Fresh back from a November first descent in Bhutan (yet another under their spray skirts), Phil and Mary DeRiemer, owners of DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking, are getting after it as hard as ever while continuing to guide fellow paddlers down some of the best rivers in the world. ACA-certified instructor trainers and the authors of two instructional DVDs (The Kayak Roll and The River Runner’s Edge), they’ve been teaching kayaking around the world for over 30 years and are known for individualizing their guiding and teaching style to fit anyone’s needs, be it in Bhutan or the Grand Canyon. We caught up with them before the frenzy of the 2016 season sinks.
PL: You’ve been at it 30 years…how and when did you get started?
Mary: I started working at NOC in 1982, where I gained experience as a kayak instructor for all levels. Then I started the NOC’s Costa Rica kayak trips in 1983, as well as guiding kayak trips on the Bio Bio and the Grand Canyon. It all served us well when we formed DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking in 1994 offering instruction in the US and guiding trips abroad in Honduras and with Expediciones Chile on the Futaleufu.
Phil: I was living in Arcata, CA at the time. In the spring of ‘82 I tagged along with a couple of friends to “River Night”, an annual event put on by FOR (friends of the river). My buddy won an I.K. in a raffle and it was weekends on the Trinity river all that summer. The I.K. was a gateway drug into hard shelling.
PL: What countries/trips are you focusing on now?
Mary: Domestically we offer trips on the Owyhee, Rogue, Middle Fork Salmon and Grand Canyon, where we’re offering two trips again this year. We also teach locally on the South Fork American in California with Mother Lode River trips. Abroad, we’ve been offering custom trips in Ecuador since 1995, as well as trekking and kayak trips in Bhutan since 2006 in the fall. This year Phil led an amazing Class IV-V exploratory there, culminating in a three-day first descent from Bhutan to India.
Phil: We just returned from six weeks in Bhutan. It’s such a great blend of people, setting, culture, and paddling. There are still new runs to be had and they don’t all have to be Class V, but they do take a little work to get to. The place just has an ancient feel to it. We’re out the door bound for Ecuador in just two weeks. This year it’s more about visiting with long-time friends than leading groups. Ecuador will always have a special place in our hearts.
PL: Where’s your favorite place to paddle?
Mary: The river I’m on is hard to beat. My favorite place to paddle is any technical rapid where the next eddy reveals what the next eddy reveals. I absolutely love unraveling the puzzle of technical Class IV. So I guess the answer is the delightful granite runs of my two backyards: the Sierra and Ecuador.
Phil: I love self contained trips!
PL: What do you like about paddling in a foreign country?
Mary: Besides paddling stellar rivers, I love that the river is the excuse to experience a foreign culture and learn new ways. There is a similarity in figuring out the puzzle of logistics and figuring out the best line through an intricate rapid. Both keep the mind challenged. When returning to a foreign country, I like visiting with the new friends and family we’ve made on prior trips. Last year we were Padrino and Madrina at the wedding of our Ecuadorian guide and friend Jaime Dalgo, and the next day we celebrated as Godparents to the granddaughter of another of our adopted Ecuadorian family, with whom we’ve lodged our guests since 1999. We’ve definitely got ties to our heartstrings wherever we’ve gone.
Phil: Paddling has always been the vehicle that has allowed me to experience a foreign country. I’ve always sought out places that were on the brink of change, or changing at a slower place than other parts of the world. As such I haven’t dipped a paddle into any water in Europe. Most of my foreign paddling has been in Latin America and the Himalaya. I know there’s lots more out there but it’s changing faster each year, being gobbled up by “progress.” For me, kayaking has always been about discovery and challenge. I love the problem solving that goes along with reading a rapid or planning the logistics of a trip, then setting those solutions into practice and seeing the outcome. I love the relationships we’ve built and passing our knowledge and experience on to others that are just getting started.
PL: What do you like about sharing these experiences with others?
Mary: Seeing the smile of satisfaction that comes from meeting a challenge and the wonder on a person’s face when experiencing a stunning view or serendipitous moment. These are the rewards for sharing rivers with our guests.
Phil: Those “wow” moments when they experience a new place, a new culture or a new run- it just puts a smile on my face. It’s also like being around kids – you see the world through their eyes so you see things you yourself might have missed. The learning and sharing is a two way street.
PL: How has the business — and kayaking world — changed in all these years?
Mary: Why change a recipe that is perfect? Our business is the same as from the start; for small groups and individuals we offer personalized guiding and instruction, reaching out to each person in their manner of learning and relating. Our approach is very clear and effective, and most of all fun. As far as the kayaking world, we’ve been returning to foreign countries long enough that we’ve seen a lot of development and deteriorating water qualities due to sewage and/or headwater deforestation;, whether it’s Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador and even Bhutan. Here at home, at least there is effort to preserve the water quality from direct sewage run-off. Thank goodness for our laws and agencies. I’m not sure we paddlers as citizens are aware enough of this to feel gratitude and appreciation.
Phil: We’re small; we’ve kept it that way on purpose so we could remain in the field teaching, guiding and spending time with our guests rather than behind a desk or under the hood of a fleet of vans. As such, we haven’t felt a lot of the expansion and contraction pains that others have. We’ve been pretty focused on we do and staying pretty busy doing it so we aren’t the best sources for what is going on in the rest of the world of boating. There are more local kayak schools than ever before, allowing people just getting into the sport to “dip their toes” into the waters without making a big time and money commitment as compared to a destination school. There’s also more good instruction available. Don’t get me wrong, destination schools such as Otter Bar, NOC and Madawaska are great places to get focused, intensive and consistent instruction that allow for rapid gains in paddling skills. The amount of exploration that paddlers are doing now is mind boggling. I’m blown away and inspired by what folks are doing and where they are going. On a negative side: Kayak manufacturers have become less personable as corporate America has gotten involved. Plastic kayaks have taken a huge step backwards in weight and durability. With social media and the internet there is a lot more chest thumping going on but I’m getting pretty good at tuning it out.
PL: And finally, what five pieces of gear do you never paddle without?
Mary: Number one, my infallible carbon Werner Player paddle. I’m very happy with a straight shaft; I’ve never had tendonitis problems and it’s as light as a feather. Number two, my dry, dry, dry IRS Kling-on skirt. Number three is keeping my head safe in my comfy, standard ShredReady helmet. Number four would have to be my Kokatat Guide PFD; it’s practical, easy to put on, and super comfortable. Finally, in the winter you won’t find me without my Kokatat Gore-tex, drop-seat drysuit. I love it. It’s so worth every penny and allows me to paddle in comfort when it’s cold. That’s extremely important for a girl born and raised in Panama.
Phil: Unfortunately, it takes more than five pieces of gear to go paddling but I love all things Kokatat, especially their PFDs and Gore-tex garments. I’m also fond of my Werner paddles. Both companies are made up of great folks with products and philosophies I respect. I’ve been using their gear almost since day one. I’m also loving the fit and security of Sweet helmets and IR skirts.