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BY MONICA GOKEY
For the past three years, I traveled internationally as a whitewater kayaking bum. Others might have called me a professional whitewater kayaker, but I have gripes with that term because professional athletes of other disciplines get paid simply to do what they do. Kayakers have to get a bit more creative.
As with many adrenaline sports, at-large whitewater kayakers frequently travel for competitions and attention-worthy experiences on the water. But kayaking is a niche sport; competition winnings hardly pay for the next plane ticket and travel stipends from sponsors are hard to come by.
My odd jobs to fuel the “kayak fund” ranged from raft guiding to working wine harvests. All the while, I forked up blog posts, short articles, event coverage and anything else I could to make ends meet.
Grassroots journalism has become its own kind of currency in the whitewater kayaking industry.
Dagger Kayaks Team Manager Andrew Holcombe said it is increasingly important for all levels of athletes to publish themselves on the Internet and through other media. Accordingly, professional whitewater kayakers are often expected to report on their own adventures as a part of maintaining sponsorship.
“It works in the athlete’s favor in terms of generating exposure and name recognition, and it also works for whatever brands they’re representing,” Holcombe said. “I view it as a win-win situation.”
Mariann Saether of Norway is one of the most well-published athletes in the industry, not only for articles related to kayaking, but for her voice as a travel journalist. She is also one of the best kayakers in the world, gender irrelevant.
Though writing is not a major source of income for Saether, it supplies her with a steady flow of pocket money so she can stay on the road for longer periods of time.
“More importantly, it’s mentally stimulating in a different way than kayaking is,” Saether wrote in an email from the Dominican Republic.
For me, the onus of writing for my sponsors evolved into a fervent desire to write about all of my experiences on the road — kayaking and otherwise. Can words really make a reader feel a fistful of red Uganda earth in their hand before sliding into the White Nile river? My itch to tell stories from my travels eventually drove me to the welcoming walls of academia to pursue writing more seriously.
I now find myself chiseling away at a master’s degree in environmental journalism at The University of Montana. Joining the embryonic OWAA chapter on campus has allowed me to connect with other writers striving to capture their gorgeous experiences in the great outdoors with the medium of pen and paper.
In my attempt to evolve writing into a full-time career instead of just a tactic for funding my lifestyle, I am grateful for the years I took to jet around the globe as a whitewater kayaker, furnishing myself with amazing experiences to bring back to the classroom and beyond. ♦
—During their first semester as a student group, the OWAA University of Montana Student Chapter has held meetings where attendees workshopped articles and listened to speakers. They will continue recruiting and funding efforts in the spring after gaining the university’s formal recognition as a student group.