TELLURIDE – The steady roar of roiling water causes my knuckles to go white as I grip my paddle, waiting for my turn to point my kayak into the white-capped waves of the rapid ahead. It’s only Class 2-rated, barely a rapid to get nervous about by most kayakers’ standards, but its been years since I’ve manned my own craft down a river and I feel like I’ve swallowed a dozen large butterflies.
Ahead, beyond the chain of crashing waves that didn’t look this large from ashore, I see
our guide Matt Wilson. He deftly suspends his boat in a small eddy, watching the others
in our group successfully navigate the rollicking, boulder-strewn path ahead. The nervous
fluttering in my stomach subsides as I recall his instructions, and when he raises his
paddle to indicate it’s my turn my apprehension evaporates, replaced with adrenaline.
Wilson is the owner of the Telluride Kayak School, a local kayak instruction outfit that
does more than simply provide an outlet for river adventure.
“We’re essentially allowing people to experience the river as their own guide,” Wilson
says. Every Telluride Kayak School adventure is lead by a professional guide, but ultimately clients get the experience of manning their own craft, whether a traditional kayak or inflatable kayak – something unique in the world of guided river travel.
Telluride Kayak School provides a range of kayak instruction, from day trips designed
to get people out onto the river for a unique adventure in inflatable kayaks and canoes,
to multi-day kayak trips exploring some of the country’s most scenic rivers, to multi-
class instruction packages intended to turn novices into proficient kayakers. TKS also
provides youth kayak instruction through Team Telluride, a program for local teens that
meets twice a week throughout the summer. New to TKS’s instruction docket this year is
lessons in stand-up paddling, the new rave of river travel. The business also offers Swiftwater Rescue classes for experienced boaters.
“We provide everything from trips for people who come to Telluride and just want to get
out on the river, to ten-session instruction packages for people who really want to learn
how to kayak,” Wilson says.
Whether it’s learning to paddle an inflatable kayak for a mellow family trip down the
Valley Floor or gaining the skills to become a competent kayaker, Wilson and his crew of professional kayakers are quite possibly the best people to learn from.
Prior to purchasing the business in 2007, Wilson had already chalked up an impressive kayaking resume. He began his professional guiding career at age 17, going on to become an athlete representative for Dagger Kayaks and later worked with Teton Gravity Research as an boater in their kayak film trilogy. He has traveled to such faraway corners of the world as Chile, Madagascar, Russia, and Nepal, where he has achieved first descents down some of the wildest of rivers. He has also kayaked British Columbia’s Stikine River, one of the sport’s quintessential big water runs.
Although Wilson and his instruction staff (including Andy Bagnall, Chason Russell,
and Stan Pritchard) are some of the most skilled kayakers around, the adage of the
Telluride Kayak School is to provide safe, thorough instruction for any level boater.
“The key is to get them intrigued in the sport, but also to keep them at a good comfort
level,” Wilson explains of TKS’s teaching techniques. “It can be terrifying to be upside-
down in kayak, so it’s really important to have a good understanding of what our students
are going through and communicate with them throughout their experience.”
As I bob past Wilson, river water still running in my eyes and my heart thumping
wildly in my chest after successfully kayaking my first rapid in years, he shoots
me a congratulatory smile. Although the Class 2 rapid is child’s play to a kayaker
like Wilson, he seems to know how I feel having accomplished the feat. Kayaking
is his passion, Wilson admits, and when you’re on the river with him, it shows.