You may not need education, but I wouldn’t kayak without it

This is a response to Tim Shuff’s article We Don’t Need No Education: Credential Overproduction in the Kayaking World, which appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Adventure Kayak Magazine.

Full disclosure: I’m a millennial. I’m of the demographic Tim Shuff characterizes as “busy paying off the student loans for the PhDs on their Starbucks resumes.” I may not have a “Starbucks resume” (and isn’t entirely certain what that is) but I’m trying my hardest in a world where the generational divide can seem downright cavernous. And over the past year or so, I’ve become a kayaker. I’m writing this not to argue, but simply to share my viewpoint. Still reading? Good on you for your willingness to listen to a millennial!

Shuff makes a lot of excellent points, and his overall message (as I understand it) is valid. Kayakers, especially those new to the community, get bogged down by all the training and certification hoops they’re asked to jump through. The wall of intimidating acronyms (ACA, IDW, IT, SEIC, and on) is large and stands prominently in the newcomer’s path down to the water.

Veterans of the sport understand that it’s not the only path. That there’s another route to becoming a kayaker: the “caveman” route. The figure-it-out-as-you-go route. The option to quietly side-step officiality and simply trot down to the surf. So why don’t we millennials take this simpler, nobler path?

The thicket of acronyms is so unavoidable that newcomers might not even see that other route. Maybe that thought has genuinely never occurred to them. Or maybe it has. Maybe they know that the “caveman” route exists. But here’s the thing: that path isn’t free of barriers, either. It comprises lots of obstacles that exist in the lives of us youngsters. There are emotional barriers. There are social barriers. There are financial barriers. We didn’t choose to put those hurdles there, but there they are.

Let’s address the helicopter in the room. Yes, I am one of the earlier products of “helicopter parenting.” My parents were concerned for my safety, and wanted me to know that they were proud of me. And yes, I’m now rather insecure. I’m anxious, I’m timid, I’m nervous. I don’t blame my parents; I had a great childhood and I love the person I’m growing to be. Being helicoptered made me sensitive, thoughtful, and honest. It also made me too terrified to buy a boat, drag it down to Lake Erie, and hop in. What may sound like an adventure to some sounds like a cold and watery grave to this helicoptee. Blame my upbringing, blame my generation, blame whatever you want – still, I could never do it.

Certifications give me something I value above thrill: peace of mind. They give me confidence in my ability to be safe, to live to paddle another day. The confidence they afford me allows me to actually relax and have fun while paddling, rather than worry with each stroke. At the end of the class, the instructor gives me the pat on the back that I need to feel secure. If it weren’t for a class, an instructor, a credential, I’d never have the gumption to get out on the water. Credentials empower the Meek of Heart to conquer the intimidating emotional barrier to paddling.

Classes help with the social barrier, too. You may be thinking that I don’t need an acronymed instructor for that – I should just go out and find some kayaking buddies! Well, maybe that’s feasible in mystical places like The West Coast, where there’s a kayak shop on every corner and paddlers on every pond. I live in Toledo, Ohio. There’s a paddling shop an hour away. There’s one small livery just out of town, but they offer no instruction. There is a relatively new kayaking club, which is a haven and a blessing.

I wouldn’t have found that club, though, if it weren’t for my ACA class. The class was a gateway to meeting the very few fellow kayakers in my area. And given what I’ve already told you about being helicoptered, you can probably guess that I’d prefer not to paddle alone. For people who live in places like I do, the social barrier is a real obstacle to paddling. It’s classes and instructors that welcome us into the sport with open arms.

But even if I could find paddling buds on my own, I’d still be up a creek without… well, you know. When Shuff said that my ilk are busy paying off student loans, he was absolutely right. I was ushered directly off the high school graduation stage and into an expensive 4-year program at a big, impressive (and credentialed!) university. I graduated with a little over $33,000 of debt. I make about $23,000 per year. I live in one of the most affordable cities in the nation, and my monthly bills total about $1000 (that’s with minimum payments). All told, if I want to make meaningful progress toward getting out of debt, there’s not much left over for buying ‘yaks.

So I’m left looking for a boat to borrow. The most economical option is to rent from a livery, but as we already discussed, there’s only one in the area (and that one stretch of river will get old pretty quick), and I’m nervous to just head out on my own. Once again, credentials are my answer. I can go out with a certified instructor for a fraction of the cost of buying my own gear. I can take an ACA class, which is a bit more expensive, but still within my means, and ultimately empowers me to explore other options. Of course I want to buy my own gear someday. But for now, these options are the only ones that make financial sense to this debt-saddled millennial.

So yes, there are two routes to the water: taking the path through the certification jungle, or hurdling the emotional, social, and financial barriers that exist in the lives of people my age. So what’s a girl to choose? Sure, the certification route is time-consuming and bureaucratic and not right for everyone. But the other obstacles can be bigger, badder, and real-er. Certification isn’t the only way, but for some, it might be the best way.

Should we be admonished by the elders of the sport for choosing the route that makes the most sense for us? I think not. After all, no matter what route we take, we’re getting ourselves down to the water. Whether it’s the fast and furious dash of Shuff’s generation, or the slow, methodical crawl of mine – new people are paddling. Isn’t that what we all want?


2 thoughts on “You may not need education, but I wouldn’t kayak without it

  1. Lauren, I replied to Adventure Kayak’s article by Tim Shuff:”We Don’t Need No Education”. They chose to print only a fraction of my Letter, so I had the chance to submit it in full to the Tsunami Rangers website, along with a response to Nancy Soares’ full-throated endorsement of Adventure Kayak as a sea kayaking resource. Here is that Tsunami Rangers post:

    I’m glad you enjoy Adventure Kayak. For me, as a from-the-beginning reader of Sea Kayaker Magazine, there is no comparison. I miss Sea Kayaker’ seriousness and also, under Chris Cunningham’s editorship, its increasing independence from sea kayaking industry groupthink and boosterism. Also, Sea Kayaker was a place where thoughtful, and often long, and often contentious Letters to the Editor on serious issues involving the activity would be aired and debated–Adventure Kayak has not proven (lately) to be a similar forum; a bit of a Letter I submitted appeared in the most recent issue. This is the full (though brief) text of what I submitted:

    Tim Shuff’s article on expert-itis in the Fall issue airs John Dowd’s thesis that a parasitic host of coaches, educators, and experts are helping suffocate sea kayaking. Noting that long-kayak sales are down by half and that waters once teeming with kayakers are now empty, Dowd and Shuff ascribe much of the decay to the “bureaucratization” of the activity by people obsessed with hierarchies of training, education, and certification.

    But another, simpler explanation would postulate that sea kayaking is undergoing an inevitable contraction of its numbers back to the quite small but sustainable population of those mariners really involved in the activity. This hardy group– the “natural constituency” for open-water kayaking– is what remains after the crowds drawn in by industry trade group hype and boosterism have all gone home. In-line skating, sailboard windsurfing, soon SUP, to name just a few, have each seen or will see a similar meteoric rise and then the inevitable erosion of interest, leaving the field free for the more committed to enjoy those activities in relative and welcome obscurity.

    Dowd and Shuff can rail against their imagined coach/instructor bogeymen, unaware of the irony that the industry boosterism that artificially inflated the population of “sea kayakers” also inevitably generated that selfsame host of bureaucratizers and functionaries that so arouse their ire. Dowd himself was a founder and prime mover of TASK, the Trade Association of Sea Kayaking; if he requires someone to blame for sea kayaking’s alleged case of expert-itis, he need only look in the mirror.

    Carl White, Curmudgeon

    I have read your article in Adventure, and will offer my perspective in a Letter to them, which I will share with you also. I fall within your caveman category, but I am a highly intelligent and motivated caveman, and there is no reason you couldn’t be also.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks much for sharing your thoughts, Carl. Very insightful about the “meteoric rise and inevitable erosion” effect — spot on. I’m not sure I’m quite on the same page with you re: the “industry boosterism” led to more bureaucracy (assuming you’re referring to the apparent obsession with certifications). If anything, I think the boosterism encouraged those of us who are serious about the sport out of the woodwork to seek out classes and certs that have always (or for awhile, at least) been available, siphoning us relatively small faction off of the great milieu of one-time “enthusiasts.”


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