California Women’s Watersports Collective gains momentum
By Haven Livingston
The first thoughts Melissa DeMarie had after landing a 20 foot waterfall on a low brace and feeling her shoulder pop out were certainly not, “Oh, I think I’ll use my down time to create a nonprofit for women’s watersports.” She was kayaking in Chile and as anybody who has traveled for sport knows, the big bummer of seeing your trip cut short by injury was first and foremost in her head, but as healing time extended, she knew she had to do something else.
“I moped around for a few months, but then realized that I had had this idea for starting up a women’s community group and it seemed like a good way to channel my energy and give back to the sport,” DeMarie said from her post as shop manager at California Canoe and Kayak Outpost in Coloma.
DeMarie’s idea cascaded into the California Women’s Watersport Collective, a community hub based in the foothills of the American River for women who want to get out and get wet. In a matter of months since returning from Chile, DeMarie struck a match in this dry state and fired up interest from hundreds of people that can only be quenched by getting together on the water. Events started by word of mouth for women’s paddle gatherings ranging from stand up paddle outings on Lake Tahoe to kayaking and SUPing class II-III sections of the South Fork American River.
The first official event went down in June on Barking Dog, a play wave on the South Fork American. “I thought we’d have maybe five women show up and we saw closer to 35,” said DeMarie. “There were a lot of faces I didn’t know which meant word was spreading fast.”
International kayaker Katie Scott led the group with coaching tips for play boating, but according to DeMarie, it was really about creating a safe environment where women cheered each other on and felt comfortable pushing their boundaries.
Local Coloma resident Robin King took advantage of the free clinic and came away feeling empowered in a way she didn’t expect. “I’ve always been a little bit intimidated with surfing and had been in the mindset of just running rivers,” King said. “It was really nice to have this clinic because it created an atmosphere where I was comfortable and I knew there was safety downstream if I swam.
One of the neatest things about it was that there were a lot of women there who have huge successes in whitewater and yet, they don’t have any ego; they’re there to help everyone get better. Whatever the skill set, from beginner to expert, everybody is bringing something to the table. That specific day wasn’t in my comfort zone, but being with this group made me want to try something new. I usually don’t even get on the wave, but I was surfing it. It’s nice to have that outlet to know that you can push yourself and everybody’s there supporting you. It instilled that confidence and gave me a new fire to want to continue boating more.”
It sounds like a simple thing that should occur naturally, but getting women together on whitewater is clearly a niche need that hasn’t been filled in the Golden State. Women are still the minority on the water and more often than not, when women go paddling they are one woman in a group of men. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture, except that over time it has potential to lead into one of two negative patterns: reliance on male paddlers to lead down the river, or the opposite – getting pushed into paddling something too difficult too soon with the “you’ll be fine” statement.
“There’s a different dynamic among women, we have different mentalities and needs in the learning process. Women are often more honest about their fears and abilities on the river and acknowledging that is an important part of progressing as a paddler. Sometimes you just need to have a woman role model to believe that you can do it too. It’s a huge confidence booster when women can get together and lead themselves down a river,” said DeMarie.
Anna Levesque started her company, Girls at Play, over 10 years ago in North Carolina and continues to fill her SUP and whitewater kayaking classes, clinics and even trips to Costa Rica with women who want to learn and experience kayaking in the company of other women. As it states on the Girls at Play website, their goal is to provide an environment where paddlesports feel accessible, fun, inspiring, adventurous and supportive. This is exactly the type of community DeMarie is building in Central California.
While her breadth of experience more than qualifies her for the lead role in the Collective, DeMarie’s enthusiasm and persistence ground her commitment to it. Beginning as a raft guide in California in 2005, she has been a guide, safety kayaker, kayak instructor and kayaking photographer since then in countries around the world including New Zealand, Uganda, Costa Rica, Norway, Panama, Chile and Nepal.
If overflowing turnout at the free events and meet ups aren’t enough to prove the need, the sign-ups for a weekend long clinic certainly do. With the support of California Canoe and Kayak and volunteer instructors, DeMarie hosted a two day whitewater river clinic for all levels on the South Fork American in early August. Registration was full by the first week of July.
“I just know that it’s really important that there is someplace for women to go,” said DeMarie. If you can inspire women to be confident on the water, that will translate into other areas of their lives. In turn, if they feel good about something that they’re doing they’ll want to pass that on to someone else.”
Events planned for August and September include North Fork Feather River kayaking and Tahoe SUP, with spontaneous meet ups and spinoff groups paddling every week.
Repair, Repurpose, Recycle that Kayak
Rule of thumb: When a kayak cracks, fix it. Cracks again? Fix it and donate it to a pool or school for roll practice. Cracked beyond repair? Turn it into dirt-bag kayaker’s lawn ornament by planting flowers in it. When that fails, cut it up and use parts of it for welding other boats. And the rest: recycle it.
Most whitewater kayaks these days are made of linear high density polyethylene plastic. You might recognize HDPE as an indicator for plastic recycling. When linear HDPE plastic cracks it can be welded back together, unlike the less common cross linked polyethylene, which won’t bind to added plastic material under heat.
Kayaks aren’t exactly stamped with a recycling code, so call the manufacturer to find out how to best repair or recycle it. Liquid Logic Kayaks takes back their boats for recycling if you cut them up and ship them. They don’t exactly make it convenient, but it’s an option. If you live in the right place and it’s the right plastic, you could also put the pieces in your own recycle bin.
Plastic is no small deal anymore and best practices are to buy something that you know can be recycled and ask the retailer or manufacturer to create take-back systems that make it easy.