Retired Swiftwater Rescue instructor Nick Wigston has been wet behind the ears a few times in his paddling career. Now retired from teaching swiftwater rescue training through his company Downstream Edge, he and his wife Nicole own Zinn Cycles, a custom bike shop outside of Boulder, Colorado. He is also busy teaching his two teenagers how to kayak. While in the 2000s he was known for running the gnar around Colorado—and was featured in Trey Chase’s kayaking videos “Creatures of Habit” and “The White Album,” back when kayak films were distributed on DVD and not YouTube—he’s now featured in Podcast Episode 6 of Tales from the Cripps, enlightening us on his paddling past and perhaps a few mishaps along the way.
Paddling Life catches up with him for more on the podcast and his paddling.
Paddling Life: How long you been paddling?
I started kayaking with my dad on the Chattahoochee river in Atlanta when I was 6 or 7 then really got into it when I was about 15, paddling the rivers of north Georgia and the Carolinas.
Paddling Life: What does this interview cover?
This podcast was themed around complacency and how it is normally what leads to trouble, and then we went into some stories that showcased my own complacency and that of the folks I was with and how it inevitably led to a misadventure, but also a great story.
Paddling Life: Do you have any thoughts on today’s state of kayaking?
I love kayaking and everything whitewater. I think it’s really cool what people are able to do in kayaks now, but what it really comes down to is that it’s just as fun as it always was and it’s becoming more accessible to more people. The river is my church and I think many kayakers share that sentiment. I would like to do more showcasing of the less extreme side of kayaking so the younger generation doesn’t think it’s only about the gnar. We have to remember that 98% of kayakers are happy and have a great time on class 3 and 4 whitewater. I’m trying to make sure my kids know that.
Paddling Life: Did it help to learn to boat in warm water in the Southeast?
Yeah, I’m sure it did. It’s got to be harder to learn out West where the water is colder. At least now we have more access to warmer and more waterproof gear. My son’s drysuit is a little drier and warmer than the splashtop my mom made for me on her sewing machine.
Paddling Life: How awesome is it to teach your kids to boat now?
It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. Seeing the stoke on their faces after coming through a rapid or surfing a wave is worth every day of paddling I’ve ever had.
Paddling Life: How cool was it to take your kids to Tommy’s Hilleke’s camp on the Main last summer?
They had such a great experience there. There is no better place to learn and the group of kids and coaches and counselors made for a once in a lifetime experience. The Hillekes have found their calling.
Paddling Life: Did it help your boating trajectory to take it slow and learn and finally charge after a bit?
Absolutely. When I was young and learning we just ran the same Class II and III rivers over and over again and just tried hitting different eddies, surfing waves, and more. There was never much thought in the idea of taking this to harder whitewater. We slowly graduated into running Section 4 of the Chattooga which has a handful of Class IV rapids and then we did the same thing there. I never even considered the idea of Class V until I was older. It just wasn’t on my radar.
I think the key to advancing in whitewater levels should be based around mastery of the current level. If you can run a Class II river cleanly just going down the middle of all the wave trains, that doesn’t mean you are ready for Class III. Spend a ton of time hitting every eddy, make every ferry, surf every wave, flip on the eddy lines to practice rolling in any situation. Once that is easy, then you are ready to try a Class III river or maybe a II that has one or two harder rapids where you can challenge yourself with those skills on some harder conditions. Make it fun, make it challenging. You’ll find that if you do this, when you move up a grade it won’t even seem as hard as you thought. People get into trouble when they jump into harder rapids too soon. I’ve seen it hundreds of times in the 34 years I’ve been doing this. It makes people quit the sport because they get scared, and it’s so avoidable.
Paddling Life: Who is your favorite kayaker in the scene these days?
I have to admit that I don’t really follow the scene too much anymore. I don’t really know many of the hotshots that are out there. I’ll throw a shout out to Kelly and Daniel Hilleke though. I love how they are all about the fun of it. They don’t seem too hell bent on going big. They are just having the best time when on the water.
Paddling Life: Do you or did you have a mentor?
I’ve had many. My dad and his friends William Carpenter and Larry O’doski were my paddling mentors when I was younger. I would never be here without them.
Paddling Life: What is your favorite boat design?
Liquid Logic Alpha
Paddling Life: Best paddling food out there?
In the olden days, my favorite thing to bring on overnighters was bagels with smoked salmon and Honey Stinger packets squeezed on top. For after boating on day trips I’d have to say Chicken Wings.