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Along a pristine stretch of the North Fork of the Payette River in Cascade, Idaho is Kelly’s Whitewater Park. Built in 2010 by founders Mark and Kristina Pickard, the park was established in honor of Kristina’s late sister, Kelly. Her love of sports and dedication to children are the driving force behind the park’s programming. And making it available to everyone, no matter the skill or income level, is imperative. “We wanted to ensure that local students would have an opportunity to learn a lifelong sport, as well as river safety,” says Mark Pickard, founder.
This haven for outdoor recreation and water sports has become a destination for families, whitewater enthusiasts, and professional athletes alike. And while it is easy to see the amenities like volleyball courts, bocce courts, and horseshoe pits as well as the main attraction, the whitewater park in the river, there is one aspect of Kelly’s that often flies under the radar…Kelly’s Academy.
“The Kelly’s Academy is one of the strongest programs in the country,” says Chuck Glynn, professional SUP athlete and Director of Kelly’s Academy. “all right here in your backyard.”
Each summer for two weeks, around 100 students and 12 instructors immerse themselves in learning and teaching kayaking, river surfing, and stand-up paddle boarding. The Academy is offered free of charge for any child ages 10 to 18 (or until high school graduation) as long as they are a full-time resident in Valley County. The kayaks, paddle boards, life jackets, helmets, paddles, and all necessary equipment are provided for the student’s use during each session. “All you really need is your swimsuit and some sunblock,” says Rachel Huckaby, Kelly’s Whitewater Park event coordinator.
Kelly’s Academy offers four sessions of beginner instruction and four sessions of intermediate/advanced instruction in each of the three disciplines. Each session is three days of class for 3.5 hours each day, a total of 10.5 hours of instruction. “In the beginning,” says Glynn, “we ran sessions for 2.5 hours per day for four days.” But as the program picked up steam and more kids wanted to participate, they had to adjust. “This new structure has been a win-win,” says Glynn. “We are able to accommodate more students and are seeing the kids retain so much more and progress so much faster with the extra hour each day of practical instruction.”
And the instruction is one of the things that makes the Kelly’s Academy so unique. “What makes this camp so special is that we have the world’s best athletes in the whitewater field as coaches and mentors,” says Glynn, who himself got his start at the Academy competing, rather than coaching. “My first experience at Kelly’s was actually at the Payette River Games,” he says. With a background in ocean surfing and paddleboard racing, Kelly’s asked him to stay on for an extra week and start a river surfing class. “It kind of changed my life,” Glynn says.
Fast-forward ten years and Glynn is not only still coaching, but also responsible for finding the 12 instructors each year. And these are no ordinary instructors. Kelly’s Academy attracts World Champions, world record holders, Team USA members, and professionally sponsored athletes from across the world. “The biggest challenge is managing schedules each year,” says Glynn. With athletes like Alec, Hayden, and Connor Voorhees, Nick Troutman, Dan Gavere, and Claire O’Hara, the Academy typically selects its annual dates around big whitewater events. “There is a pretty consistent schedule each year that follows the runoff across the country and we try to find dates for the Academy when some of these athlete instructors will already be in the area,” says Glynn.
But even if an athlete isn’t close by around the time the Academy kicks off, Glynn says that he is always amazed at how people rework their schedules so they won’t miss out on the two weeks in Idaho. “At the end of the day, our instructors drop what they are doing to come because they believe in this program,” says Glynn. “It’s amazing for them to drive across the country on their own time just to come teach…we have really become family.”
Which is why Glynn continues to be so dedicated himself. “A lot has changed since I started with the Academy,” he says. “I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old and a wife who has been super supportive of my taking off from our home in San Diego each year to come teach. And while it can be tough at times, the thing that keeps me coming back is the reward I get seeing this park come to life and watching these students thrive.”
And thrive they do. So much so that it isn’t rare to have past students move on to become junior instructors and take part in the Academy under the guidance and mentorship of the senior instructors. “It is so cool to watch everything come full circle,” says Glynn. Which has been a goal of the Academy all along – to help build local talent to continue to share the knowledge, skills, and safety aspects of whitewater sports. “We want to help kids get comfortable and skilled enough that they can pursue these sports as a hobby, or as a passion, or as a career.”
Brendan LaFay is one such student turned junior instructor. “I first started the Academy when I was 10,” says LaFay, “and have been in the kayaking classes ever since.” He credits the instructors with being the main reason he has improved as a kayaker. “Being around all of these world-class kayakers is a great environment,” he says. “They are always pushing you to be your best but making it fun while they do that. Plus, it is pretty cool to learn from kayakers you watch on YouTube and social media. They are some of the best in the world.”
A big part of the Academy’s instruction is focused on water safety. “While this is a really fun, safe environment we establish at the Academy, one of our main goals is to not just teach the sport, but to also teach the skills they need that could possibly save a life one day,” says Glynn. LaFay says that is one of the most valuable take-aways he has from the Academy. “Along with improving my kayaking skills, I have also gained a lot of knowledge about safety and confidence in what to do if I or someone I’m with gets into trouble on the water,” he says.
“One of the things that our instructors are so good at is taking preventative action and really understanding the risk management aspects of river sports,” says Glynn. “They are constantly assessing to ensure that risks are mitigated and that the kids come out with a positive experience.” Glynn says they will often take the time to pause in class if someone from the public floats by without a lifejacket or proper equipment. “We try to use every situation as a learning opportunity to help build their confidence.” And a lot of that teaching is done through fun and games. “We want kids to be relaxed and calm in the water,” says Glynn. Games like “sponge toss” in the kayak class help get students used to having water splashed in their faces, how to paddle for a target, and if their kayak flips over, how to not panic and tap the bottom of their boat for an instructor to come help them roll over. Similarly, in the paddleboard class, games like “Simon says” give kids a chance to practice holding on to their paddle if they fall off and how to assess the water and swim for an eddy. “Some of the best memories I have at the Academy are the games like kayak polo an the sponge game,” says LaFay.
“All of my kids have been in the Academy,” says Huckaby, “and the number one thing I love about this program is that it has taught my kids to be safe in the river.” Which is a critical skill when the river is such a focal point of our communities. “The instructors are so enthusiastic,” she says, “and are really good at making the kids feel comfortable while also helping them push through their fears.” Huckaby says she has loved watching her kids learn how to read the water, not just along the stretch in the park, but in a way that they could take their skills to any river and translate the knowledge they have learned. “It makes me so much more comfortable with having my kids in the river knowing they can do it safely.”
Which is a secondary focus of the program says Glynn…helping parents feel confident in their kids’ ability around water. So, they have started to work on involving parents more, helping them understand the equipment and how to be a sideline coach after the sessions wrap up. “Last year we did a river swim,” Glynn says. Every willing parent was outfitted in life jackets, wetsuits, footwear, and all the safety gear their kids use in class then they floated through the whitewater with the instructors. “One parent was in tears starting out,” says Glynn. “At first it was because of fear, but by the end, it was tears of joy – like ‘I can do this, I’m not afraid.’”
And that confidence is exactly what the Academy, and Kelly’s Whitewater Park, is for. “This park was built so local kids could use it,” says Huckaby. “We want our community to know how to be in the water safely and really enjoy the park.” And each summer, one student at a time, Kelly’s Academy is helping fulfill that goal. “The park and the Academy exist as Kelly’s legacy to the world,” says Pickard. “To date, we have had more than 1,800 students pass through the Academy.” A legacy, indeed.