.

Women wanting to benefit from her watergirl wanderlust can join her for special women’s clinic Creek Weeks in Asheville, N.C., or for the more adventurous, instructional trips to Ecuador as well as Idaho’s Main Salmon that combine confidence boosting whitewater instruction with riverside yoga practice.

“I’m super grateful to be on a continually evolving path of teaching and inspiring women to surpass what they believe is possible,” Levesque says. And if you’re ever a little sore from one of her sessions, it’s nothing a little Downward Dog can’t help.


CANOE & KAYAK – Eugene Buchanan