Kayak Guiding in the San Juans

Tyler Phillips, Student

Last month, the Sport Studies, Recreation and Athletics Department took ten students all the way to the San Juan Islands in the far Northwest corner of Washington for a four-day sea-kayaking trip.  The trip was part of a course titled “Sea Kayak Guide Leadership”, which is designed to train students to become safe and effective sea-kayak guides.  The course is taught by the Outdoor-Program Director, Brien Sheedy.  It covers everything from basic paddlestrokes to navigation to a range of rescue techniques to help other paddlers who might get into trouble.  The course also includes a leadership curriculum based off of the one taught by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), one of the leading organizations in the country for outdoor education.  Through this component of the course, students learn leadership skills that they can apply to any leadership role throughout their lives.  Most of the graduates will go on to lead sea-kayaking trips for the OP on the Palouse and Columbia Rivers and in the San Juan Islands.  Some will also go on to guide sea-kayaking trips professionally or to teach others to sea kayak at organizations like NOLS. 

I’m a junior German-studies major.  I’m an experienced whitewater kayaker, but I took this course to expand my skillset into sea kayaking.  We spent a lot of time before the trip learning in the classroom and the pool, but learning to sea kayak requires hands-on experience.  The trip to the San Juans was my first sea-kayaking trip ever, and, by the end, I really felt like I had the skills to go sea kayaking safely without an instructor or guide.  One lesson I learned on the trip was how to effectively lead by example.  Because of my experience with whitewater kayaking, there were certain things that I already knew how to do.  On this trip, I learned how to help others learn things from a peer role rather than an official leadership role.  

Another lesson I learned was the importance of communicating your decisions with your participants and including them in the reasoning behind your decision if not the decision-making process itself.  Even small things like when we stop for a water break become really important to you on a long day of paddling.  I remember feeling kind of helpless on our first day when I didn’t get to decide for myself when I wanted to stop for a break.  We all took turns being leaders of the day, so we all quickly realized this and got good at communicating our plans to the rest of the group.  This also applies to more important things.  One day, we crossed a big channel and had to have lots of backup plans in case the weather turned bad.  I really appreciated how thoroughly they communicated their contingency plans to the group.  These are the kinds of leadership lessons from Sea Kayak Guide Leadership that can be applied to just about any leadership situation in life.  If you want to learn how to sea kayak or become a sea-kayak guide, you should definitely take Sea Kayak Guide Leadership.  If you like spending time outdoors and want to improve your leadership skills, you should also consider taking Sea Kayak Guide Leadership, even if you don’t ever plan on leading sea-kayaking trips.