A Monumental Season: Whitewater Kayaking at The White Mountain School

“This season was really special,” says senior Lucy Nielsen. “We got to paddle runs that the program rarely can. The team was brave, strong and enthusiastic. Coach Matthew Toms told us it was his best season with the program yet.”
Lucy’s words are echoed by the coaching staff who has recognized this year’s group of paddlers as extraordinary in a number of ways.

Matthew notes, “the number of girls on the whitewater team this year is fantastic. Our girl to boy ratio is exactly 50-50, and in a sport where there are far fewer female athletes, this is really great news. Two of our six coaches are also women, and they are really great role models for our athletes. What’s more, the attitude is universally positive amongst all the paddlers. They are very supportive of each other. The advanced students take time to acknowledge the successes of the beginners. Whitewater can be a cold and sometimes scary sport. We often get back late for dinner. Students occasionally go for long, cold swims. This is a sport where there is often plenty to complain about. This season, however, we have not heard a single complaint!
“This year we were able to take nine students down the Gale River in Franconia, including the class 4 gorge at the end. It is challenging, but beautiful, and it is right here in our backyard. It’s a run that we were only able to do this season because of the great talent in the program. We also ran the Upper Ammonoosuc River headwaters from behind the Mount Washington Resort. We ran the East branch of the Pemigewasset River and the Mad River, too,” said Matthew. “The season was great. There was a lot of snow melt feeding the rivers, and we had consistent water all season.”

Maria Cartagena ‘18, who is new to the sport, added, “The season was thrilling. At first it was scary. I had to learn the lingo, what it meant to “peel out,” what an “eddy” is. But everyone was really welcoming. My teammates took time out of their runs to explain things to me. One of my favorite experiences was paddling the Mad River. It was really rocky and we had to be strategic. It was a challenge, but it was also a lot of fun.”

The White Mountain School’s whitewater kayaking program has long served as an example to peer schools and boarding schools across the country for its established safety and accreditation standards and dedication to serving paddlers of all abilities. Coaches Matthew Toms and Paddy Foran, two of the coaches at WMS, also note the skill of this season’s paddlers. They said, “We have about five athletes that are very strong, another six or so that are growing in their experience and about six beginners.” Four White Mountain School whitewater paddlers recently completed the American Canoe Association’s (ACA) Swiftwater Rescue Course. They did this on their own time, outside of their commitments to the team. Their instructor, Mike Gatewood, with the White Mountain Swiftwater Rescue Team reported proudly that the four WMS paddlers (Lucy Nielsen ‘15, Banner Cole ‘18, Kyra Rauschenberg ‘15 and Sam Solmitz ’15) made up his best group of swiftwater rescue students in his ten years of teaching the course. “If these students find themselves in, or stumble upon a rescue scene, they are going to know what to do,” said Matthew. “They will be able to manage it well. It’s also really important for our program. We have that many more trained people who know how to rescue themselves or others from difficult situations.”

This summer, Lucy will take her paddling skills and new certification and put them to use on the Kennebec River in Maine. She will be working as a “lead paddler” and videographer for kayakers and boaters with Adventure Bound. Next year, Lucy is headed to Bennington College, where she is looking forward to taking advantage of their Field Work Term, a program she compares to the opportunities she’s experienced during Field Course here at WMS. “It’s similar,” she says, “but each year you get to take seven weeks and go somewhere in the world for an internship. In the future I’d like to become an advocate or an activist for indigenous or native people who off our rivers.” Lucy is following in the footsteps of some other White Mountain alumnae/i who have taken their experiences in the School’s whitewater program and grown them into careers.

Jan Wojtasinski ‘08 (University of New Hampshire) worked for Adventure Treks from 2012 to 2014, before joining a digital agency & marketing consultancy firm in Boston called, 829 Studios. He has also worked for Zoar Outdoors, one of the leading kayak instruction schools in the East, as a kayak instructor. Fellow alumnus Dylan Evans ‘11 also works at ZOAR as a kayak instructor. Kyllan “Ky” Gilmore ‘08 (Cornell University) worked as a paddling instructor in Cornell’s outdoor education department.Mike Wessler ‘09 (Plymouth State University) was named a Houghton Duane Scholar at WMS for his leadership and deep respect for the mountains, rivers and environment. Mike is now a professional whitewater kayaking instructor with The Chewonki Foundation.
To view photos of The White Mountain School whitewater kayaking program in action, please click here.

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