The American River pulls Daniel Maynard and Gus Koshy toward Satan’s Cesspool, a section of whitewater named for its ferocity. As Maynard disappears into the churning water, Koshy tries to keep his kayak straight — but is eventually thrown off and dunked into the river.
For 11 years, the UC Santa Cruz Kayak Club has gone on kayaking trips and served as a community and resource for students looking to get into river kayaking and river rafting.
“When I started in Kayak Club I had never been in a whitewater kayak,” said club member Salem Matzinger. “I’d been sea kayaking and kayaking on a lake but the [river] boat was totally new. These turn way easier, they flip way easier. This was a whole new world with actual rapids and crazy intense stuff.”
Usually, kayaking lessons or a multi-day trip can cost upward of a few hundred dollars. The necessary gear — a kayak, paddle, helmet, spray skirt and a life vest — can cost a thousand dollars when purchased new. The club’s dues are $15 a quarter and the club provides all the gear, much of which is donated by alumni, and lessons in the pool each week.
During weekends in May, all members can go on trips to Cache Creek, Kings River or the American River. These trips all cost less than $100 per person. Members who aren’t ready to kayak the rapids can go down them in a raft.
The 16-20 person club routinely goes over the basics for those starting out. Beginners start in the pool, learning how to handle the kayaks and how to roll back to the surface in the event of a flip before they are introduced to the river.
“There are a lot of points when you’re in a kayak where you’re just underwater and it’s only a few seconds but it feels like minutes,” Matzinger said. “You’ve got to get comfortable literally being upside down [underwater] with a kayak on top of your body.”
This year, the club increased its meetings from once a week to twice a week in preparation for much higher flows on the rivers from the excess winter rain and high snowpack. If the flows are too high on the American River, they can’t safely take beginners.
“Since there’s so much water going through the rivers, we’re really pushing for more practice and more drills in the pool,” said Daniel Maynard, fourth-year student and club president. “People need to be ready for bigger whitewater than has been seen in the last several years.”
The closest beginner rapids are on Cache Creek in Davis, about two and a half hours by car from UCSC. Though other rivers like the San Lorenzo and Big Sur River are closer, their dangerous features require more advanced technique.
“One thing we work on in our instructional trip is how to read water, that is just something you have to practice a lot,” Maynard said. “There are a lot of different features that you have to know to be able to safely go down a river.”
Learning how to maneuver a kayak through waves, holes and strainers — river features created by water flowing over rocks or downed trees — requires looking at the water and knowing what moves are needed to get through them by observation.
Experienced members love sharing their passion for the sport and teaching new members, Gus Koshy said. Many members view kayaking as a way to connect with nature through the river and outdoors.
“You definitely experience the extremes of nature,” said club member Torrey Gorra. “It puts you in a very vulnerable position, you have to rely on your skill and techniques that you’ve learned[…] there are rocks everywhere, waves that stand still.”
This passion for the outdoors translates into activism as the kayakers rely on healthy, free-flowing rivers for their recreation. Club members are asked to help preserve the cleanliness and integrity of the California rivers and the group often partners with environmental groups such as Save Our Shores and Friends of the River.
These groups organize river cleanups and letter-writing campaigns to advocate local and state government officials against construction of dams.
“[Friends of the River] tries to stop dams that are being built that are unnecessary,” Daniel Maynard said. “There’s a lot of politics that go into dams and financial interests into getting them built and they’re a really outdated system.”
Most dams only have a projected lifespan of about 50 years and their construction creates environmental problems by flooding the upstream area and not allowing enough water and nutrients to flow downstream.
“California has 1,400 dams on 900 rivers and that’s kind of an issue for the river folk who are rafting and kayaking on them,” Gus Koshy said. “I think [with] the more people we get out there, there will be a greater appreciation for that kind of space.”
For many, the river becomes more than a source of recreation. Some club alumni have gone on to be rafting guides and structure their lives around the river, and several club members expressed that their lives revolve around kayaking.
“You don’t have time to think about what else is going on, you’re not thinking about class or the stock market or politics,” Koshy said.