Kayaking is a sport that changes lives.  Few people know where it will take them when the current first sweeps them away, but no one is ever the same. While every day on the river is special, there are certain experiences that stand out as unforgettable. Here is my list of 12 of these bucket list experiences.

1. Nail your first combat roll.

After many, many frustrating swims, the first time a paddler holds it together and rolls back up from chaos into sunlight is exhilarating beyond belief. Suddenly there is a self-sufficiency that wasn’t there before, many new rivers open up, and the learning curve skyrockets.
Bonus tip: Create good habits in the beginning by seeking quality instruction. It’s much easier to create good habits than break bad ones.

2. Run Nantahala Falls.

Probably the most famous class III benchmark rapid in the world, Nantahala Falls is a huge stepping stone for beginner kayakers. It represents the first stride into the world of technical whitewater, and it can either be a great confidence booster or a sobering reminder of the river’s power. Fortunately it is a safe swim downstream, and your line will be immortalized by the paparazzi and crowd that forms on the shore during any summer weekend!
Bonus tip: Whatever river features you encounter, square them up and hit them with speed.

3. Surf Z-Dam.

A premier playspot in the Southeast, Z-Dam is a symmetrical hole in Richmond, Va., that is perfect for every manner of trick. Paddlers spending some time there can perfect their spins, cartwheels, loops, phoenix monkeys, and every other hole trick imaginable. Couple this with several other excellent rapids under the Richmond skyline, and you have a great day on the river.
Bonus tip: Try not to get shown up by 12-year-old local, Isaac Hull.

4. Successfully execute a first descent.

First descents represent the transition of theory into reality, one of the most special experiences a paddler can have. Many boaters think that First Ds are only for the top-level pros, but the reality is that new runs and rapids are always out there waiting to be discovered. All you need is the desire to explore.
Bonus tip: Be wary of the legal ramifications of accessing and running stretches of river.

5. Attend Gauley Fest.

With over 5,000 kayakers in attendance, Gauley Fest is the biggest gathering of river people in the world. This event occurs every September, and it also happens to be the largest fundraiser for American Whitewater, a nonprofit that secures access and releases for hundreds of rivers throughout the nation.
Bonus tip: Camp away from the center of the fairgrounds, and bring earplugs.

6. Paddle in our nation’s capital.

D.C. drips of legacy in this sport.  The first waterfall ever run in a kayak was part of the Great Falls section of the Potomac, and that community has long been host to Olympic athletes and world-class extreme racers.  Paddlers of all abilities can enjoy the waters of the Potomac, from paddling flatwater through some of the nation’s most iconic monuments to the peacefulness of class-III Mather Gorge and the maelstrom of class-V Great Falls.
Bonus tip: If you have them, bring multiple different craft. There are creek lines, surf waves, and attainment eddies. The only limitation is your own energy.

7. Compete in the Green Narrows Race.

One of the most prestigious extreme races in the world, the Green Race now boasts over 150 competitors and over 1,000 spectators every year. The experience of paddling into the Green’s marquee rapid, Gorilla, is in my mind the closest that we can come to being a gladiator entering the Coliseum.
Bonus tip: Spend equal time learning the lines of the river and honing your fitness.  You’re going to need both.

8. Squirtboat in the Halls of Karma on the New River Gorge.

Squirtboating is a niche within a niche in the sport of kayaking.  It involves paddling extremely low volume kayaks and using the currents of eddy interfaces to submerge both boat and paddler in the depths. Once underwater, the appeal becomes apparent, and real-world stresses wash away as you experience the river in a more intimate way than ever before.
Bonus tip: Pop a few Ibuprofen beforehand; those boats hurt.

9. Spend a day training with slalom gates.

As far as improving the foundational skills that will be used in perpetuity as a kayaker, there are few things as effective as weaving in and out of slalom gates on whitewater.  As paddlers push the limits of the sport further than ever before, the basics can sometimes be overlooked.  Slalom gates allow a return to these skills by creating class-V moves in class-II water.
Bonus tip: Try to get your hands on a fiberglass slalom boat or a snappy plastic equivalent like the Dagger RPM.

10. Ride the USNWC conveyor belt.

This is everyone’s dream: a whitewater playground that can be run a limitless number of times. The conveyor belt is a true luxury, and is worth experiencing by any paddler at least once.  After you’ve worn yourself out with endless laps of the Comp and Wilderness channels, grab some food and a beer.
Bonus tip: Bring multiple boats.

11. Run a waterfall.

This is the most aesthetic aspect of kayaking: paddling off a cascade and into the plunge pool below.  Approaching a horizon line where the water falls out of sight is an experience only a paddler can have, and it is something that keeps us mesmerized for life. The thrill is the same no matter what the skill level or height of the drop- all that is needed is for your own limits to be pushed.
Bonus tip: A few of the best beginner waterfalls in the Southeast are Valley Falls (Md.), Baby Falls (Tenn.), Hooker Falls (N.C.) and Second Ledge on the Chattooga in Georgia.

12. Do a dawn patrol.  

There’s no better place than on the river to welcome the dawn of a new day. Follow blue herons into the mist as the sun rises.  The possibilities are limitless when you are willing to get up early.
Bonus tip: Try to wipe that perma-grin off your face in the office afterwards… no need to make your coworkers feel bad about their lives.

SUP & Canoe Bucket List Mentions

Paddle the French Broad Canoe Trail

Recently developed by the French Broad Riverkeeper, the 140-mile French Broad Canoe Trail is an excellent opportunity to experience the North Carolina mountains from the water.

Race in the Carolina Cup

The Carolina Cup is the East Coast’s most competitive SUP event.  It is a perfect place to get a feel for the sport, try out the latest products, and brush shoulders with the best athletes in the world.  From beginners to pros, there is something for everyone.

Go for a SUP paddle under the Supermoon

The longest day of the year coincides with the moon’s closest proximity to Earth.  This results in an exceptionally bright full moon, and is the perfect opportunity to go for a night-time paddle. There’s nothing in the world like cutting through glass on a beautiful lake or river with the full moon overhead.