ML Interview: Whitewater Kayaker Brenna Kelly

Written by Carmen Kuntz.

Brenna Kelly has built her life around kayaking. Adventuring on the wild rivers of North America, guiding sea kayaking in Belize, instructing whitewater kayaking on the Ottawa River and competing on the Canadian Freestyle Kayak Team is how paddling keeps her busy – 365 days a year.

But for Kelly, paddling isnt all about her. Its about sharing good times with good people. Much of her time on the water is spent teaching others. With a recent move from Ontarios Ottawa Valley to B.C.s Columbia Valley, Kelly opened her own kayak school. With years of teaching experience and a location and view to match, Brenna is gonna make you believe – whitewater is magic.


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Kelly (l) and Katie Kowalski preparing to compete in the Gladiator Ottawa XL. Photo courtesy Brenna Kelly.
Kelly (l) and Katie Kowalski survey the Gladiator wave during Ottawa XL. Photo courtesy Brenna Kelly.


Mountain Life: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into whitewater kayaking?

Brenna Kelly: I went rafting on the Ottawa River with some girlfriends in high school and since then I did whatever it took to get my butt in a whitewater kayak. I found a friend of a friend to teach me, then I went to college for an Outdoor Adventure program (which they offer at Algonquin College on the Ottawa River), and then ended up working with Wilderness Tours as a guide and kayak instructor.



ML: You have spent a lot of time on the Ottawa River but now have a paddling school based out of the Columbia Valley in Invermere, B.C. What do you consider your home river?

BK: I will always consider the Ottawa to be my home river. It is where I got hooked, it is where I got good and it is where most of my fond memories come from. I am sure the Toby Creek in Invermere will soon be a top favourite of mine, too.


Courtesy Brenna Kelly.
Courtesy Brenna Kelly.

ML: Your kayaking experience extends beyond whitewater. How did you get into guiding sea kayaking in Belize and how does it compare to whitewater expeditions? 

BK: I truly enjoy any type of paddling that gets me to places I have never been before. I had an opportunity come up in Belize through my whitewater instruction and I had to take it! Sea kayaking is rewarding in a much different way from whitewater. It is thrilling when you think about the possibilities of ocean creatures nudging your kayak or surfing a swell overtop of stinging coral where you do not want to flip or putting a sail on your vessel to use wind to propel yourself instead of a paddle.

Mostly sea kayaking is about getting outside and exploring. Finding things you think you may have discovered, seeing sights that you swear no one else could have ever seen and paddling into caves, through arches and beside cliff walls just because you can. Sea kayaking for me is about the sights and sounds of nature. Whitewater kayaking is for the thrills, excitement and sense of overcoming challenges.

ML: You have currently changed scenery and pace a bit by leaving your summer home and position as lead instructor at Ottawa Kayak School to start your own school Adventure Paddle School. What prompted this shift? 

BK: There were a few factors in my decision to move west and open a paddle school. I believe Ottawa Kayak School is the top kayak school in Canada and maybe even the world. I learned a lot there over my 7 years of instruction and it was very tough to make the decision to leave. However, I have always thought of owning my own school where I can create programs of my own. OKS is very well developed and there isn’t reason to change things because it already is successful. Also, I always wondered why I had never heard of a kayak school like OKS in BC. BC is an amazing place to kayak with lots of rivers to choose from. Yes there are lots of very challenging rivers but I have found a place with warm water (key for beginner participation), class 1-2 rivers to progress on, and lots of bigger rivers to step up the challenge. The last reason was that I was tired of moving twice a year. For me, winters in the mountains were a must. Skiing small hills on hard packed powder just didn’t do it for me anymore.


Competing in the New Zealand Extreme Race Series.
Competing in the New Zealand Extreme Race Series.


ML: What do you consider your biggest paddling accomplishment to date? 

BK: I am proud of a lot of things that I have accomplished and it will be hard to pick one. So two of my biggest accomplishments are making team Canada for freestyle kayaking in 2012, and the other is receiving an athlete invitation to compete in the 2016 Grand Prix after placing 1st in the Ottawa XL this past spring.


The Capital Cup. Courtesy Brenna Kelly.
The Capital Cup. Courtesy Brenna Kelly.

ML: You have competed in numerous freestyle kayaking competitions in the past, recently winning the 2014 Ottawa XL and 2014 Capital Cup. Do you hope to continue competing or are you focusing on expeditions and building your business?

BK: I think the reason I truly love instructing kayaking and my devotion to open a kayak school is because I still find time to enjoy the sport for myself. I want people to be as passionate about paddling as I am and if I stop competing and traveling to paddle new rivers – I would probably lose my passion. So YES, I will definitely keep competing.

 ML: One piece of advice for someone wanting to get into the wild and wonderful world of whitewater kayaking?

BK: Immerse yourself in it like you’re being sucked into a whirlpool! Go to the paddle festivals, join the clubs, make your own club, check out the gear swap websites, make friends. It’s a small and very supportive community and once you dip your toe in that river – whether you meant to or not – you are in and it will become easy to excel.

Biggest Drop – 35 ft.

Favourite river feature – Always changing but I’ll say rockslides and the one on the Mastigouche in Quebec.

Role ModelsLouise Urwin, Martina Wegman and Nicole Mansfield  – really nice, humble and badass kayakers.

Countries Brenna has paddled in – Canada, New Zealand, Belize, USA.

Number one river on your ‘to do’ list – Slave River, Northwest Territories.

Piece of gear you couldn’t live without – Astral river shoes, Werner paddle or Sweet helmet.

If you weren’t a paddler you would be a…River swimmer.

If you could have one superhuman power it would be … I have always wanted to fly. I still think it’s possible.

ML: And finallywhy do you paddle, Brenna Kelly?

BK: Mostly to strengthen my Jedi mind powers. Secondly to have tons of fun with the most positive people in the world!