Jen Kjellesvik and several preteen students, all wearing helmets, wetsuits and life preservers, slipped one by one into a channel of the Bend Whitewater Park. Their heads bobbed above the rapids usually navigated by experienced kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders. Kjellesvik, who is the owner and operator of Adventure Fitness, coursed through the white water while her students floated behind her like eager ducklings.
"Remember, nose up, toes up," Kjellesvik shouted above the river's rush. "If you get close to any rocks you can push off of them with your feet."
While swimming rapids can be fun, it also can be a lifesaving technique if your kayak or raft capsizes.
"The best way to gain an understanding of how rapids work is to swim them," Kjellesvik said.
Kjellesvik's name, is synonymous with Central Oregon water sports. She has a fluidity in and out of the water as an instructor, raft guide and general water lover.
Kjellesvik, 43, has directed the Bend Youth Brigade Paddle Team, which she created under the banner of Adventure Fitness, once a week for eight weeks in summer since 2014. Each lesson begins on land with a 30-minute safety rundown. On this day, before anyone got wet, Kjellesvik addressed 15 students in a grassy patch of McKay Park. She pointed to a marker board where she had drawn and labeled the water park's three channels. Eddies, she explained, swirl on either side of the drops. That area of water, which doubles back in the opposite direction of the current, can be a safe place to swim to if you fall from a watercraft. She explains river etiquette and encourages students to bring drinking straw-like water filters instead of water bottles to the river. This way kids can appreciate the important ways water sustains life and shouldn't be polluted, she said.
"I don't want you to be afraid of the water, but I want you to have a healthy respect for it," Kjellesvik said. "The river can be your highway if you know how to use it."
After the presentation, Bend Youth Brigade Paddle Team members took turns swimming the rapids, boogie boarding a wave in the through channel and riding a multi-person, van-size stand-up paddleboard – called a "SUPsquatch" – through rapids. The students know Kjellesvik's motto is "challenge by choice" – a phrase that she borrowed from a fellow river guide in Colorado.
"It means it's the learner's responsibility to speak up," Kjellesvik said. "Some days, you feel really adventurous. Other times, it's like, 'Eh, I don't know, man.' And that's totally cool. Always respect where you're at."
Kjellesvik grew up on the water. Her parents raised her and her four siblings in Utah, where her grandfather homesteaded Bear Lake.
"I grew up in a really competitive family. If you weren't on the slalom water ski, you sucked," she said with a laugh. "You got in the mix or you got left behind."
The Bull River ran through the family's backyard. A canal flowed through the front yard. Kjellesvik spent her youth tubing and swimming those waters.
"The Bull River was always my place," she said. "I knew how rivers worked."
In time, Kjellesvik mastered swimming, water skiing and wakeboarding. But she hadn't rafted. After graduating high school at 18, Kjellesvik saw an Alaskan rafting company's job listing for guides in the pages of Outside magazine. Raft guiding is similar to the role of the steersman in a lifeboat – but with a paddle that also serves as a rudder. Kjellesvik still applied. The company hired her anyway because she was certified as an emergency medical technician.
"They said, 'We'll teach you how to guide,' " Kjellesvik said. That was the beginning of 25 years of raft guiding.
Kjellesvik spent her 20s and 30s mastering the country's most exciting and challenging rivers: the Arkansas River in Colorado, the Snake River in Wyoming and the Gauley River in West Virginia. Rivers in the east are generally older, pool more often and feature blind horizons before drops. Western rivers are younger, more cascading and offer prolonged rapids, Kjellesvik said. Each type of river presents distinct dangers.
During winters, Kjellesvik worked at various ski resorts and wilderness therapy companies. She met her husband, rafting expert Todd Kjellesvik, on the Arkansas River. He proposed to her on a raft and they married in Nepal before moving to Bend in 2001. Jen Kjellesvik, who also worked as a personal trainer and raced stand-up paddleboards professionally for Kialoa, a Bend paddle company, wanted to mesh her coaching with river board sports.
She began Adventure Fitness in 2014, offering all-age instruction in all things paddle-related. Her son, Haakon Kjellesvik, 19, is one of two lead instructors trained in swift water rescue, CPR and first-aid assistance. Kjellesvik's daughter Jasi Kjellesvik, 11 and an incoming sixth-grader at Pilot Butte Middle School, helps out, too – sometimes with lifesaving. In the summer of 2016, Jasi jumped up from one of her mother's safety lessons from the shoreline grass and leaped into the river.
An infant, who was wearing a life vest, had been swept downstream when her mother's tube flipped while they were floating through the through-channel. In summers since Jasi and other students have also scooped up a few puppies from errant crafts.
"We teach students how to help people," Jen Kjellesvik said. "It's part of the training."
During a recent practice, Jasi showed some students her age how to body surf a small, natural wave in the water park. That she is comfortable in water owes, perhaps, to the naps she would take on her mother's stand-up paddleboard while she trained on flat water. It's this familiarity with the river that the parents of Kjellesvik's students hope to sow in their own children.
Sally and Jimmy Smith attended a recent practice while their three teenage children helped Haakon Kjellesvik launch the outsize SUPSquatch above several rapids. The students knelt while they paddled over a couple of drops, and Kjellesvik stood, directing them with a large paddle. When he toppled off into the water as they went over the final drop, everyone laughed. Grinning, Haakon Kjellesvik climbed aboard and steered the crew to shore.
Jenn Williams, whose son Liam Williams, 12, is another of Kjellesvik's students, said she appreciates Kjellesvik's approach. Her son is fearless in the water, she said. He intends to get into whitewater kayaking when he's older. Williams, who grew up in Central Oregon, said she knows what a powerful – and potentially fatal – draw rivers and creeks can have on kids. But classes like these give her son and others safety skills and shows them how rivers work.
"This program is fantastic," Williams said. "Jen teaches Liam common sense."
The Smiths echoed the sentiment.
"Jen really relays the safety, first and foremost," Sally Smith said. "Her motto is 'challenge by choice.' And what better environment (to do that) than in a safe one, where they are coached by the best ... and feel confident to challenge themselves if they choose to."
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