Estela Wilderness Education…
I think of myself as a well rounded outdoorsman, and paddling a canoe down a river or across a lake is something I’ve done more then a few times. However I never had any formal training in canoeing, and when I heard about Kevin Estela’s canoe course I couldn’t pass it up…
I know what you’re thinking, “Tony when you rent a canoe they always give you a safety course before they get you on the water”. Well that’s all well and fine, but I have taken courses instructed by Kevin in the past, and I knew this course was going to be much more than a safety briefing.
I met Kevin about 4 years ago at an Outdoor Survival gathering in Connecticut. He was one of many there doing seminars on different outdoor skills. Kevin stood out in his teaching ability and enthusiasm and it was easy to see how much he enjoyed sharing his skills with others. After that trip I did some research and found out Kevin had quite the Outdoorsman resume. Not only did he grow up learning about outdoor survival skills from his father who would wow him with stories of survival in the Philippine jungles during the Japanese occupation of WWII, but he studied under top outdoorsman and took numerous field courses. He is head instructor of The Wilderness Learning Center which I had the pleasure of graduating from a couple of years ago. His passion for educating others has led Kevin to becoming a full time teacher of History at Bristol High school in Connecticut. Kevin Estela is still head instructor at the Wilderness Learning Center, but has started teaching private courses under Estela Wilderness Education. It just so happens to be that Kevin has 10 years experience as a canoe and Kayak guide on the very river this course is on. So yes, not only was I going to attend this course, but I had two of my friends who had never even sat in a canoe before come along as well.
We all met at Mainstream Canoe located on CT’s Farmington River at 11:30am. 1O students showed up on this cool rainy day in June. The temps hovered around 60F and although it had been raining hard all night long, now just a cloudy mist blew through the air. Kevin came out and greeted us and welcomed us in to the canoe shop. After getting some paperwork taking care of we started our class right at noon. Each of us was given an “Introduction to Canoeing” manual to take home for further reference. He first began with a little history lesson about canoeing. Never once looking away from us he engaged us with discussion about how the canoe was used to access much of America and the different types of canoes that were used. Then we went into the anatomy of a canoe and a paddle. Taking his time and making sure each student understood the design and function of each part. From there we discussed safety equipment that should be carried and how to properly use each item. Very well spoken and never looking at any book he explained everything in simple terms that were easily understood. He gave examples that really hit home with me as I have had a couple of mishaps in a canoe before. He gave us the details of our trip that lie ahead and some of the possible dangers. With class 1 and 2 rapids in our route there was the real possibility of flipping the canoe. The water temp was a chilly 50F. Combining the water temperature and the 60F degree air temp would put us at risk of hypothermia if left exposed too long. The triple threat was the rain showers that were in our forecast. Kevin is a safety first type of guy and spent a lot of time on how not to get into trouble and on how to get out of trouble if you find yourself there.
After we were all confident with the safety aspect we took a walk to the river’s edge to learn how to read the river. He showed and explained in great detail about eddies and how they are formed. We spent a good amount of time on upstream and downstream V’s and how to navigate them. The students were very intrigued and I didn’t see a yawn in the group. There was one anxious 7 year old boy that wanted nothing more but to get out on the water, so after Kevin answered some questions and felt confident that we all understood how to avoid and handle river hazards we moved on to more hands on lessons. Each student then learned proper body position, portaging, carrying a canoe, proper knots for tying a canoe down, and packing a canoe. Finally it was time to pick our canoes, get fitted for a life jacket, and get on the river!After choosing if we wanted to go tandem or solo we loaded into the van and drove a little over seven miles up river. The rain was still holding off as I looked up into the gray sky above. We kept our gear minimum as instructed in the detailed emails that Kevin had sent us prior to the trip dictating exactly what we should bring and how we should dress. Each student carried their canoe as taught by Kevin. Most did it in pairs choosing to take advantage of the manpower we had.
Once at the river we learned how to properly launch, enter, and exit the canoe. He explained our route, and went over safety again, quizzing us as he went along to insure we understood everything. Once everyone was on the river we moved to flat water and Kevin began his instruction on proper canoe strokes. He spent time with each student making sure they understood how the stroke was performed, why each stroke was needed, and when to utilize the stroke. We all performed different turns after watching his demonstrations and soon everyone was confident in their ability. Kevin explained the importance of having a lead canoe and a sweep in group dynamics and their roles. We all took turns being the lead as he would remain the sweep to quickly assist any paddler that needed help. It would prove to be a busy day for Kevin as the sweep.
As we got started down river I was chosen as the first lead canoe as I had the most experience out of the students. As I paddled away, Kevin told everyone to maintain 3 boat lengths from the canoe in front of them. A few would learn the hard way why that was important. In the distance I saw the first class 1 rapid ahead. Then movement in the trees above stole my attention as a majestic Bald Eagle swooped down and flew over our heads. At that moment I knew this was going to be a fantastic float trip. As I neared the rapids I spotted the downstream V that would be my course. Once through I looked back at my friend Josh who was navigating the rapids sideways and then backwards. I laughed out loud when he came through the rapid still seated in his canoe. He then floated towards an eddy and performed an unknowing perfect 180 degree eddy turn. I congratulated him in my own sarcastic way, and he returned the gesture with a “thumbs up”, although I am pretty sure it wasn’t his thumb he was holding up. When all were through Kevin had us pull off to the bank and get out of the canoes for little surprise. We walked up on an access road spotting some wild edibles along the way, and then he took us to a natural spring. We refilled our bottles with the great tasting ice cold water and headed back to the river. Kevin went over the rudder stroke with a few that had some problems keeping their boat straight through the rapids, and then we were off again.
In one of the emails Kevin sent us prior to the trip he told of some great trout fishing spots, so of course I brought my fishing gear. I fished along the way picking up a trout here and there. No longer the lead canoe due to my fishing, I actually was in the back of the pack with Kevin as we approached our first class 2 rapid. The first few made it through with no problem but then two canoes got too close causing one to get pinned sideways against a rock. Kevin started making his way over to them, but another student got there first, and although the student was trying to help, he instead sent both students in the pinned canoe swimming. The students in the water did exactly what Kevin had earlier instructed. They kept their feet forward, hands up, and floated into a nice calm stretch. Once they were safe Kevin went after their boat and I picked them up in my canoe and ferried them over to their boat which Kevin already had dry and ready for them. Three people in total overturned their canoe during the trip and each time Kevin, in the sweep position, was able get to them quickly and assist them back into their boat.
The rain started to fall pretty heavy and we took refuge under a bridge. Everyone was in high spirits although a few were a little wet and cold. We had a few more stops planned in the trip including a detour to a great fishing spot Kevin knew about, but due to the cool rainy weather and some very wet and cold students Kevin insisted we paddle the last couple of miles straight back to the canoe shop. Even though we were all having a blast, no one argued. When the rain let up to a steady drizzle we were off and enjoyed one more class 1 rapid with out incident. There was tons of local wild life to view on this stretch of river; such as Mergansers, other water fowl, deer, beaver, hawks, and a few trout which jumped here and there grabbing a fly. Probably the most abundant local wild life was the fly fisherman that braved the rain in their waders. Kevin warned about them and explained that we were to pass behind them when possible. I almost felt bad when I caught a trout in front of them in a spot their fly just couldn’t reach; almost felt bad that is.
When we made it back to the canoe shop rain was still falling. Kevin had promised one of his gourmet camp fire dinners at the end of the course and he wasn’t going to let a little rain stop him from keeping his word. Any who wanted to stay and camp out on the canoe shop’s property were more than welcome to. All but one student stayed and camped as she had plans. The rest of us ate a delicious four course meal and washed it down with a few bottles of Meade which I brought. There was a lot of laughs and at the end of the day all went to sleep warm, dry, and with full bellies. In the morning the sun peeked out and our host surprised us with a big bacon and egg breakfast. Eventually this trip came to an end, but not before I learned some new things, experienced some great paddling, and made great new friends!
Although this was far from Kevin’s first course that he has taught, it was the first course offered by Estela Wilderness Education LLC. I found it to be very well organized, entertaining, and informative. I was not shocked when my not so outdoorsy friends that came along inquired about his next outdoor course. I’ve yet to meet someone who enjoys teaching as much as Kevin Estela and I look forward to sharing many more campfires with him in the near future!