Our 18-year-old kayaking instructor, looked like he'd just stepped off a skateboard in California, so his claim to be Chile's best kayaker seemed about as valid as Kato Kaelin's claim that he could count higher than 10 without assistance.
Apparently, Tatan took up kayaking when he was 8, went over his first waterfall when he was 12, and broke his back when he was 16. He now competes internationally when he isn't working for Cascada, the only kayaking school in Chile.
"Sure, anyone can kayak," Tatan explained, trying to squelch any doubts my girlfriend, Signe, and I had about coughing up $75 each for two days of lessons. Normally, he would have charged $100, but I was having trouble getting that much out of my overworked Visa card, so Signe and I got 25 percent off a journalistic discount.
Anyone may be able to kayak, but not everyone can get into the school ... or even find it. Located in Chile's southern resort town of Pucon, Cascada doesn't have an office, and the company's cell phone works about as often as a Russian public official. The only way to get in touch with these people is to hang out all day at a hostel in Pucon called Ecole and wait for one of the school's representatives to swing by. We were fortunate: We only had to wait two days. Ecole: a Story Unto Itself
Ecole is a story even a sitcom unto itself. The hostel is filled with and run by a consortium of young ecological gringos, pro-facial hair elder trekkers from northern California, and world-class kayakers, all bonded by a profound appreciation of the Grateful Dead.
The first day of class, our intrepid band, joined by two affluent Chilean families, trekked to a nearby lake to learn the basics. Our first goal was to get all the gear on: wetsuit, paddle jacket, life jacket, and spray deck (the thing that keeps the water from getting between you and the kayak). A spray deck goes on like a skirt and looks really cool when you're in the kayak, but walking around you look like you're wearing a lopsided tutu.
While preparing my kayak, I noticed that a small crowd of spectators had gathered, probably to watch what they thought was beach ballet.
We eventually wedged ourselves into the boats and pushed off. Learning to paddle should more specifically be called "learning to paddle straight." A kayak seems to have a mind of its own. It instinctively wants to go any direction except, well, forward. Paddling is a series of compensating strokes. Signe's technique, for example, was a series of S-turns, which from a distance made it look like she was running a giant slalom course.
After we mastered moving in one direction, it was time to roll our boats the famous Eskimo roll, or giro in Spanish just in case, presumably, we needed to impress someone with a cool kayaking maneuver. I was first. The idea is that while upside-down and underwater, you're supposed to stick your paddle out of the water, turn it and, in a single motion, push on the paddle, snap your hips, and pull your head back out of the water without sucking more than 2 liters of water up your nose.
After I got the hang of this, I got a bit carried away. I was rolling every five seconds. I was as excited as a yuppie having a midlife crisis in his first turbo Porsche, showing off for everyone. "Signe, watch this!" "Hey, you on the beach, watch this!" I bellowed.
After an hour or so, the excitement wore off and I realized that during my 150 rolls I'd accumulated an entire pond in my head.
It rained the second day and the air was cold enough to see your breath. But it seemed silly to cancel the lessons; I mean, staying dry is not exactly the object. However, the two Chilean families backed out.
In a Class I rapid, Tatan showed us how to "ferry," which is kayak-speak for going back and forth across the river. Naturally, you can't just point your kayak across the river and paddle, because you'd end up about 20 meters downstream from the point at which you were aiming, and believe me, it's extremely difficult to make it look like this is what you intended. Instead, you have to aim your boat between the place you want to go and, I think, Afghanistan.