At 7 p.m. on a typical Tuesday night, the waters of Freedom Hall Pool are calm and the room is quiet. Within 15 minutes, however, the chaos begins as people file in through the double doors balancing brightly colored kayaks on their shoulders.
After pulling the small boats off the racks atop their SUVs, the kayakers place their small boats around the edge of the pool and begin slipping on their spray skirts and personal flotation devices. Once helmets are strapped on and bodies are strapped in, it’s time to wiggle into the water for a two-hour practice session.
The year-round, weekly kayak roll class is the only pool session of its kind in the Tri-Cities. Set in a fun and informal atmosphere, the roll class allows both new and experienced kayakers a chance to interact and learn from one another.
Attendance fluctuates between a dozen and 40 participants, depending on the time of year. Wes Bradley of Elizabethton has instructed the class for about six years and says it functions as a way to help people get started in the sport and learn how to kayak safely, which includes basic fundamentals as well as the intimidating 360-degree roll that turns kayakers upside down in the water.
“It’s a complicated thing to learn,” Bradley said. “A lot of people think it requires power and good athletic ability and it’s actually more of a thing of finesse.”
The ability to roll enables kayakers to quickly come back to the surface if knocked down by a wave of white water. Those who have conquered this safety technique tend to remember the frustration, fear and finally the relief they felt after learning to complete the round-about motion.
“That is probably the scariest thing about kayaking is getting over that fear,” said Josh Register of Limestone, a roll class participant who’s been kayaking about five years. “Because if a boat fits you right, you are going to feel trapped. If you’re claustrophobic at all, it will probably bother you. There’s nothing natural about rolling a kayak. Everything you think you would do, it’s actually the opposite. You want to bring your head out of the water first and that’s the last thing to come up.”
To avoid that waterlogged feeling, many kayakers wear nose plugs and can be seen shaking their heads once they return to the surface to remove water from their ear canals. The bottoms of their boats usually bobble on top of the pool for about five seconds before they pop back up, Bradley said.
Another young kayaker, 15-year-old Harriet Rollins, also said her roll-learning experience was a bit intimidating.
“The first time was absolutely terrifying because I had an old wet skirt and it actually wouldn’t come off my boat and Wes was the only one who was strong enough to pull the boat off, so it was pretty frightening,” she said. “Now I feel pretty much as comfortable upside down as right side up.”
It took Rollins about three weeks of attending the kayak roll class to achieve her first underwater turn. Now she slides into the pool and practices the delicate motion over and over again, along with a flatwater loop trick aided by Bradley. He pushes Rollins and her pink kayak forward in the air and she completes a flip before landing on the water. Other roll class attendees spend time perfecting their freestyle tricks like cartwheels and sternstalls that many of them perform at local competitions.
Observing the progression, from balancing in the kayak to learning the sweep stroke and finally the roll, is what Bradley enjoys most about teaching week after week. And though he brings a kayak to class, he tends to spend the majority of the time standing in the water helping newcomers master the great rolling feat that Bradley says is 60 percent mental, 40 percent physical and requires a lot of fear management.
For the novice kayaker, working with experienced instructors like Bradley creates a partnership.
“It becomes a lifestyle,” Bradley said. “You meet friends, build a bond with people because not only are you having fun but watching out for each other. You’ve got each other’s backs when things go awry because you are dealing with a force that is much greater than you, the river.”
Josh Register said it’s often hard to find other kaykers to run rivers with, but the roll class is a way to meet and plan outings with people on a similar skill level, as well as those who are brave enough to dip into the uncontrolled temperatures of local waterways year round.
“Some of the best paddling in creeks you don’t normally get to is in spring and early winter when water levels are up,” Bradley said. “It’s the best time.”
The kayak roll class also attracts snowboarders like Jason Lendhurst of Erwin who are on the lookout for something to do when there’s no snow on the slopes.
“Snowboarding and kayaking go hand it hand, like peanut butter and jelly,” he said. “That’s how I got into it.”
Lendhurst recently rejoined the kayak roll class at Freedom Hall Pool after losing his right leg in an accident last summer. He’s trying out a specially modified kayak that will allow him to get in and out of the boat with ease.
“It’s very exciting to come out here,” he said. “My goal is to maybe by April or June to be able to run some rivers, as long as I keep coming here and getting my body adjusted to the boat and keep doing physical therapy.”
Bradley said he’s taught children all the way up to 65-year-olds how to maneuver in a kayak. During the summer months, he brings a demo fleet of Jackson Kayaks to the class for rookies for tryout before making a monetary commitment to the sport, which can run about $1,500 for all new equipment.
“It’s a relatively cheap sport because you buy it all up front and there’s really no other expense except gas to get you to and from the river.”
The kayak roll class costs $2 and is open to the public. Those looking to attend a class should call Bradley before hand at 647-1321 or email him at email@example.com so that he may arrange for proper equipment.