Practicing Calculated Risk: Whitewater Skills

Alzar School | 02.09.20

This past weekend, Fall 2020 students engaged with their very first Alzar School experience off campus, and in a whitewater setting. The cohort split into two, one group completing a Swiftwater Awareness course, the other participating in a whitewater kayak clinic. Next weekend they will switch. During these sessions, students had the chance to leave campus for the first time since arriving in Idaho! They visited Lake Cascade, the Payette River, and Kelly’s Whitewater Park, a local gem.

Students at Kelly’s Whitewater Park.

The theme of the weekend centered upon appropriate and informed risks. This involved reflecting on and developing technical proficiency in order to assess what is appropriate given each individual’s skill level, plus practicing accurate awareness in analyzing how those skills might play a role in a variety of whitewater settings.

Daniela Stokes, one of our Community and Experiential Advocates, said “It was amazing seeing the students’ improvement as they became. more comfortable swimming the features and gaining more of an understanding of the basics of river hydrology”. She and Jake Miczulski, our Outdoor Program Coordinator, taught the Swiftwater Awareness course. They combined a bit of lecture and preparation with a lot of on-land applications and even more swimming.

During the swiftwater rescue skills session, Rabi practiced tossing throw-bags to and pulling in swimmers with incredible accuracy. Henry, who is an Eagle Scout and also took a swiftwater course previously, stepped up by helping teach his peers how to tie knots essential for rigging rescue platforms. Natalie challenged herself to do the entire swim, despite not feeling like a strong swimmer … and she rocked it! 

Practicing throw rope rescues during Swiftwater Awareness course.

During the whitewater skills clinic, students practiced flipping over in and escaping from their upside-down hardshell kayaks. This skill is of critical importance to self-rescue in a river setting. Students learned how to help “T-rescue” their peers, which means they nose-up perpendicular to a flipped kayak in order for their bow to provide purchase for the flipped boater to right themselves using their hands. Some students with previous experience practiced rolling their kayaks (independently righting their flipped kayak using their paddle) and supported their peers through the tough mental game that is whitewater boating. 

John Bengtson, our Spanish, English and whitewater instructor, noted some excellent self-awareness and risk assessment in his group. Specifically, Anna decided, after guided dialogue, to “drop in” to the steep, intimidating, infamous top wave at Kelly’s Whitewater Park. Later on, during the river trip, students decided to pull their boats out of the water and walk around a similar feature. 

This anecdote perfectly illustrates the concept of risk assessment that we continually strive to model at Alzar School: analyzing both the probability and the impact of harm when making calculated decisions surrounding potentially risky situations. 

Two of the most important criteria for risk assessment are probability and impact. What are the odds something harmful could happen? What is the quality and quantity of harm that could ensure? Activities that have a high probability of resulting in significant harm to people or property, we choose not to engage in at Alzar School. Our approach involves engaging in activities that span the spectrum of having a low likelihood of minor impact to having a high probability of inconsequential impact. 

Risk Management Probability vs Impact Graph

In the first instance described from the whitewater skills clinic, Anna had accurate awareness regarding the high probability of swimming out of her kayak in the tall rapid at Kelly’s Whitewater Park. She also knew that the impact was negligible because there was a wide eddy to catch her at the bottom.

In the second example, students realized that there was also a high probability of flipping and swimming out of their kayaks. However, the impact was greater; due to the nature of the river bed, with large rocks and continuously moving water, a reliable eddy was not within attainable reach. 

From the students’ perspective, some felt that this experience was the thrill of their lives! They all showed courage and determination to give it their all and walked away feeling proud (and perhaps thankful for dry land). Others were thankful for the challenge and leaned into practice. Many were grateful for an opportunity to finally explore the greater Cascade region.

About the author: Rachel Ackerman is a Science Teacher and a Blog Coordinator at Alzar School. Feel free to contact her at with comments, concerns, and interesting topics for future blog posts!