Safety, skills, big fun in youth paddling course

Loaded up with boats, paddles, life vests, skirts, throw bags, helmets, buoys, balls and hula hoops for up to 16 kids, Jennifer and Matt Fritz then haul it all to the pool for the FIBArk Youth Paddling Course. This is their easy Sunday morning ritual for nine weeks.

“Our idea is to get more kids out there on the river,” said Jennifer Fritz, who moved with her husband, Matt, to Salida from Dallas in June of 2011. “We’re really excited about doing this.”

The response to the course far exceeded the Fritzes’ expectations with 15 kids on the wait-list.

This course is serious fun while building a foundation of skills for river running, play-boating or slalom racing. Watching children of all shapes and sizes load into boats, this sport is a great equalizer. Smaller, less athletic kids held their own with big, coordinated children who participate in every seasonal sport available. Splashing and cutting up when possible, most were having a blast.

The kids learn skills in a sequential order, starting with a wet exit and a T-rescue, a technique used to help right a buddy who flipped without getting out of the boat. Eventually, the older kids learn to roll and right themselves with a paddle.

Boaters practice stroke drills to move, turn and control their kayaks. At the other end of the pool, another group works on rolling skills, “whatever their level, wherever they’re at,” said Matt Fritz, who works as an electrical engineer from home with a Dallas-based company.

Last Sunday, the boaters practiced rudder skills while getting towed with a rope. There were smiles all around during this drill.

Thirty-five minutes are left for games, and the pool becomes an echo chamber of shrieks and giggles as candy-colored boats bump, paddles dig and kids race over the waves they create.

“All these games are geared toward balancing, controlling the edges and getting the boat to move,” said Jennifer Fritz, a former music teacher.

Ten-year-old Tayah McGovern of Salida said the paddling course is “really fun.” She’s excited about eventually trying her new boating skills on the Arkansas River but said she’s “a little nervous.”

Alli Gober and Denny Lee also organized the course and teach. A total of seven instructors, all volunteers, are in the pool and on deck. The Fritzes even recruited world-class paddlers to guest instruct, including former U.S. Slalom and U.S. National Wildwater team members Lisa Adams and Marci Cary, both of Durango.

Jennifer Fritz is a new FIBArk board member, and she and Matt helped with previous paddling classes at the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center. These classes were popular and kids did learn skills, but attendance wasn’t consistent. This new course builds on skills learned week to week. By ramping up the curriculum, the experience has been elevated, bringing up expectations, incentives and the fun factor.

FIBArk owns half of the gear used in the course and Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center loans most of the rest. Some children have their own. Instructors hope to offer a course on the river in late spring when the weather warms up.

Salida has a tradition of slalom racing and is one of the few places with a permanent course. The Fritzes hope to build on this with a slalom racing team that competes with other Colorado teams in places like Durango and Carbondale.

“We hope more kids will paddle gates,” said Jennifer Fritz.

In a town full of boaters sometimes it takes newcomers to add finishing touches on what we already have.

To learn more about FIBArk, visit

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One Response to “Safety, skills, big fun in youth paddling course”

  1. Hayden Mellsop

    This is a great program - my daughter is enjoying it immensely. Thanks to Jennifer, Matt, Ali and Denny for being so generous with their time, and to RMOC and all those who help make this possible.

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