Adam Masters during the Ocoee River Race

2018 Ocoee River Race

By Adam Masters,

The middle Ocoee in Copper Hill, TN is one of the most classic class III runs in the whole country featuring continuous fun rapids, tons of playspots and an easy roadside shuttle. I have been kayaking the middle Ocoee since 1994, and have run it hundreds of times. I developed my love of hand paddling on the Ocoee and as soon as I had the first plastic bellyaks in 2012 I haven’t looked at my kayak again.

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Bellyaking is the best

Essential Gear for Bellyaking

The beauty of bellyaking is it’s simplicity. No paddle, no cumbersome sprayskirt, no extra gear. Just you and the boat. While it’s a possibility this is all you may need, most of us don’t live on a remote island in the middle of the desert which would allow such shenanigans. Instead, here’s a list of essential gear for bellyaking; gear we have tested, proven, and use on a regular basis.

Let’s start from the bottom up:

1) Footwear

Sure, the flip flops you wear in the shower at the gym will work, but for bellyaking – especially in moving water/whitewater – you’ll want something more sturdy. Old running shoes work fine, but if you are looking for the most effective footwear, then you’ll want to use Astral Footwear. Astral is known for their PFD’s (more on that in a moment) but they make some of the best aquatic adventure shoes around, that also look stylish!

My personal favorites are the Astral Hiyak:

Astral Hikay


This shoe was built for whitewater bellyaking, if ever a shoe was. The padded ankle, velcro strap, and incredibly tactile soles work amazing on rocky, wet, or uneven terrain.

A less tactical option but still just as functional is the Astral Brewer:

Astral Brewer

These do double duty and can go from prone paddling to seated drinking with very little time in between since these dry so quickly.

2) Calves

You probably don’t think about the back of your legs very often but let me tell you that you will once you have a solid calf sunburn. Let my experience be the guide: cover your legs. Even in the hottest environments, a pair of bike tights or non-cotton yoga pants will do wonders to keep your skin from turning three shades of red.

3) Shorts

I wear boardshorts over my wetsuit, though I’ve heard that this gets you made fun of on the coast. It’s quite a practical reason: we are around rocks all the  time and rocks abrade fabric. Have you ever heard of tearing your wetsuit on sand? I didn’t think so. After all, you are paddling a bellyak, so do you really care about what people think? Exactly. You be you.

4) Shirts

My recommendation? Always don a rash guard/long sleeve T shirt. Again, this is as much about sun protection as anything else. Sure you can go skin to the wind and show off your awesome sleeve tattoo, but in my experience I get the worst sunburn when I’m playing in the water because a) I can’t feel the sun’s heat as much and b) I’m having fun so I’m not paying attention to things like this.

The Astral Layla PFD

5) PFD

There is some debate in the prone paddling world about PFD usage. Here’s our thoughts: WEAR ONE. We always wear PFD’s. We paddle mostly in freshwater, that is moving, that has rocks. Also, the bellyak was developed with the PFD in mind: the curve of the body area is ergonomically designed to accomodate a rider wearing a PFD.

Our hands down all time favorite PFD, designed for women but works no matter what bathroom you choose: the Astral Layla. This vest has a flat front, multiple adjustment points for getting the perfect fit dialed in regardless of torso length/etc., and is also easy to get on and off with it’s convenient side zip.

While this is our preferred PFD, anything that has  low profile front and is comfortable for prone paddling will work great. Just do us a favor and make sure it fits properly with all straps adjusted. PFDs are like seatbelts: you hope you never need them but if you do, make sure they’re buckled!

Flow Gloves

6) Gloves

We love the Bellyak Flow Gloves, because they are purpose built for Bellyaking. You can also use your bare hands, inverted flip flops, or any number of webbed gloves out there. Again, fit is important, gloves that are too big will ‘flop’ around and not be as efficient in the water.

Wear a helmet while bellyaking

7) Helmets

We wear helmets when we paddle whitewater. Again, rocks hurt, especially if you hit them with your head. We are big fans of Shred Ready’s Session Helmet and it’s is what we use for all of our classes.  and their Scrappy version also looks stylish and is suited for  belly kayaking. Make sure that whatever helmet you choose it doesn’t have a visor that impedes visibility while paddling prone.

8) Thermal Gear

We go out in all sorts of conditions because we love it, and because there is gear out there that makes it comfortable. On a budget and have to buy one piece of gear? A 3/2 full wetsuit is going to be the most versatile for spring/summer/fall paddling in most of the world. You can find great deals on these all over the internet, often for less than $100. Get a wetsuit designed for surfing, if it has knee pads, that’s an added bonus for durability.

Prone River Surfing, Jaws on the Nolichucky River in Erwin TN

What do I wear? I have an NRS Radiant 3/2 that is lined with fleece. This is hands down one of my most favorite pieces of gear. The fleece lining keeps the clammy wetsuit feeling a thing of the past, and the full protection afforded by this piece of gear gives me confidence to tackle anything.

For the in between seasons/mornings/evenings: I use NRS 1.5 mm Hydroskin. I have the pants and the zip up jacket. This combination allows me to mix and match as necessary.

For the dead of winter, nothing beats a drysuit. Being able to stay warm and dry on the inside while your suit protects you from the cold water is invaluable. This is a pricey option, but for those ready to paddle year round, and those who want a super versatile piece of gear, a drysuit is worth the investment. We’ve had luck with Immersion Research and Kokatat. Bellyaking is quite hard on gear, so we’ve found that it doesn’t take long to wear off the water repellent finish on some drysuits, making them dampsuits. We hope to own a Gore Tex Kokatat one day, to see if there really is such a thing as a ‘dry’ suit!

And no matter what Billy Ray tells you down at the river, two pairs of bluejeans and a hoodie DO NOT MAKE YOU WARMER ON THE WATER. Synthetic fabrics only people. It’s 2018. You should know this.

Happy Paddling!


Bellyak Founder and World Champion

French Broad Section 9

Five Hidden Gems to Paddle in Western North Carolina

There are no shortage of beautiful waterways to bellyak on than in our home region of Western North Carolina. Not only do we have killer BBQ and more craft breweries than we can count on our fingers and toes, but we also have more than 400,000 miles of waterways in the whole state. You better keep them a secret, but here are our top 5 WNC rivers to paddle:

1) Section 8 of the French Broad

The French Broad River is the second oldest river in the world, which makes it older than my great, great, great granddad. And he’s old. So old in fact, that it has developed a certain smell only found in this particular waterway. Although the whole river is great to paddle, Section 8 is one of our favorites.

This is a 5 mile (ish) section downstream of Marshall NC, about 30 minutes north of Asheville NC. Section 8 begins below Redmond Dam, and takes out at Barnard (the put in for the most famous section: Section 9). Section 8 is rarely traveled, but is the perfect section for new paddlers, or those looking for a family friendly float. There are no real ‘rapids’ on this section, but what makes it fun is that there is consistent gradient from put in to take out, making for a nice ‘moving sidewalk’ of current. There are also many eagles and otters that live along this mostly unpopulated stretch of river. If you’re also on the hunt for somewhere to stay, one of the French Broad River Paddle Trail campsites is on this section. 


2) Section 9 of the French Broad

Are you seeing a pattern here? This section has been written about before, and is the location for the evolution and development of Bellyak more than any other stretch of river. This is a great section for beginning whitewater training, with an instructor. In the four mile stretch of river between Barnard and Stackhouse, there are multiple Class 2 and 3 rapids that offer many different ways to go down, from easy straight down the middle to maze like runs that require precise navigation. At higher levels this section can be quite pushy due to the amount of volume coming down the river.

For Section 9 rapid by rapid, check out our Where to Bellyak: French Broad Section 9 post here.

3) Lower Nolichucky

This section of river, beginning at USA Raft in Erwin TN and ending at Jackson Love Bridge, is a perfect section for those looking to taste a little whitewater action in a perfectly clean and pristine river. The Lower Nolichucky is approximately one hour north of Asheville, and flows year round. Contact the folks at USA Raft to book your trip. They have expert guides, hot showers, and beautiful accommodations right along the river.



4) Nolichucky Gorge

On the books to be named a Wild and Scenic River, the Nolichucky Gorge flows through the deepest gorge in the Southeast. Over 8 miles of amazing whitewater that will delight and test the most avid of paddlers. Rapids such as Quarter Mile, surf spots like Jaws, and miles of beautiful scenery in a pristine gorge make for an amazing day on the water. For those inexperienced, having the experts at USA Raft guide you down is the way to go.

5) Big Laurel

40 minutes north of Asheville is the best section of whitewater Bellyaking known to man. The Big Laurel River. Flowing out of the shadows of Mount Mitchell, the Big Laurel is a tight, low volume creek popular with fisherman that flows into the French Broad River below Stackhouse. The Big Laurel has a trail running along the side which allows for easy scouting and portaging if necessary. Rapids such as Triple Drop, Suddy Hole, and the Narrows provide exciting, technical rapids in a  beautiful setting. Check with the folks at Laurel River Store for good levels. Levels from 3” to one foot are ideal. Over a foot and the spice level goes up exponentially. Great surfing right at the put in at Cabin Wave.

Ocoee Race 2017 Recap

The 2017 Ocoee River Race, sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club, had over 130 racers this year.  This is a challenging downriver race, requiring  hundreds of small moves to stay in the fast water to make it down the 4+ mile Class III course. Team Bellyak represented with our own category and five racers this year.

How to Race the Ocoee

To post a fast time, it’s not so much about being fast in the rapids, as much as it is about having the smoothest line between the end of one rapid and the beginning of the next. Each rapid has multiple ways to run, with a fast ‘race line’ through every feature. Racers are released in one minute intervals to race against the clock.

Adam Masters getting ready to bellyak in the 2017 Ocoee Race

Men’s Hand Paddle Race

Adam Masters – creator of Bellyak – raced twice: first in the men’s kayak hand paddle division (racing on the bellyak Frequency), and then in the bellyak category (racing on a Play 35). Here’s what he had to say about the experience:

“Every year I’ve raced in men’s hand paddle (as that is the closest category to bellyak), and I like to pretend to hurt people’s feelings, or at least make them realize we aren’t messing around. I’m wearing webbed gloves, and they are using large plastic hand paddles. I won the category in 2012, and since then we’ve created our own category. For the past three years I’ve come in right behind the hand paddle master of the southeast, Keith Sprinkle. Plus, I just want to race bellyak in as many categories  as possible.

The Frequency is the fastest boat in the bellyak lineup, at 8’7″. The flip up skeg is designed to work in whitewater, and the Ocoee is a rocky, shallow river – a perfect place to put it to the test. The skeg allows the boat to stay on course in the squirrelly water between rapids, thus making it much more efficient to paddle quickly during the transitions.  After racing back-to-back with and without the skeg, I’m convinced of it’s effectiveness for going fast in whitewater.

My first run was clean with only a few mistakes, I spun out in the middle of Broken Nose by overshooting the race line, and then got stuck between a big raft trip in Double Suck that I didn’t get past until half a mile later at Double Trouble. The next part of the race are the doldrums – a half mile of flatwater where dreams are crushed, reasons for living are questioned, and you come face to face with the truth of how much you did or did not train for this type of output. For whitewater paddlers, flatwater is akin to uphill paddling. For the past year I have been swimming, mountain unicycling, running and paddling more regularly than any year prior, and I felt as strong as I ever have during the race.  I stayed fast all the way through to the end, and nailed the finish move at Powerhouse, which is deceptively tricky if you’re not prepared for where the finish line raft is.”

Adam finished in third place for Men’s Hand Paddle Kayak, with a time of 39:15.

The rest of Team Bellyak had start times  50 minutes after Adam (since he was the only one racing two categories). As soon as he was done with race lap number one and partially recovered from the lactic acid overdose and weird tracers he was seeing around everything, he jumped in the van and headed back to the top.

“I had strategically placed an ice cold Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle, along with some more traditional recovery foods like Skittles. Strategic soda and Skittles intake can be performance enhancing. There happened to be a car wreck on the two lane road back to the top, so I sat for nearly an hour blasting Rihanna on the half of a radio station that one gets in Copperhill, TN and cheering on the rest of Team Bellyak as they paddled by.”

Bellyak Category Race

There were five competitors in the bellyak category race – Adam Masters, Jamie MacLeod, Bill Wunderlich, Corey Topping and Sarah Neal. Adam and Jamie races on Play 35s, and the rest chose Play 45s. The race according to Adam:

“My second run was clean. I made no mistakes and stayed steady throughout the run. However, the absence of the skeg was very noticeable as I had to put substantially more energy to keep the boat on course. I was mildly delirious as the end of the run and grateful for all of Team Bellyak standing on the bridge above the finish line cheering for me!

For 2017, we decided to recognize ourselves and make our category as awesome as possible. Our prizemaster this year was Bill Wunderlich, who had assembled the best assortment of prizes for the Bellyak category.”


First Place: Adam MastersPrize: Webbed belt, Aquaseal, two pound bag of ‘America’ Skittles, 24 Ounce engraved beer stein.

Time: 41:42

Second: Jamie MacLeod Prize: $50 PF Changs gift card, resealable bag of original Skittles

Time: 43:44

Third: Corey Topping Prize: Large spray bottle of Rain X, two pound bag of ‘America’ Skittles

Time: 49:01 (missed takeout raft, had to paddle back upstream)

Fourth: Sarah Neal Prize: $25 Barnes and Noble Gift Card, two 12′ NRS Straps

Time: 49:02 (missed takeout raft, had to paddle back upstream)

Fifth: Bill Wunderlich Prize: ENO Twilights, 1986 Pro Tec Helmet, open bag of used skittles

Time: 51:02 (only his sixth trip ever down the Ocoee, and he will be in the medals next year)


Jamie MacLeod celebrating the Ocoee race

This sums up how we feel about racing the Ocoee, and shows Bill’s awesome helmet prize.

Team Bellyak at the Ocoee Race

We had the most fun! Especially that guy in the back.

Having fun on a bellyak

50 Must-Do Things This Summer

Spring has sprung and Summer is upon us. We want to do EVERYTHING while we frolic in the sun, but here is our top 50. Can you do them all?

Pet a dog

1. Pet a dog

We thought we’d start you out with an easy (most super fun) one. With puppers in public more and more these days, it’s easy to spot a furry friend in need of some love. Just be nice and make sure you ask first!

otters holding hands

2. Hold hands with an otter

You can’t look at these little guys and not want to give that little furry paw a squeeze! These playful little fluffs will often hold hands while they float in order to stay close. If you’re lucky, you can get a whole romp of otters to accept you as their one and only. You can all raft together!

3. Eat a 1lb burrito

If you hit a Wednesday night and realize that you’re not knocking off enough items from your bucket list, you can always count on a burrito to save you. Apparently, we are also counting *two* ½ pound burritos from Taco Bell if you are in a crunch!

cute racoon

3. Give a raccoon a forever home

Once the otters have accepted you, you should have enough animal clout to move into raccoon territory. You’re way past dogs (you’ve already petted one) so get out there and adopt the ring-tailed forest puppy of your dreams!

burrito 4. Eat a 10lb burrito

You may be thinking that a 10 pound burrito seems a bit difficult. How soon you forget that you have been welcomed into a romp of otters and you have a raccoon with a bandana on at home. We believe in you!

Bellyaking on the river

5. Bellyak on 5 different rivers

Summer is the perfect time to get out and break in that brand new Bellyak. Choose from a number of whitewater options and get paddling!

Big Ben in London

6. Go to England

Are you curious about the origin of Fish and Chips? Do you want to know who Paul Revere warned us about? Are you a fan of really big clocks? Go to England! Enjoy some time overseas and get to know the motherland!

7. Try a hike you’ve never been on

These are super easy to find if you’re ever been on any social media ever. Challenge yourself with a long or more strenuous hike than you usually do – bonus points if you leave your state!

Bellyaking on the river

8. Take your friend bellyaking

Sharing is caring! Are you really a real friend if you have discovered the joys of bellyaking and not taken your buddy ol’ pal? (Hint: no, you are not) But! You can easily remedy that by taking them this summer! Choose one of your new rivers and hit it together!

9. Swim in a mountain lake

The Southeast is full of swimming holes, rivers and lakes that are just begging to be jumped in! (You can even bring your bellyak buddy!)

10. Pee in your wetsuit while surfing

Hate being cold? Us too! Save time and body heat by peeing in your wetsuit while you’re surfing! It’s much more challenging then you would think!

concert crowd11. Go to an outdoor concert

If you have never been to an outdoor summer concert, you are absolutely missing out. We’re warming you up for full-blown Bonnaroo with a few hundred of your closest friends singing the best music! And the long lines at the porta-potty with complete strangers always leads to great connections!

12. Go night swimming

We aren’t sure what it is, but something about swimming in the dark makes it feel about 1,000 times cooler. Maybe it’s the anxiety of knowing all of the nighttime predators are now awake and only inches from your vital organs. Either way, the experience is worth the rush!

Cup of coffee

13. Use a fake name to order coffee

If you are a Sam and you go with Joe, then you are officially no fun. But go to one of those places that calls out your order and give them the name you’ve always wanted (or thought was hilarious). Bonus points if you let them yell it more than once, and double points if you use Barack Obama. Or shootingfishjumpingstarrainbow, if you’re in Asheville.

14. Cook with a vegetable you’ve never heard of

If you have a local co-op or a farmers market, you should definitely go and pick out something that you’ve never seen or heard of and look up how you’re supposed to cook it. Prepare it for yourself or for friends. You never know, you could love it and gain mega hipster points.

Yoga on the bellyak

15. Attempt Bellyak Yoga

We are giving out all of the A’s for effort on this one. We don’t think it’s fair to have great loves and have to keep them apart. So get your waterproof yoga pants on (or take them off!) and stretch it out! You might find a new favorite way to mount your bellyak in the process! (or get really good at getting on out of the water).

16. Say yes to everything for a whole day

You don’t have to be full-on Jim Carey, but open yourself up to some new opportunities by saying yes to whatever comes your way!

shelter dogs

17. Pet all the dogs in a shelter

Since you’re already a dog-petting pro, we challenge you to test your skills at a shelter. You can volunteer, or just drop by to shower some welcome attention on all the doggos!

18. Run a half marathon

You’ve been trail running forever, now is the time to put your skills to the test. Shake up your workout routine by setting a specific half-marathon race as your goal.

bike to work19. Bike to Work

No matter if your commute is short or long, hop on a bike for your morning commute. (You can still drop off your kids!)

20. Fish for dinner (without backup)

Time to put your super survival skills to the test. We know you’re a great fisherperson, but now is the time to prove it to your stomach. Catch, clean and eat your hard work for a satisfying supper!

aerial yoga

21. Take an aerial yoga class

Built for all types of fitness levels, aerial yoga, is becoming more and more popular throughout North America. Check the location you choose’s site for a possible free trial class!

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22. Go live on Instagram for five minutes

For those of you who do this all the time, this should be no big deal, but for those who have never done it before, take it as an opportunity to step out of your box and connect with people! It doesn’t matter how many people watch, it’s about being comfortable with yo’ self!

turtle in the road23. Save a turtle from the road

We’re not sure why the turtles tend to cross the road out in the summer heat (maybe running late for a meeting with a chicken), but we feel we can help them reach their destination more safely! Turtle heroes unite!

24. Tie-dye something

Whatever fabric you can find that could use a little sprucing up is fair game. Grab some rubber bands and dye and a big bucket and get colorful  for the summer months! We like bandanas and shoelaces!

homemade bread

25. Make bread from scratch

We know, we continue to test your kitchen skills, but making bread by yourself from scratch is almost as satisfying as actually eating it!

26. Donate your time to a local cause

Give back a little this summer Season by getting involved in a local non-profit or organization! You’ll help people AND have the best time. In the Asheville, NC area? Check out More Heart Than Scars – an organization that assists individuals facing physical and or mental scars/challenges to help realize they can live beyond them.

dancing27. Try Contra dancing

Another way to stay in summer shape without the gym. Contra lessons can be super fun and the people you meet are just friends you haven’t met yet!  (Be prepared to sweat!) If the music doesn’t move you then smell of the unwashed masses will!


28. Have Campfire Karaoke

Warm up those vocal cord with some hot chocolate and bring out the radio. Go around the circle and take turns belting out whichever ones you know. You might even scare away the bears!

29. Go on an unplanned weekend road trip

Pack up one Friday after work and just drive until it feels right. Try a new restaurant, sleep in your car, spend a day at the beach, whatever sounds like the perfect complement to a spontaneous weekend!

hand-fed squirrel

30. Hand feed a squirrel

You are a wilderness god/goddess!

31. Hike to the highest peak in your state

You can expand your knowledge of your area by getting out and exploring the range! (We will accept border states if your highest peak is an active volcano)

international currency32. Buy something with foreign currency

Depending on the lengths of your summer travel, this may become more of a barter, but  deciphering exchange rates is a skill you never know you need until you need it! Practice now!

33. Get a henna tattoo

Calling all commitment phobes! Get an awesome henna tattoo and enjoy your art for just under a month! Bonus points if you are a male and get a tramp stamp.

Pet date!

34. Go on a date with your pet

Show that special furry someone how much they mean to you with a pet date! Take them to their favorite park, and maybe pick up a pup cup along the way! If they want to slow-dance, well that’s up to you!

35.Have a tech-free day

Unplug and get outside for a whole day. You’ll be surprised at how relaxing it can be to get away from responsibility for just 24 hours!

36.Volunteer locally for a day

Anywhere you want to volunteer would be an excellent way to spend a fantastic summer day. We totally encourage you to keep this one up after summer is gone!

breakfast food37. Have breakfast for dinner

Brinner is the breakfast (for dinner) of champions! Brinner comes in clutch when you’re short on groceries or just craving that good good bacon after 5:00p.m. Take our word for it – it’s addicting!

Bellyaking on Lake Jocassee

38. Hang out at a weekly Bellyak demo

New to the world of prone paddling? Great! Come give Bellyak a try at one of our many demos and clinics!

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39. Ride a unicycle

By labor day, you will be a Jack/Jill of all trades! Go to We hear it also makes you taller!

40. Eat tacos for every meal

Because you truly haven’t lived until you’ve had a brunch taco!

library books

41. Go to a bookstore and read the first book you find

We love to stumble upon great things that we would have otherwise missed (duh, Bellyaking). WE think the same would be great with reading!

42. Go Zip-lining!

Need a baby step before your first bungee jump or skydiving session? Go zip-lining! We recommend zip-lining through the forest or a gorge!

43. Take a class at the local community college

Community Colleges have so many cool classes you can take to add a new skill or just have some fun! Don’t worry about sending your transcripts or making a schedule, because most are open enrollment!


44. Try a new local restaurant

Everyone we know has “their place” that is a hole-in-the-wall that no one has ever heard of, but it is so good. We think it’s time you found yours!

45. Do a scavenger hunt with your friends

Be creative, and get out either in your town, or the woods or even a new place and come up with a list “things” they need to collect or activities they need to do. Photos are your evidence!

46. Try a comedy club

Let off some summer steam by gathering your friends and going out to a comedy club for a night. Listen to local talent, or buy tickets to a big show.

47. Plan a big summer road trip

In contrast to your weekend getaway to who knows where, plan a big road trip to something you have always wanted to see/do. Pack great road trip snacks, cool stops and bring great music.

summer garden product

48. Have dinner from your garden

All of your hard work from planting this spring, can come straight to the table for an Al Fresco summer meal. Don’t forget all of your great herbs!

49. Watch a familiar movie in a Foreign language

Expand your brain with something you already know you love! Also find funny words in another language you can use later.

Water Balloons

50. Water balloon dodgeball

The only logical last item is always dodgeball. Take advantage of the summer sun by getting outside and have a good ol’ fashioned water fight. Lines and actual rules optional.

Whatever you get up to this Summer, we hope it’s fun, fabulous and outdoors! Happy Summer!

Bellyak lesson at the National Whitewater Center

From Bobsled to Bellyak – A Seamless Journey


Name: Natalie DeRatt

Age: 28

Bellyak Experience: 0

First Track: National Whitewater Center

Bellyak Used: Play 35

In my short life, 18 years has been dedicated to a sport. 12 of those years have been dedicated to competitive sports, and 3 of those years have been spent bobsledding professionally, for both Team USA and Great Britain. Up until recently, it was bobsledding that has given me the biggest thrill – hurtling down  mile-long ice tracks at speeds averaging 75 mph with no way out. That’s until I tried bellyaking at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC.


My bellyak background

Based in Asheville, NC, I’ve seen bellyaking before – floating down the river, pictures of them in the surf, and spending lazy days on the beautiful waters of Lake Jocassee.  However, nothing could prepare me for the experience of bellyaking in whitewater. The premise is simple: You hop on, you lay on your belly, you use your arms to direct you. But, what isn’t obvious is your connection with the water. Every little move – a slight lean to the right, a little turn to the left – all affect your ride, and so within minutes of trying one for the first time I felt like I was connected to the water (as frilly as that sounds). Within an hour, I was going down Class III rapids, and loving it.

Bellyak lesson at the National Whitewater Center

My bellyak fears

I’m not going to lie, I’m not the strongest swimmer. My biggest worry was getting knocked off my bellyak in a rapid, sinking to the bottom, and never being heard from again. I came to find out this was way too dramatic of me. It’s actually super easy to just hop back on if you are sent swimming because there are no spray skirts involved and you’re on the boat and not in it. Plus, the bellyak is so buoyant, it took quite the splash to send this lack-of-experience ‘yaker into the water. Imagine if you actually knew what you were doing?!


I Became Michael Phelps

Although I was the most exhausted human in North Carolina after spending the afternoon bellyaking, it was the biggest thrill I’d had in a long time. While in driving school for bobsled, they let us try skeleton for a couple of runs – the bellyak of the ice. You simply lay on the sled, hold on tight, and ride the ride to the icy bottom. Having now done both, I can tell you bellyaking was SO much more fun. A sort of swimming/ kayaking hybrid, you feel you are literally flying through the water. Or swimming really, really fast. Like faster than Michael Phelps fast. Probably faster than Aquaman too. And it was so intuitive! You treat the boat as if it was an extension of your body.

Bellyaking at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte

Don’t Judge a Bellyak by its Bellyak

What did I learn from this experience? I learned you should never judge an outdoor activity by its cover. I learned that even if you’re not the best swimmer in the world, bellyaking is perfect for you (p.s. Always wear a life jacket). And I learned that exhilaration and adrenaline are available outside of winter sports and roller coasters, and they’re much, much closer than you think! As for  me, I’m already plotting my next bellyak adventure.

Bellyaking Upper Gauley – The Maiden Voyage

What’s the Biggest Thing You’ve Done on That?

There’s an unwritten expectation in every ‘extreme’ outdoor sport: size matters. People want to know what the biggest, baddest, gnarliest thing you’ve done. Not how well or how graceful you’ve done average things, but what is the biggest thing you’ve survived? Do you even Class V, bro?

Even the Squirrels are Scared

The Upper Gauley River, in West ‘by god’ Virginia, has long been the bedrock class V run of every aspiring kayaker. It’s a big, powerful river with multiple places that can kill you dead if you get off line. More nervous shits have been taken at the put in of this iconic run than possibly any other run in the world. It’s not that technical by Southeastern standards, as the lines have a pretty wide margin of error measured in feet, not inches. But the real danger are the undercut rocks, and the long intense rapids. This run had been causing me anxiety since I first decided to run it in a bellyak in 2012, but didn’t actually run it til 2016. I had kayaked the Upper Gauley as a teenager and I remember the anticipation of paddling it was much worse than the actual run. But this was different. I was paddling a boat that I was only attached to by gravity, with nothing but my hands to propel me. I was remembering stories of my Uncle Allen clawing off his fingernails trying to get out from an undercut, tales of kids dying in siphon suck sieves and hydraulics so big squirrels were getting torn out of trees. Thinking about how bad it would be for the brand if I screwed up and lost my boat, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself.

Self Preservation vs. Cajones

Friday morning of Gauley Fest, 2016, I woke up sweaty in my minivan to a blue sky day with highs in the 70s. I hemmed. I hawed. My “high sense of self preservation” was in overdrive. I knew deep down my skill level was far greater than the size of my balls and none of my friends doubted my ability to get down the run gracefully. I just doubted myself. Eli Helbert, one of the best OC1 paddlers in the world, told me to basically get in the car and let’s go, I could follow him down the river. So I went.

View from the bellyak of Canoe Guru, Eli Helbert

The Canoe Guru, Eli Helbert…none better to follow in the world.

Nervous Shits and a Fleece Lined Wetsuit

The put-in was clogged with rafters, kayakers, long lines at the porta-potties, and throngs of people congregated together in various states of undress, pounding light beer and chain-smoking. If these people could make it, even in a raft, I was good to go. I found a porta-potty willing to take some abuse, put on my NRS Radiant fleece lined wetsuit (my favorite piece of gear) and got in the water, away from the crowds.

Nothing But Plastic Between Us

As soon as I get on my bellyak and pushed away from shore, my anticipation anxiety is replaced with a feeling of being completely comfortable and relaxed. Maybe it’s because I designed the bellyak and know it like the back of my hand. Or because I’ve spent thousands of hours training for this moment. Or maybe it’s because the unencumbered swimming motion of a bellyak is more natural than ‘sitting’ in a kayak. Whatever it was, I was grateful to be in the water and get downstream, with nothing between the river and me but a hollow piece of plastic.

A SUP, Canoe, Kayak and bellyak on the Upper Gauley

A SUP a canoe, a kayak and a bellyak set off on the Upper Gauley…

Game On

The run was awesome. After a few pucker factor moments in the first big rapid, Insignificant, I was good to go. We had an odd crew: Spencer Lacy on SUP, Eli in his Canoe, me in my bellyak, and a handful of kayakers. I ran everything except for what I didn’t. I didn’t run Iron Ring. Wasn’t feeling it. Don’t care. I always listen to my gut. I took the adventure race line on far river left instead. Someone else can get the first D on Iron Ring. You’re welcome!

Eli Helbert showing me on my bellyak the way down the river

“Come this way”

View from the bellyak of Eli Helbert running the second half of the Insignificant rapid

Second Half of Insignificant


Legend in My Own Mind

The feeling of getting past the big rapids on a run is like waking up the day after exams are over and knowing you passed. Equal parts relief and exhilaration. In the Guinness Book of World Records for things that tens of people care about, I was the first to prone whitewater paddle the Upper Gauley. The same day a nine year old successfully kayaked the Upper Gauley and another guy did it in a drift boat he built himself. But I was the first to do it on a boat I designed for a sport I invented.


Team Adaptive Bellyak: Ian Engle


Ian Engle and Pop Geisen discussing the river.

There are lots of inspirational posters and sayings about “when life hands you lemons make lemonade,” and “when you fall down, get back up” etc. There are few people who embody this spirit on a day to day basis more fully than Ian Engle of Steamboat Springs CO.

Ian was a division 1 wrestler at Michigan State in the early 90’s. He liked high adventure and would jump out of a fourth floor window into a nearby tree, then climb to the ground. As long as he stuck the landing, no problem. However, gravity has no mercy, and one day Ian missed the landing, hitting a big limb on the way down and shattering his pelvis and severing his spine. This left Ian paralyzed from the waist down, and having to navigate the rest of his life in a wheelchair. But this didn’t mean his life of adventure was over, just shifting gears.

I met Ian at the No Barriers Summit in Telluride Colorado last summer. No Barriers is a semi-annual conference for people with all types of disabilities to come together in the spirit of creativity and courage to try new things, and to live by the motto “What’s inside of you is stronger than what’s in front of you.” We were there as part of the vendor village and participating in the on-water demos for adaptive paddling. If you ever get a chance to be around this community, you will be instantly humbled, inspired and filled with gratitude, and never look at disability the same way.

We’ve had many folks with different types of disability use the bellyak, but primarily on flat water. Since the bellyak is a “lie on top,” it’s really easy to use for people with paralysis, lower limb amputation, etc. Not many “differently-abled” folks have used the bellyak on whitewater though (to my knowledge). This was about to change. Ian came through Asheville recently with his dog Zuma, and we went out on the French Broad River near our shop. Ian rode his off-road wheelchair down several railroad tie steps to the river and got in the bellyak with minimal assistance.

Ian Engle on his way to the river.

Way steeper than it looks! Ian rolling the steps down to the river.


I was there to help if he needed it, but for Ian, adapt and overcome is the name of his game. For his first try in the bellyak, I used a Play 35 with a prototype fin to help the boat go straight on the flat water. After about one minute of getting used to the feeling of the boat, Ian was off, with me trying to keep up. However, flat water wasn’t going to cut it for Ian.

Ian Engle

Ian getting in the Play 35 with a little help from his best friend Zuma.

It was obvious that Ian was ready for more…so he came back a few days later while we were having a Team Bellyak campout and stayed with us at Hot Springs Campground. The next day we met our friend Spencer Cooke and Kyle Thomas who helped run safety for us. Ian was fired up, and for the first time in my life I was nervous on the Pigeon, as I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t want my friend to get his legs banged up, or hurt his tailbone in the river (both big concerns with paraplegics). Ian reminded us that he was from Colorado and our little ol’ class III river wasn’t gonna be any kind of problem for him. So I believed him and we went boating.

Ian on the Pigeon

Ian Engle with his game face on.

Once on the water…we were all equal. No one could tell that Ian was by ADA standards, handicapped. He just looked like a dude with huge shoulders and skinny legs with four bellyaks and two kayaks chasing him down the river.

For the Pigeon, he used the Play 45 (stock, no adaptations). I chose the Play 45 for him because it’s much more forgiving in cross currents than the Play 35 (which is more high performance for surfing, etc., or for lighter people). We lowered Ian down the bank in the bellyak, and it was game on. One thing about Ian…he has a whole lot of muscle in his upper body. Once he took off, he was off! It was all I could do to keep up with him. Ian flipped in the first mile, but with a little bit of assistance from me stabilizing his boat, he was back on and cruising in seconds. That’s one of the benefits of the bellyak: swims that in a kayak would be ordeals are just brief moments of cooling off before easily getting back on the boat. No skirts, no straps, no paddle, no boat full of water equal less problems and more fun.

Ian Pigeon 2

One of the few times I was in front of Ian

The boogie water went by quickly, Ian ran the bigger rapid of the day, Lost Guide, and barely got his hair wet. Another quick swim after running the meat of Double Reactionary, but otherwise a perfect run. Towards the end of the run Ian had the boat dialed in and was able to read and run on his own…leaving us all in the dust. I finally had to tell him to turn around and paddle upstream. Only by having him paddle up river were we able to get a break! When we made it to the takeout, Ian Geisen, Team Bellyak chief recruiter gave Ian a piggy back ride out of the water. We unanimously decided to sponsor Ian, and sent him home with a green Play 45.


Ian Engle and Ian Geisen: Two headed Ian

There are certain days on the river that stand out above all others. Perhaps it’s running a hard rapid for the first time, or nailing a trick you’ve been working on, or maybe it’s the chemistry of the group you’re with. Maybe it’s seeing a familiar run through the eyes of a first timer, and seeing their joy. Taking Ian Engle down the Pigeon River was by whitewater standards a very tame run, but for us, one of the most memorable days any of us have spent on the water. Or as Pop Geisen said “experiences like that are the next best thing to positive cash flow.”







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