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Thrill of the Water : When not working as an aerospace engineer, Alan Baty directs canoe training program through Valley Aquatics office.

August 13, 1993|JOHN MORELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; John Morell is a regular contributor to Valley Life.

After canoeing through a formidable stretch of the Kern River recently, one of Alan Baty's students paddled alongside and asked why he maneuvered through the rapids the way he did. "I don't have any idea," he replied. "I must be getting good at this."

Baty's goal is to teach his students enough about canoeing that the ability to turn in white-water rapids is second nature. He directs the 10-year-old canoe training program for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks' Valley Aquatics office. Baty and a team of nine instructors spend a few days each week from February through November teaching novices the ways of the water.

Introductory classes are held in the friendly confines of the Hubert Humphrey Pool in Pacoima. Those who want more in-depth training can move on to the sessions on Lake Balboa, and for the brave, there are moving-water classes on the Kern River where they can test their skills on the rapids.

"We once had a grandfather who took the beginning class because he wanted to take his grandson fishing in a rowboat. He did pretty well, and we convinced him to take classes at the lake, which he also enjoyed. Eventually, we got him to take on the river."

The canoeing classes are made up of no more than 16 students. The minimum age is 12, and the oldest student so far has been 67. "We just require an ability to paddle, swim a little and listen," Baty says. Safety is heavily emphasized, and there haven't been any injuries more serious than some bruises, cuts and sunburns.

"Most bad accidents are alcohol- or drug-related, and we're strict about getting in the water sober. It might take me three seconds to make a decision about how to take a rapid; for a novice it may take nine seconds. When you're under the influence, you can't think clearly in periods that short."

Baty, who works as an aerospace engineer when he's not in a canoe, began paddling as a child. He's always had a love for the water and was once a professional shark fisherman in Hawaii. After moving back to the mainland, he saw a canoe class being taught on the outskirts of New Orleans and returned to Los Angeles determined to get involved in canoeing.

He entered a training program sponsored by the American Red Cross and became a head instructor. After the Red Cross stopped its sponsorship, Baty helped lobby the Department of Recreation and Parks to take it over. "It's not just worthwhile because it's great exercise. Canoeing makes you use your muscles and your brain," he says.

"This is a lot like flying a hang glider, except you're gliding through water," says Lynn Johnson, a high school teacher from Encino who learned to canoe through the Valley Aquatics courses. "There's an incredible rush when you fling yourself down a rapid. You feel intensely aware of the water and the canoe. It's exhausting, but a thrill."

In the introductory class, the fastest the water gets is at the drinking fountain. At the pool, students are paired off and taught the basics of tandem canoeing. "One of the big misconceptions about a canoe is that it's easy to tip over. We let them try to turn it over, and they see how stable it really is," Baty says.

A test of basic swimming skills is also held. Students must swim, float or tread water for three minutes. As part of the safety rules, they must wear life jackets whenever they're in the 15- to 17-foot canoes.

Before picking up an oar, students are shown how to safely carry and launch a canoe, and how to sit inside once it's on the water. This is also the time to learn emergency drills such as how to get in and empty a swamped canoe.

In the next session, at Lake Balboa, they're taught how to paddle and how to work together to get the canoe through a figure-eight course. Students can move on to learning solo canoeing, then take on the challenge of moving water.

"For the Kern River classes, we expect that they have a fundamental knowledge about safety, the various strokes and, more importantly, they have the right attitude. You need a healthy fear. Whenever I approach a rapid, I know it can do me damage when I run it. People who don't have that fear are dangerous," Baty says.

Maintaining control of the boat is the lesson for classes on the river. Students are also taught how to read the water ahead of them and look for obstacles, as well as how to handle rough water. "We even show them how to go backward, if the situation calls for it," Baty says.

Another important aspect to canoeing is the equipment. Besides the boat and paddles, students are expected to bring a helmet, sunscreen and appropriate clothing. Hypothermia can be a problem on the river, because the difference between the water and air temperature can be great. "We once had an instructor who made the mistake of going out on the water dressed lightly because the air temperature was 110 degrees, but the water was close to 44 degrees. Fortunately, we got to her in time," Baty says.

Despite his healthy fear of the river, Baty feels safe in his canoe. There's more of a danger you'll get hurt in an accident driving to the river than you will riding it."

Where and When What: Canoeing classes through the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks' Valley Aquatics office. When: Classes offered through November. Price: $40 to $45 per session. Call: (818)765-0284.

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