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Montana Kayak Academy teaches art of riding the river

by ADRIAN KNOWLER
Daily Inter Lake | August 6, 2023 12:00 AM

From the cockpit of a whitewater kayak on the Flathead River just outside Columbia Falls, while leading a beginner kayak lesson, Dave Meyers shares his ethos.

“The world would be a better place if everyone kayaked,” Meyers says on a sunny summer’s day.

Meyer’s mission is clear: as the newly appointed executive director and experienced instructor for the Montana Kayak Academy, he wants to get as many people as possible out enjoying the area’s rivers.

Meyers agreed to meet at the river and give a few beginner’s tips, as well as share the mission of the nonprofit dedicated to educating people about the sport that has become his passion.

He starts by going over the gear, and the specialized clothing, including a helmet, dry suit, nose plugs (to keep beginners from inhaling water) and a spray skirt designed to keep the kayak from filling up and sinking.

“Real men wear skirts,” Meyers jokes, as he demonstrates how to suit up.

On this day Meyers gave a rundown on whitewater kayaking basics, including several types of paddle strokes, how to use the kayak’s edges to navigate, and how to enter and exit eddies, or calm spots of water created by upstream objects such as rocks.

Next he instructs on how to tear the skirt off of a flipped kayak while underwater and escape, known as a “wet exit,” as well as how to flip a kayak using a buddy’s boat in a maneuver known as a “t-rescue,” in which a boater pushes off the bow of an assisting kayak and swings their hips around in a fluid motion to return the boat to its navigable upright position.

Although Meyers has demonstrated the technique and walked through it step by step, all the steps can go out the window when the paddler is upside down in the river, stuck in the kayak. For whitewater kayakers, it’s especially important to keep a calm head.

First using a whiteboard, Meyers also shows how to read the lines of an eddy, and how to safely enter and exit the calm water created by upstream obstacles. He says that it’s from these pools that experienced kayakers can regroup and read the river for potential hazards up ahead.

The water on this section of river is quite calm when compared with the wild sections of river sought out by experienced adrenaline junkies like Meyers, but these boats are anything but stable. Even a slight lean in the wrong direction can cause the current to latch onto a kayak's edge and flip the unsuspecting paddler with ease.

Meyers wants as many children as possible to feel the thrill of kayaking as he did growing up, and it drives him every day to grow and improve the academy’s offerings.

The nonprofit recently started paying its 10 part-time instructors for the lessons they give, which Meyers feels is an important step toward the group's long-term sustainability.

“Even if only one out of five or six stick with kayaking, that’s still more people on the river,” he said.

The academy was founded in 2016 and provides a series of instructional clinics for the Flathead Valley for all ages 8 and older. The academy’s website emphasizes values such as leadership, teamwork, river etiquette, and an appreciation for nature.

Co-founder Paul Moffatt started the organization after volunteering with First Descents, a charity that guides young adults with cancer and other serious illnesses through outdoor adventures such as rock climbing and kayaking.

Moffatt and partner Mike Dezzani realized they wanted to get more people in Northwest Montana involved in the sport, especially at a young age.

“We started it to do something in the local area to give kids a chance to test drive the sport in a relatively free way,” Moffatt said.

IN THE beginning, all the lessons were free, and provided by volunteer instructors.

Now the lessons are still quite affordable, at roughly $60 for a three-hour lesson, but the academy offers scholarships to families in need.

As the academy has grown it has purchased a lot of the equipment necessary to scale up.

Moffatt said that acquiring clothing, boats and a van retrofitted with a rack that can carry over a dozen kayaks has set the academy up for success as it continues to grow.

He also attributes the hiring of Meyers as executive director as having helped with the organization.

“He’s fired up, and he’s arguably the most talented kayaker around here,” Moffatt said of Meyers. “His words have weight and his skill is obvious.”

Born in Bigfork, Meyers’ love for running the rivers goes back about 20 years, when he was encouraged by his big brother to take up the niche, adrenaline-inducing sport.

Since then, his passion has taken him around the world, and he’s kayaked rivers in China, Nepal and South America, just to name a few. It’s also given him the opportunity to rub shoulders with A-list actors and reality television stars as a whitewater stunt expert working on the sets of film and TV shows.

Meyers also organizes the annual Bigfork Whitewater Festival, which brings whitewater kayakers from around the world to conquer the challenging “Wild Mile” section of the Swan River.

Although the competitive kayak scene saw its heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Moffatt said the sport remains popular among recreational enthusiasts and will grow again if people have affordable and easy access. He compared the sport’s popularity to the flow of a river itself.

“The sport ebbs and flows, and I think it’s starting to gain traction again, it has to do with opportunity,” he said. “If there's an opportunity to do it safely then people will get involved. I think that what we have here [in the Flathead Valley] is unique. There are really good sections of river to learn the sport.”

Moffatt still teaches some classes himself and is optimistic about the academy’s future.

“I think the growth rate that we’re at is really healthy,” he said. “Our donation base has grown every year. We’ve got the gear and now we’ll see how many people are interested. I think the word is out now.”

For more information, visit https://www.montanakayakacademy.com/.

Reporter Adrian Knowler can be reached at 758-4407 or aknowler@dailyinterlake.com.

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Dave Meyers, left, with Montana Kayak Academy, instructs Daily Inter Lake reporter Adrian Knowler on performing a roll at the Teakettle Fishing Access Site in Columbia Falls on Wednesday, July 19. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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Dave Meyers, right, with Montana Kayak Academy, and Daily Inter Lake reporter Adrian Knowler carry their kayaks out of the Flathead River after a lesson at the Teakettle Fishing Access Site in Columbia Falls on Wednesday, July 19. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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A Montana Kayak Academy instructor leads a whitewater kayaking lesson. (Photo Courtesy of Montana Kayak Academy)

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A Montana Kayak Academy instructor leads a whitewater kayaking lesson. (Photo Courtesy of Montana Kayak Academy)