Traveling the world. Feeding the mind. Honing skills. Building character. Pushing the limits.
It all sounds like recruiting language for the U.S. armed forces. But those are catchphrases of the World Class Kayak Academy, based in White Salmon, Washington, which 16-year-old Jackson kayaker Driscoll Larrow is attending during the 2019-20 school year.
Larrow, along with students from around the world, will not only hit the whitewater but also hit the books at the “accredited private school that combines academics, athletics, travel and cultural immersion,” according to the academy’s website.
Although Larrow has traveled with his family to Germany, Switzerland, Mexico and Australia, he said he is eager to further expand his horizons. He will travel to four countries between now and May 2020 through the academy.
He began his journey Sept. 1 in Ottawa, Ontario, kayaking on the Ottawa River. He will continue on the Quebec River and then kayak the rivers of Costa Rica to complete the first semester. The second semester charts a course along rivers in Chile before winding up on the Western rivers of Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho.
Larrow follows Jackson Hole kayakers Wyatt Doyle and Zander Ulmer, who attended the academy last year. Luke Landino and Ruby Milligan, all veterans of the Jackson Hole Kayak Club, will join Larrow for the second semester.
“I think it’s just going to be good for me. I think it’s going to be a good experience being in other countries and doing service projects,” Larrow said. “To experience something that’s out of Jackson Hole and this country.”
His goals for the school year are twofold: “Trying to progress in the kayaking world on the water as an athlete. Focusing more than I did in the past couple of years academically.”
The school’s ambitious travel itinerary impressed Driscoll’s mother and father, Kathrin Luderer and Joe Larrow.
“I think, unlike the soccer field, it’s not like they’re on a stationary field,” Joe Larrow said. “Everything’s moving. Everything’s different every second. You can’t hide your fear when you’re with your buddies because everyone can pick up and sense it. They just have to rely on one another.
“The friendships they make and the life skills that they learn are really incredible and do propel them to an area of maturity and independence that they wouldn’t have attained otherwise.”
Luderer likes the different countries and cultures that her son will experience, along with the structured independence.
“There’s cultural immersion in different countries, and there are international students from all over the world,” she said. “They do service projects and visit schools. The school is very environmentally oriented, attuned to river environments. They will be cooking their own meals and doing their own laundry. They will get up early to do their workouts. They will have this small, tight-knit group.”
Attending the kayaking academy may seem intimidating to many, but Larrow, along with hundreds of Jackson young people, has been fortunate to learn the ropes with the Jackson Hole Kayak Club, founded by Aaron Pruzan in 1996.
Over the years Pruzan, with a team of talented coaches, has taught, coached and guided hundreds of young Jackson kayakers. He has traveled, camped and raced with them. Under his leadership the athletes have steadily honed their paddling skills while learning self-confidence, teamwork and appreciation for the outdoors.
“We were really lucky we’ve always had really athletic kids who were excited about kayaking,” Pruzan said. “We were able to introduce them to river running, freestyle, slalom and down-river racing. To start going to races throughout the region.
“The kids from Jackson are going to come in [to the academy] among the strongest paddlers,” he said. “This club is definitely in the top tier of two or three other clubs in the U.S. and Canada.”
Pruzan said the academy exposes Jackson kayakers to new perspectives on coaching and paddling.
“As a school it has a more structured, full-day environment,” he said. “They’re doing specific warm-ups and workouts, so it really allows the kids that are into it to develop.
“For our club there have been kids that over the years have just wanted to excel and learn more about racing, and there are others who just want to be on the river and have fun,” Pruzan said.
The World Class Kayak Academy intensifies the focus on “competition, especially the training and athletic aspects of the paddling,” he said. “It’s super-effective, especially for kids who have already done ski racing or any other sport where they’ve really had to focus.”
Like many youths in the valley, Driscoll Larrow had competed not only in kayaking but also alpine skiing, soccer and skateboarding.
He raced with the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club for seven years. Each successive year, Larrow was cutting into his kayaking time by going to summer ski camps and starting dryland training in the early fall. Even so, he is quick to admit that leaving the skis behind is bittersweet.
“I’ll definitely miss skiing,” he said. “The Ski Club definitely taught me a lot after seven years.”
Larrow has been at home on the water since he started kayaking in the backyard of his home in Rafter J.
“I remember him when he was little, about 4 or 5 years old, kayaking with his friends in their little kayaks,” his mother said. “It was a wet spring, and we had a little pond back there.”
Larrow’s father, a passionate and seasoned kayaker, took the boy down lower Flat Creek on state land. That’s when everything started to click for his son.
“Yeah, my passion began originally through my dad — No. 1. He definitely helped me out the most,” Driscoll Larrow said. “We’d just go out and mess around in little boats when I was about 6 or 7.
“But I didn’t really start getting into whitewater till I was about 8 or 9. That was through Aaron and Rainer Kenney and the Jackson Hole Kayak Club.”
His father agrees the club played a major role.
“He seemed to take to it right away with the kids’ program,” Joe Larrow said. “We did a trip on the main Salmon River in Idaho with the kayak club when he and Wyatt Doyle were about 10 years old, and they spent the whole trip by themselves. I think that’s when both of them got fired up about it, the independence that they felt.”
From paddling Slide Lake and Flat Creek, Larrow and the budding kayakers moved to easy sections of the Snake River and the whitewater rapids of the Hoback River, Snake River canyon, Greys River and Gros Ventre River.
“The crew that we have right now, that is moving on, have really been the strongest, most deep crew of exceptional paddlers that we’ve had and have gone on to do well at regional races,” Pruzan said, “The Black Canyon of the Bear River near Soda Springs, the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River north of Cody and the North Fork of the Payette River near Boise.”
In addition to Driscoll Larrow, that crew includes Doyle, his brother, Owen, Zander Ulmer, Atticus Sanders, Pruzan’s sons Nate and Noah, Landino, Milligan, Grant Hagen, Shawn Groenstein, Eric Gregor and Tanner Babb.
“It’s cool having coached and spent so much time kayaking with Driscoll and Nate,” Pruzan said. “There was a brief period of hanging out with Joe and Driscoll and me. Joe was a huge influence on me, and his stories of the rivers of the West when I was really getting into paddling whitewater were super influential.
“It’s just funny to hang out with Driscoll. He really gets a lot of his confidence and his go-for-it attitude from his dad. Driscoll will say something or do something or walk a certain way and it’s, ‘Oh my God, that’s Joe!’”
Kayaking is a solitary sport, but it’s the teamwork that is so rewarding for Driscoll Larrow.
“When you’re running harder sections of whitewater, you have to have a good team,” he said. “It’s just being part of that group and that environment, being on the river. There’s not a better feeling than when you get to the bottom of a rapid.”
Relating his most memorable experience kayaking with his son, Joe Larrow recalled getting ready to kayak the Upper Gros Ventre River several years ago.
“It was at 7 feet,” Larrow said. “It was really high and really serious. We were all sitting on the grass getting ready to go, and Driscoll looked at me and asked, ‘Dad are you okay?’ I realized that I certainly didn’t have to worry about him. I was at a point where my presence was probably going to hinder him. I realized he was on his own.”
Does Luderer worry when her son is on the water?
“All the time,” she said. “I am always relieved when he texts me and says, ‘Hey mom, I’m off the river.’ He’s so comfortable in that boat and comfortable in the water. I have heard from his coaches that he’s not cavalier about the water.”
It took a moment for Driscoll Larrow to think of a story to tell about his most intense kayaking experience.
“It was probably in California last spring,” he said. “We were on the last day. We were on this section [North Fork of the Mokelumne River] near Tahoe called Fantasy Falls.
“It’s a three-day section of river. We spent two nights on the river and three days kayaking, and it was the last day. We were on the last rapid. It’s probably the most full-on section I’ve ever run.
“We had Eric Parker, who’s a really good paddler and a super-good outdoor photographer, Aaron, Owen, Wyatt, Luke and Jeremy Nash, who’s also a very good paddler.
“We were on the last rapid. ... Everyone was like, ‘No, I’m walking it, I’m not running this.’ Luke and I had been talking about going to Fantasy Falls for a few months before that, and he said, ‘No matter what, I’m gonna run that rapid.’
“He got there and he ran it. No one else ran it, just him. He styled the s---out of it. It was cool.”