The Next Generation of River Stewards

Montana Kayak Academy has grown its nonprofit program in recent years to offer more whitewater kayaking instruction for kids and adults while promoting river safety, stewardship and a sense of community

By Maggie Dresser
Montana Kayak Academy instructor Liz Poole works with student Kayla Shaw at a roll clinic in a pool at Meadow Lake Resort in Columbia Falls on April 25, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For years, Paul Moffatt would sit at the takeout after running the Wild Mile section of the Swan River just upstream of Bridge Street in Bigfork, chatting with his fellow kayakers and wondering why nobody else was there running the class IV whitewater stretch.

Moffatt had his own core group of friends he paddled with, but he said there wasn’t much of a river community in the Flathead that drew boaters to challenging and technical rivers like the Wild Mile section of the Swan.

“The reality was, there was no kayaking school or safe progression,” Moffatt said.

Growing up in Detroit, Moffatt wasn’t introduced to whitewater kayaking until he was an adult. He got into the sport when he was in his early 30s, but he wished he’d had the opportunity to learn through a structured program as a kid.

“A lot of us learned through trial by fire,” Moffatt said. “We went through some unnecessary struggles without taking the right steps.”

Montana Kayak Academy student Matt Rizzolo practices his technique with instructor David Meyers at a kayak roll clinic in a pool at Meadow Lake Resort in Columbia Falls on April 25, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

About a decade ago, Moffatt was introduced to instructing and mentorship through First Descents, a program that allows kids and adults with cancer diagnoses to experience whitewater kayaking in a safe setting. After his involvement with the program, he decided to start his own nonprofit called the Montana Kayak Academy (MKA) seven years ago, offering youth kayaking instruction for free.

“We started the nonprofit as a platform for kids to learn for free,” Moffatt said. “We didn’t take it seriously like a business, we just wanted to grow the sport.”

Since MKA launched in 2016, the nonprofit has grown from offering free courses tailored to kids to providing a variety of classes, ranging from kayak-rolling clinics to adult and women’s specific classes.

This year, local paddler and instructor David Meyers was hired as the organization’s first executive director. After teaching classes for a few years and taking over organizing the Bigfork Whitewater Festival – an annual Memorial Day weekend kayaking race on the Wild Mile – he’s grown into the role organically.

“I grew up in the Flathead and my goal is to get more folks on the river,” Meyers said.

For the past few years, MKA has offered free beginner courses for kids ages 8 through 17, but the nonprofit recently started expanding to add intermediate and adult classes.

This year, the youth program is expanding to bring more classes along with advanced courses. For example, the Essentials of River Kayaking is designed for kids as an introductory course, allowing them to start their paddling adventure on a lake or a slow-moving section of river, such as the Whitefish River or the main stem of the Flathead River. Students will eventually advance to the more turbulent lower Middle Fork of the Flathead and the North Fork.

For the first time in a handful of years, MKA re-integrated pool sessions into its suite of lessons, with the aim of teaching students how to roll a kayak – a technique used by boaters to flip themselves right-side up when they tip over. MKA participants join an instructor in a heated pool at Meadow Lake Lodge in Columbia Falls.

“It’s the best spot to get people comfortable,” Meyers said.

A Montana Kayak Academy class on the Flathead River in the summer of 2022. Photo courtesy of David Meyers

The Level 3 course allows students to advance to Class II and III rivers and teaches river-reading skills while the Level 4 course introduces slalom kayaking and racing to students.

“Paul wanted to get folks on the river at an earlier age,” Meyers said. “I started at 9 years old, and it makes a big difference when you’re not scared. It’s always easier teaching kids than adults. The Flathead is a perfect spot to get beginners involved.”

MKA is also growing to teach more adult and women’s only courses, which Meyers said are in high demand. Last year, instructor Liz Poole taught two ladies’ classes that both filled up quickly.

Until recently, folks had to organize their own car shuttles to get to and from the river, but Meyers picked up a 12-passenger van this spring to help improve logistics and create more opportunity for students traveling to rivers like the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork outside of Missoula.

For the first time in about eight years, Colorado-based First Descents is returning to the Flathead and MKA nailed down a five-year contract where the nonprofits collaborate to guide adults and adolescents living with cancer diagnoses down the river.

Not only does the program introduce the sport to the participants by teaching technical skills, but Meyers highlighted the positive and therapeutic benefits that the river brings to everyone involved.

“First Descents is a really cool program that got kayakers out teaching and having that impact on people,” Meyers said. “The river is just a very therapeutic place, and it had a big impact on Paul.”

Montana Kayak Academy student Kayla Shaw performs a roll in her kayak with instructor Liz Poole at her side at Meadow Lake Resort in Columbia Falls on April 25, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Since the pandemic triggered a boom in outdoor recreation, Meyers said there’s been a spike in kayaking participation, and he’s noticed a high demand at MKA for all ages. The staff are using this opportunity to educate the public about proper river etiquette and safety while encouraging users to respect the waterways.

MKA is offering three kayak-specific swiftwater rescue courses May 20-21 in Missoula and May 27-28 and June 10-11 in Wester Glacier, and Meyers hopes to host river safety and etiquette awareness talks in the future.

“There are more people seeing the river in a different light,” Meyers said. “We are evolving and expanding courses to start getting people out at a young age and giving them knowledge and respect for the river. We’re creating a generation of river stewards.”

For more information about MKA or to rent river gear, visit www.montanakayakacademy.com.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.