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Great Colleges and Universities
for Whitewater Boaters

by Chris Bell


A couple years ago I was thinking about writing an article for Paddler on good colleges for boaters. I solicited recommendations on and was thrilled with the deluge of responses I received. There are an impressive number of colleges and universities that would make great places for a boater to study.

My conclusion is that you should decide on the academic environment you're interested in first and then consider locations. If you are interested in small classes, lots of interaction with your professors and a general education that will prepare you well for graduate school (a Ph.D.), professional school (MBA, MD, etc.), teaching (a great profession for a paddler, by the way . . .) or professions that require good writing, thinking and speaking skills rather than highly career-specific training, consider a liberal arts college. Indeed most folks enrolled in Universities are, in fact, enrolled in the liberal arts programs within their Universities (including Art, Chemistry, Economics, English, French, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Political Science and Physics majors).

Warren Wilson College and the University of North Carolina at Asheville are often cited as great liberal arts colleges for paddlers. Both located in or near Asheville;  I teach at UNCA -- I'll leave my house tomorrow morning at 9am and be back to take care of my daughter before 2pm after paddling either the Green Narrows, Wilson Creek or the Rocky Broad, depending on which is at the best level . . .[this was first posted in March;  during drier parts of  the year I most often paddle the Green or do mystery moves at Cowbell  if I want to boat and be home within five hours]). Another example is Ft. Lewis College in Durango, CO, (I'd consider Ft. Lewis College strongly if I was you if I liked to do other stuff besides boat, like ski and mountain bike, because this is most of what you'll be doing in Durango during the school year). I'm pretty sure Lewis and Clark College in Oregon is primarily a liberal arts college; it too is located somewhere with a year round paddling season. This is just scratching the surface -- there are lots of good liberal arts colleges in good locations for paddlers.

If you want to be an engineer, you'll need to look at schools with engineering programs. If a school has "university" in its title it will often have an engineering program. I'd look at the U of WA, the U of OR, West Virginia U, Georgia Tech (where Scott Shipley is studying engineering and preparing for the U.S. slalom team), etc. If a degree from an ivy league school tickles your fancy, be sure to look at Dartmouth and its long-standing outdoor program. In my area you might want to look at Appalachian State University in Boone or Western Carolina University in Cullowhee (a couple of my paddling friends are enrolled in its nursing program). And don't overlook Virginia Tech, Clemson U or the U of TN. Once again this is just scratching the surface. My favorite place in the U.S. to boat is California and I haven't even listed a CA school. For school-year boating I'd look into Humboldt State in Arcata.

You'll note that almost all the places I've listed are either in the southeast or the coastal mountains out west. The reason is that these are the places with the warmer weather, gradient and abundant rainfall conducive to plentiful school-year white water boating. Since most folks are in school during the fall, winter and spring and can work and boat anywhere they want in the summer, the fact that a school is located in a place with great summer boating doesn't seem all that important to me.

The point is . . . figure out what you want from a school and from your education first, then consider location. You'll have no problem finding a school that meets your needs in a location with good boating and good folks to boat with.

An additional thought: What is written above is a repost of something I first wrote in response to an inquiry on BoaterTalk. Upon reflection I would add now that being an "hour and a half" from river A or "two hours" from river B" isn't a big improvement on being three or four or even five hours away: if you are a serious student, you're not going to have time to drive three hours round trip every day to boat anyway, and if you're just boating weekends, what's an extra hour or two or three of driving time? Being within 15 minutes or half an hour of some form of water will let you work out every day, even if it is only running gates or flatwater cartwheeling. I'd rank being very close to at least moving water as a higher priority than being a little closer to a prime run or two.

My school, for example, is located within fifteen minutes of two 25-gate slalom courses -- one on quarter-mile long series of shallow class II ledges and the other on a slightly deeper section of class I moving water. Both run year round, and just as important, the weather is warm enough to train almost every day during the school year. In addition, the ledgy section, while not the Ocoee or South Fork of the American, is deep enough and powerful enough in spots to squirt, splat and cartwheel. This makes it possible for our students to get a workout in every day if they like even if they don't always have an entire morning or afternoon to boat. Though none are given specific mention in my earlier post, just think of all the great schools in the vicinity of Washington DC, Richmond VA and Columbia SC. All would have warmish weather most of the winter and are located on or near major rivers with short sections of moderate to major gradient. You might have a bit longer to drive on the weekends, but just think how polished your basic skills will be.

-- Chris (BA UC-Berkeley, Ph.D. U of PA:  both too far from whitewater to paddle after class!)

This post first appeared in BoaterTalk March 5, 1999.  To learn more about colleges and universities in the Asheville area, visit the "Schools" section of the Ashevegas! page.


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