Better Know a Kayak Instructor – Marna Powel

Monday, 29 June 2009
Marna PowelWelcome to another instalment of, “Better Know an Instructor”.

Marna Powel has been teaching kayaking for over 10 years as an ACA Open Water Coastal Kayak instructor with the Adaptive Paddling Endorsement. She is also owner of Kayak Zak’s which specializes in adaptive paddling instruction.

Marna was very kind to take the time to answer my questions and get her to open up about herself and what motivates her to get out teaching others.

Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not out paddling/teaching?
Actually on my days off I like to go paddle.  Winter and spring in this area has incredible whitewater runs.  My husband and I also have a small welding business and since one of my degrees is in business administration with an accounting emphasis (gag me!) there really is a ton of paperwork involved in operating two businesses and a household.  On a more positive note, we have eight acres on the coast bordering Redwood National Park. It’s a lot of hard work and I love our goats, dogs and organic garden with greenhouse.  Michael and I have been together for 21 years.

I'm also a graphic artist and I just don't seem to have much time anymore for pens, but I do a lot on the computer with graphic programs.  In the past I've drawn many logos and event T-shirts (WCSKS 20th anniversary, Gauly Festival 2002, Trinity River Whitewater Festival, many more).  

I love, love, love to play with fire!  Fire Poi.  It is very addicting and since I'm too hyperkinetic, I’m not much of a drinker and I'm sort of a recluse, it makes me socially acceptable at parties to spin fire.   Since I draw and like fire I also really like torch welding and the plasma cutter. I use the fire poi as a teaching tool with kayaking students.  Did you know that spinning fire and kayaking on water are really the same skill sets?

What got you interested in teaching kayaking in the first place?
I just got thrown into it. I kept taking friends out kayaking for their first trips and there was this outfitter who had an injury and there just were not any other instructors in this area for him to hire so in desperation he called me. Luckily, I am a creative person and was able to wing it.  I did do my best to learn everything I could about kayaking, and continue to do so.

Most instructors mentor through some sort of ranks.  It was sort of like tossing a kid into the water and telling her to sink or swim.  I was hungry to learn from others but the beauty of it all is that I developed my own little tool box of analogies and methods since I did not have anyone to copy.  When Ginni Callahan created the Instructors' Gathering at the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium (WCSKS) that first year I was so surprised to find that all these really great well-known instructors actually wanted to learn from me.  I felt like the "Velveteen Rabbit."  I admit that now I take pride in hearing other instructors use my words and methods. It doesn't matter to me that anyone knows where these ideas came from.  What really matters is that I've made some sort of positive influence on another person's life and on the sport in general.

You specialize in providing adaptive paddling instruction. How did you get into that?
I am an adaptive paddler myself!  I blew my right knee in 1972.  We used to cut up Stingray bicycles and make what is now called BMX bikes.  I was probably better at building bikes than riding them.  That's how I hurt my knee.  Today they would have just repaired it and given me some PT.  This was before Title 9 was enacted. I was fourteen and girls had only been allowed to wear pants to school for a year.  I can really go into some sort of tirade here so I'll try to keep it brief.  No doctor would even consider operating and leaving a scar that "would not look pretty in a dress."  I gimped around for 25 years before having ACL replacement (I could not walk at all without falling at that point).  It is great to see the results of Title 9 today.  I love seeing young athletic women on the cover of the sports pages these days!

I did not grow up athletic.  I was a month shy of turning 40 when I accidentally came home with a sea kayak one day.  Michael, my handsome hubby, and I both gave it a try at one of our local lagoons.  I got about three feet from shore when angels started singing and my whole life changed forever.  I just felt like I was home.  I was so astounded that I could actually do this.  I still feel this way every time I get into a kayak.   After all the time I’ve spent in kayaks I just always feel so amazed that I can actually do this at all (much less; well!) and also just so at home!  The next thing I knew I was taking a whitewater class. Since I'm a gimp I really can't portage so I always had to run all the rapids I would have preferred to walk around.  Your learning curve is pretty steep that way.  I learned how to use my body and paddle efficiently.  When you limp for 25 years it takes a toll on other joints so I really had to learn about ergonomics and dealing with disabilities.  Being a creative person with a lot of mechanical ability and a huge love of kayaking gave me such an interest in being able to get other persons onto the water who never dreamed they might be able to do this.  I really do KNOW what it is like and it is just such an amazing feeling to be able to dance on the water when your body does not allow you to dance on land!

It is interesting to me that today I am seen by others as an athlete. People think I am good at rolling a kayak in crappy stuff but really, I'm just not so good at swimming.  It is so much scarier to me to think of portaging or swimming so that makes it pretty easy to stay calm in crap and brace or roll.   I did have my share of long, cold swims in the learning process though!

There was an American Canoe Association Adaptive Workshop offered on the west coast a few years back and I jumped at the chance to go.  Three of us came down from this area and we were the only ones who knew how to use tools and materials so we all really excelled in the hard skills making adaptations.  Besides being kayakers, my other friends were a building contractor and a welder.  I'm actually the only one of us in the area who is an ACA instructor.  I think I'm the only adaptive instructor on the coast anywhere between San Francisco and Portland.  I’m positive that Kayak Zak’s is the only all-inclusive outfitter in terms of taking whole families and not just “abled” or “disabled” persons.  I don’t actually know of any others on the West Coast but if they are out there I’d love to hear from them and give them a link on the Kayak Zak’s website.

What is the best part of dealing with that type of clientele?
"That" type?  Many of us are adaptive paddlers.  Find me someone over the age of forty who does not have joint pain!  I teach ergonomic paddling to everyone.  Even with the rentals, our ten minute mini-lesson gives people more than so many six hour classes elsewhere.  People come back from our trips feeling good since they are using major muscles, being efficient, avoiding injury and we deal with conditions they might already have.  

It is so damned gratifying to see people having so much fun!  I have countless stories about individuals who have turned their lives around in very positive ways because I took them kayaking.  When you take someone whose body does not really do what their mind would like for it to do and you enable them to enjoy the outdoors, the wildlife, the freedoms, fresh air, and all that; plus move and dance on the water, you just can't imagine the abject joy from some of these folks.  There are a several individuals who were so depressed they were about ready to kill themselves because of their diseases/ disabilities and then I took them kayaking.  It has happened now several times.  One of these persons now owns three kayaks and is on a board helping other disabled persons to live independently.  The hardest part is always getting a person off the water and back on land into the daily world.

What is the biggest frustration?
I started Kayak Zak's partially because so many people were contacting me and I knew how to help them but did not have equipment or insurance.   Having an actual company took care of the initial frustration but Kayak Zak's is a for-profit company and I subsidize the adaptive out of pocket.  Since I am not grant funded or a non-profit, there are certain pieces of equipment I would love to purchase but really cannot afford.  My other frustration is the lack of access at many launch sites.  Some of the sites with wheelchair access really don't have kayak access.  For instance, a ramp with a bunch of switchbacks might be wheelchair accessible but how do you get a kayak down it?

What are the top three tips you can provide to a new instructor who would like to specialize in adaptive instruction?
  1. In all outdoor recreation you have to be great at contingency planning.  You really have to ask a lot of questions, check conditions constantly, and bring more stuff than you think you might possibly need.
  2. You must be "MacGyver."  You absolutely have to be able to use tools, work with a variety of materials, be very creative with whatever is on hand, ask lots of questions, and think outside the box.
  3. Go get a job driving a Dial-A-Ride bus and actually listen to the folks riding the bus.  Seriously! Get experience working with a variety of people from all walks of life, ages, and various abilities and LISTEN to them.  Ask how they deal with their individual circumstances. No amount of classes can take the place of working with a huge variety of people and paying attention!

What is your favourite piece of specialized gear for teaching?
Duct tape.  Pipe foam.  Zip ties.  Yoga pad.  Old bicycle inner tube.  A good knife.  Really specialized stuff.  Do not ever go anywhere (even on land) without a knife, some duct tape and pipe foam!  I don’t carry a purse but I generally have at least two knives on me at any given time.

Favourite piece of general paddling gear? Why?
My Kokatat dry suit.  It keeps my leg brace dry!  Besides being such a great company (they give to every great cause plus many they never advertise) anyway and such a quality product, they actually made me my own pattern. I think I'm not supposed to tell because it is so custom and they don't do that.  My shoulders are too wide for women's but I like the ladies bottom.  It is a hybrid men's/women's with three extra inches around in the right leg for my brace and a couple of other modifications.  I can't imagine what it did to set back production to make this for me.  I can't even begin to tell you how much I appreciate this.  As far as I know it is the most custom suit they ever made. I hope they aren’t mad at me now for blabbing.  Talk about adaptive...Kokatat rocks!

What is the funniest experience when out on the water?
I've always been class clown so this is a really hard question.  Besides being known for adaptive instruction I also made a name for myself in cardboard kayak races.  My team is called the Humboldt Honeys and I'm the one in the pictures with the flaming paddle.  I once put a cardboard kayak into a river rapid as a stunt at a whitewater festival. On the bottom of the kayak I painted " Help Me!" and on the top "US Kayak Swim Team” with an American flag with a peace sign.  The whole thing was pretty funny.

If there was anything you could change within the paddling community, what would it be? Why?
Wow, you ask tough questions. Oh, I so love paddlers and the whole paddling community so this is hard but...I would want to convince some of the better paddlers to stop trying so hard to be so elitist.  Don't drop names.  Don't put beginners down.  Don’t disrespect a person’s boat because yours is “better.” Don't make others feel inadequate just because you can do something well.  You bore me with this attitude and I want no part of it.  Years ago in another life I was around a lot of people who were in movies, on TV, in famous bands, whatever.  Same story.  Some of those folks were very real people with heart.  Some were not.  As a sport, kayaking is so wonderful just because a person can take it as easy or adrenaline-filled as she chooses.  If a low-end recreational kayak gives someone joy and they are happy then that is a great thing!  I’ve seen too many people die or have permanent injuries because they were so good at the sport, had great equipment and kept pushing their skills too far and too fast. I guess I’m saying “Lighten up, have some heart, and be real!”

What general advice would you give to a new instructor?
Always make the class be about your student(s). This is not about what a great paddler you are.  This is about your student.  If you are the instructor then it is to be assumed that you are qualified.  Don't show off.  Don't brag.  Listen to the student.  Hear his/her fears and address them.  Tailor your class to the persons you are teaching.  Don't insist on "going for the summit" if it is not appropriate for that person that day. BELIEVE IN YOUR STUDENT. I like to say that I will never be the world's greatest paddler but I might be able to teach someone else to be!  Nothing gives me more satisfaction than seeing a former student excel and go on to be a great kayaker.  It is so good to know that I got someone off to a good start and that he or she took that gauntlet and ran with it.  It just really feels great to see others succeed knowing I set them on that path.

Question I ask everybody, what’s playing on the old 8-Track?
Ha!  My first car had an after-market 8-track!  I was so full of myself over it. These days my IPod has such a weird mix.  I love all the Buddha Bar stuff and mix it with old school rock, new alternative rock, the Aqua Velvets, a smidgen of hip hop and lots of weird multicultural stuff.  Techno is really great to spin fire to.  Oh, if Susan Boyle records an album I’ll have her stuff on there too (maybe I just love underdogs).  If I'm home I listen to the world around me: the surf pounding below, the kazillion birds in the estuary, and all those frogs.  You can't imagine how loud the frogs are!  Did I mention that I live in the most beautiful spot on the planet?

David Johnston

David Johnston

David Johnston has been introducing people to the sport of sea kayaking for the past 15 years. He is a senior instructor trainer with Paddle Canada and teaches for several paddling schools in Ontario, Canada. Full Bio.

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