News World

Wildwater meets life's lessons

By Anthony Dixon, The Daily Observer

When Joe Kowalski began to conceive the Teen Keener kayak program for Wilderness Tours, he wanted it to be more than basic whitewater paddle instruction.

He thought something was missing in today's youth; something that had been taught to him at a young age and was reinforced constantly as he grew up.

That something was values.

"I grew up in the 1950s and 60s and life was different then," he said. "Growing up, what my parents taught me was reinforced by my teachers, scout leaders, the military. Everybody was right on message and the message was always the same. I taught my kids but beyond that there was no values teaching. It wasn't reinforced by anyone."

When you ask Mr. Kowalski what those values are, he simply smiles and asks if you know the Boy Scout Law.

"A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent and always prepared," he said.

Mr. Kowalski describes the Keener program as a "youth development through kayaking program" with a number of focuses.

Primarily, he wants to graduate fine young men and women. Next, he wants to produce world-class junior paddlers that can compete in freestyle kayaking and win.

He doesn't stop there. He also wants to provide the young paddlers with skills like first aid, CPR, swift water rescue and prepare them for the world of employment.

Previous to developing the keener program, Wilderness Tours had run a week-long kayak school geared towards adult paddlers.

A physician from England who had attended the school contacted Mr. Kowalski about a longer session of kayak school for his daughter.

At the same time, Mr. Kowalski's own children were starting into their teen years.

Thinking about what he could offer teen paddlers led Mr. Kowalski to develop what would become the keener program.

"What I thought was these are teenage kayakers, what I'm going to do is teach them values in addition to kayaking," Mr. Kowalski said.

Teens from 13 to 18 can apply to the program. The minimum stay is three weeks but participants can stay for up to 10 weeks. The program begins in mid-June and lasts until the end of August.

Before being allowed to take part in the program, a participant must sign the Joel Kowalski, the son of Joe Kowalski, was one of the keener program's first participants.

He is now one of the program's instructors. keener contract for appearance standards and a code of conduct. The contract includes everything from simple rules like agreeing to phone home once a week and performing chores cheerfully and enthusiastically, to agreeing that drugs, alcohol, porn, smoking, lying, stealing, sex, fighting and swearing are grounds for dismissal.

The keeners must agree to be professional and to practice safe paddling procedures. They also agree to help others on the river, but not if it would endanger their own life.

The list of agreements covers a full page.

Another way Mr. Kowalski decided to reinforce his values message while helping the teens develop good communication skills is through a weekly speech.

"I build the topics around these values and through preparing their speeches they learn stuff, which is reinforced through their research.

Every Monday night is speech night," Mr. Kowalski said. patterned speech night experience with Toastmasters. While the keener program began successfully imparting both kayaking skills and good community values, there was still one thing missing.

According to Mr. Kowalski, the program was turning out paddlers of phenomenal skill, but they were still not consistently at the top of the podium at competitions.

"We were missing something in the program as our finishes were near the bottom. We had taught them to kayak, but we had not taught them to compete and competition skills are quite different," Mr. Kowalski said.

Having come to this realization, an in-house competition was added every Friday as part of the program.

Participants now have to host, judge and take part in their own competition every Friday.

The results speak for themselves. At the 2007 World Freestyle Championship, 15

Wilderness Tours keener program graduates from various countries competed and six made it onto the podium.

"We think that was phenomenal," Mr. Kowalski said.

At the Canadian nationals held in April, his keener grads won all of the junior spots. Wilderness Tours

boasts a dozen keener grads on

its current staff. Keeners come from all over the world to take part in the program. Past participants have come from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, England, and Australia.

Mr. Kowalski said he realizes teenagers take the program to develop the kayak skills. It is their parents who send them for the youth development, as well as the job and competition skills.

The program can accommodate about 20 keeners a week, and over the course of an average summer, about 50 to 60 teens take the program. An average day begins with wakeup before 7 a. m. Breakfast follows and students are on the water at 8 a. m. They will paddle until 4 or 5 p. m., earning themselves an hour of relaxation before supper. In the evening, they learn ropes and knots, go mountain biking or, on Mondays, present their latest speech.

While weekdays are highly structured, weekends offer the

students some rest and relaxation.

"It's pretty rough, definitely draining," said Joel Kowalski, Joe's son. Joel

was in the first keener class and is currently one of the program's instructors.

"The keener program is for anyone passionate about the sport. It's good to be surrounded by people with the same passion and drive. It helps you to progress in the sport. It just comes naturally," he said.

Joel Kowalski still loves the program.

"It's still awesome. It's the best program in the world. There's intensity about it because everyone is there for the same reason. It has a lot of energy and while everyone is very supportive of each other, everyone pushes everyone to progress all the time," he said.

Rafael Ortiz (Rafa) of Mexico, was in that first group of keeners alongside Joel and another well-known local kayaker, Nicholas Troutman.

Rafa had started out in Wilderness Tour's more conventional kayak school when he received an email from Joe about the keener program.

He took the program, kept taking the program for the next few summers, and is now one of the instructors. He is Mexico's top kayaker and will be representing Mexico in the World Championships in Switzerland in September 2009.

"The keener program is awesome. Kids learn good things. Sure it's about making a good kayaker but they're not just learning about kayaking. They're learning to communicate better and even simple things like learning to clean up garbage (in the environment)," Rafa said.