A new local magazine named Unbound hit the local newsstands today and I was happy to see our area’s paddling scene highlighted in such a wonderful way. Not only did the editors feature local paddling on the cover, but they were generous in covering our annual river race on the inside.
The first issue of Unbound Magazine
I was also honored to have been interviewed as last year’s race winner and given a full page in the magazine.
I think it was somebody in Paddling Magazine recently who wrote that kayakers need to stop talking about the technical aspects of how to paddle and talk more about why they paddle.
With that in mind, I thought I’d share the full transcript of the interview before it got edited down for space.
UB: How did you get started kayaking? How long have you been doing it (on your own and with the Cville Paddlers)?
DTK: It all started at a young age attending a summer camp outside of Ligonier Pennsylvania. One of the activities at the camp was “Waterfront” which involved canoeing and kayaking on the camp’s lake. It was painful to have to start first in a rowboat and then progress to a canoe to prove proficiency before they’d let us paddle a kayak solo, but paddling a kayak was my ultimate goal on that lake that week and I wanted to get into one as soon as I could. As soon as I did I was hooked for life. I guess it represented freedom. I must have been around 10 years old at the time, so I’ve been paddling 40 or so years.
Throughout my youth I did countless canoe and whitewater rafting trips with our Boy Scout troop and I always envied the guys and girls in the kayaks who’d pass us on the rivers. They were always going faster and always looked like they were having more fun, so I paddled a kayak as often as I could borrow or rent one since I didn’t own one yet myself.
Fast-forward to moving to the Charlottesville area 27 years ago, I soon met a close friend and local paddling icon, Konrad Zeller, who got me back into paddling after a few years’ leave of absence as I was establishing a new life and career.
Konrad and I began meeting on the S. Rivanna Reservoir every Wednesday after work to paddle, eat chicken wings, get caught up with each other, and talk about life in general. Shortly thereafter other friends started joining us. That was the very beginning of what is now the Cville Paddlers Group, also known as the Rivanna River Paddlers on Facebook. That was also the beginning of the tradition of after-work, social paddles on the reservoir on Wednesdays during the summer months, a tradition that continues to this day.
The core group of Wednesday evening paddlers now self-organize into smaller groups for paddle trips down the Rivanna and other local waters. That organizing happens through the Rivanna River Paddlers group on Facebook and it has been fascinating to watch local paddling evolve over the years, especially as social media has matured.
UB: What do you enjoy most about it?
DTK: In what seems a contradiction, I enjoy both the solitude and the people I meet. I enjoy unplugging and getting away from the rat race and other people for a few hours, yet also treasure the people I meet and friends I’ve made through the sport.
Most everyone you meet paddling is friendly and willing to do almost anything for a fellow paddler. Regardless of the type of paddling we do as individuals, we share a common bond when it comes to powering ourselves across lakes or down rivers.
The scenery is almost always beautiful, there is ample opportunity to observe undisturbed wildlife, and the sense of peace and being one with nature is palpable. It is a great way to relax and recharge while also getting great exercise.
Lastly, it is a sport that can be enjoyed at any age and like fine wine, people often progress and improve as paddlers as they get older.
You asked me what I enjoy most and I can’t narrow it down to one thing. Is that okay?
UB: What kind of gear do you use?
DTK: That’s a hard question to answer in a short space since I have ten kayaks hanging in my garage right now, ready for just about any water condition or type of paddling.
The best boat for any particular race or trip depends on the level of difficulty of the water, the comfort and confidence level you have in any particular boat for the length of the trip, and whether you are looking to go as fast as possible or go slow and enjoy the experience. Fast boats are tippy and require greater balance and skill which can cause fatigue fairly quickly whereas more stable boats are significantly slower. We are forever chasing the right balance between performance and comfort for any given body of water.
My primary training boat is something call a Thunderbolt-X kayak which is 100% Kevlar, 21 feet long and 18 inches wide at its widest point. It is long, sleek, fast, and light and is perfect for flat water training and covering as much water as possible in a given amount of time. I can go fastest in that boat but I would never put it in an environment where I might smash it into rocks.
I have an eclectic collection of older, classic downriver racing boats I’ve restored, a modern plastic downriver racer called the Cobra Viper, various other recreational kayaks, and even a plastic surf ski, which is a specialized type of sit-on-top kayak that is long, skinny, and fast.
Regardless of the boat I’m paddling, I always use something called a wing paddle made out of carbon fiber so these paddles are strong and stiff yet light. The paddle blades are shaped like airplane wings and when paddled correctly create a low pressure or “lift” in the forward direction of the kayak. This can provide the paddler on the order of a 10-15% increase in efficiency once the unique stroke technique required by these paddles is mastered.
Aside from the boat and paddle, I try to keep my gear simple and functional. Never underestimate the value of a baseball hat, polarized sunglasses, comfortable life jacket and a large water bottle. I always keep a mobile phone tucked safely away in a dry bag somewhere in case of emergency and to notify my wife when I’m safely off the water when I’m out training alone and I also use a small GPS device to track my distance, speed and various other parameters.
UB: I see that you broke a record last year. By how much? And are you going to try to do that again this year?
DTK: I was very fortunate last year in that the water levels were very high and I had a good run during the annual Rivanna River Race. Those two things don’t always happen.
The race starts at the bridge under Rt. 29 just north of the Doubletree hotel and ends at the boat ramp at Darden Towe Park. I covered those 6.2 river miles in 43 minutes and 6 seconds last year, which beat my old record by more than 3 minutes. It was one of those races where everything just came together.
The goal is always to set a new record on race day, but it is very difficult and unpredictable because so much depends on the rain the week leading up to the race, the actual water levels on race day, and boat selection. Last year gave us near perfect conditions and a fast river so it is unlikely the conditions will be that perfect again on race day this year, but you never know. If the water is high again I’ll be aiming for a faster time.
UB: How and when do you train?
DTK: I train year round either on the water, on land, or in the gym.
Most of my on-water training takes place on the S. Rivanna Reservoir. When I’m in town during the summer months I do a training run right after work on Wednesdays and then join the Rivanna River Paddlers group on my inbound/return leg of the workout. Those workouts are usually 10 miles and start at the boat ramp just above the S. Rivanna Reservoir dam at the end of Woodburn Rd. and go to the bridge at Reas Ford Road and back.
On Saturdays I typically do a longer run and paddle all the way up to the far end of the reservoir where the Meechums River feeds in, not too far off Bleak House Road. That round trip is 14 miles and when I ramp up for racing season I’ll also paddle up Ivy Creek so it is easy to log 20 miles or so on the reservoir during a training session without doing any laps.
Two years ago my paddling buddy and training partner, Dave Segars, and I started paddling the whole length of the Rivanna River to prepare ourselves for some of our longer races and ultra marathons. The Rivanna from Charlottesville to Columbia is about 44 miles. Last year we did that and added some miles of the James River to Cartersville and covered those 55 miles in just a little over 8 hours.
The winter gets a little tricky as air and water temperatures drop which requires a wetsuit and makes the efficient, tippy boats more risky in case of accidental capsize. Fortunately that’s never happened to me, but I usually paddle one of my slower, more stable boats in the wintertime just to err on the side of caution and safety and as a result paddle far fewer miles on water during the winter.
Several years ago I needed a solution for those times in the winter when the reservoir is frozen so I designed and built myself an indoor kayak ergometer out of an old Nordic Track ski machine so I can paddle indoors anytime now. When the water is frozen I just paddle in my basement. Much to my surprise, the device found somewhat of a global, cult following on YouTube and I’ve built a few more of these devices for friends and now in a strange twist due to popular demand, offer a “how to” video teaching people how to build their own.
I’m in the gym year round. Extended cardio exercise like paddling is primarily catabolic so I try to counter that in the gym during the off season. When paddling time is light the weights get heavy. When the paddling picks up in the Spring, the amount of weight and total volume in the gym drops so I don’t hammer my shoulders, wrists, elbows, and back through overtraining.
UB: Briefly describe the Rivanna course.
DTK: The Rivanna River around Charlottesville is mostly flat water with a few sets of small to medium rapids to keep it interesting. The largest rapids qualify as Class II+ under the right conditions, but those only last a short distance so the river is generally safe for a wide range of skill levels. My daughter did her first downriver solo on the Rivanna when she was 8 years old.
The river feels amazingly remote in many sections and it is quite common to spot an American Bald Eagle or two. It is such a gem I wish public access was a better so more people could enjoy the peace and beauty of this local treasure and enjoy all it offers.
UB: Have you done other kayaking races? Where? How does the one in our area compare?
DTK: I’ve paddled many races and they are all different.
The most comparable race to the annual Rivanna River race is the Nelson Downriver Race held on the Tye River in Nelson County the first Saturday in May each year. It is a little longer and more technical than the Rivanna race and seems more like a wild mountain stream when compared to the Rivanna.
The Nelson Downriver used to be my first race every year until I discovered another race, “Little D on the Monocacy,” in Frederick, MD held in April that is a fund raiser for a young child, Danny Sullivan or “Little D,” who has a terminal disease. It has become my new season-opener and last year I raced in the 19-mile version of the race and never felt more of a sense of purpose and community coming together to support one of their own. The Monocacy River is easy technically but it seemed like the whole town showed up at the finish line to cheer on the racers so it had the feel of a much larger, more challenging event.
I’ve paddled the Wye Island Regatta in Maryland several times which is a 13.1 mile, open water race around Wye Island and the Lehigh Classic Whitewater race in Pennsylvania which was a terrifying experience for me because I chose the wrong boat which was way too tippy for Class III rapids. I got home after that race and immediately told my wife I needed a shower to wash off all the fear and regret.
I’ve paddled in some other races that no longer exist, and in 2016 paddled the Cumberland River Challenge in Kentucky. That 15-mile race was an absolute hoot because of the great people I met there who made me feel especially welcomed as an outsider. I managed to set a new race record in that race and as a result met and shook hands with the mayor of Barborville, KY at a finish line awards ceremony as he presented me with a commemorative, Overall Winner wooden paddle with brass plaque to place on my mantle. How often do you get the opportunity to shake hands with the mayor of Barbourville, KY, for goodness sake?
Last but certainly not least is the James River Rundown, which to my knowledge is the longest race on the East Coast. I set the 40-mile race record there in 2015, came in 2nd place to Paddling Buddy Dave in the 100-miler in 2016 and tied for 3rd place with a wonderful man named Bill Crawford last year in the 120-miler that started in Lynchburg and ended at Tucker Park in Goochland County. Bill and I paddled neck and neck for nearly 70 miles and became instant friends even though we started out as competitors.
The James River Rundown was my first experience paddling an ultra-marathon race and it is certainly quite different than paddling the 6.2 mile Rivanna River race. The Rivanna race is more of an all-out sprint but when you paddle the longer races a lot more planning, strategy, preparation, nutrition and other factors come into play. During the long races you put your body into auto pilot paddling while your mind focuses on everything else. It is a very different experience where all those base, training miles pay dividends.
Probably the next level goal is to paddle in the Missouri River 340 race. I’ll let you know how that goes when it happens.
UB: Anything else you want to say about kayaking, or being outdoors in Charlottesville/Albemarle?
DTK: Kayaking is better than therapy or a social networking site.
I’ve made good friends through the sport and last year was contacted by Los Angeles-based celebrity fitness trainer and best-selling author, Vinnie Tortorich, who reached out to me to help him train for a 100-miler he’s preparing to do in Louisiana. I now consider Vinnie a friend and look forward to paddling with him and alligators down Bayou LaFourche in Louisiana later this year. We’re doing it on a diet absent of sugars and grains and it promises to be a unique experience.
The Charlottesville area is a wonderful area for training and being outdoors. I can ride my road bike on some of the back roads and see some of the most majestic views, climb up into the Blue Ridge Mountains for unforgettable hikes and paddle any one of the numerous rivers or lakes…and maybe even do all of that in one day. Please don’t tell anyone about the fly fishing on the Rapidan River near Camp Hoover. That place is so special I want to keep it to myself.
The local kayaking and paddling community is very healthy in the area whether you are looking for recreational opportunities, flat water training, or whitewater thrills. I’ve been lucky to be able to participate in the local paddling community and have enjoyed watching it grow and evolve.
My wish is that our community comes together to support our annual river race held the second Saturday each May and that the event itself evolves into a charity event or fundraiser to give it greater meaning and purpose. It would be wonderful to one day see the whole community come together to support the event for a good cause and know that I played some small role in creating a spark to help make that happen.
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And, no. I never thought that faded Prijon Beluga I bought off Craigslist for $300 would ever make the cover of any magazine.