I've had a ton of fun with a personal kayaking resurgence in the past three years, thanks to a good crew of people here in Canmore and elsewhere, it's been great, yeah! New boats, new rivers, new tactics, loving it, it sure is a great sport. But I'm seeing two issues: Paddlers with lousy rolls, and unfit paddlers. I'll deal with the rolling issue first as it's simpler.
If a person can't roll effectively on both sides of a kayak with or without a paddle he or she has no business being on a serious whitewater river with any sort of serious hazards. A poor roll is a hazard to the paddler, the people rescuing the paddler, and the Visa card when new paddles and boats have to be purchased. Go to the pool or a warm lake, put on a mask, and learn. It will only take a few sessions, and these may keep you from being beat up, losing your paddle, boat or life. When I learned to paddle 30 years ago rolling was still sort of optional; "good" paddlers could roll anywhere, the rest of us hoped to one day roll regularly. After a particularly bad swim in the glacial Athabasca river while wearing a rain jacket I went to a lake with a swim mask a few times and spent maybe eight hours learning to roll up from any possible position I could think of. It's been more than 20 years since I did this, and I've never swam in that period because I couldn't roll up. I'm not special, I just put a modest amount of work into learning a basic skill. There is just no excuse for not being able to roll well other than sheer laziness. My friend Doug Ammons wrote a great essay about rolling up in a class V drop with broken ribs and a bunch of other injuries. He felt that if he had swam he would have died because he couldn't swim with his injuries... I don't know if I could do that, but his point is that a roll should be instinctual and easy enough that the paddler can do it anytime, anywhere. There are likely some paddlers reading this who want to make excuses. Tell 'em to yourself while you're underwater. I've taught kayaking for decades, everybody can have an absolutely bomber roll, full stop.
Now that I've got my rant level up to speed I'll address kayakers and fitness:
Being unfit in a kayak on a difficult river is dangerous. If you're on a play run chilling out then it's no big thing, but here in the Rockies and west people tend to run difficult creeks a lot. Creeking automatically involves carrying your boat in rough terrain, getting beat down in the river occasionally, and having to fully redline your body when things go a little wrong . In the last 30 years I've seen multiple incidents on the river that were, in my opinion, primarily due to lack of strength and stamina, not lack of "skill." Although harder to get than a solid roll, fitness is also important.
High intensity training (going all-out for up to 20 minutes straight) relates directly to being able to put out a lot of physical energy on the river, and then recover quickly from that exertion. If you can blast out a classic "metabolic conditioning" workout then it's going to help when you have to rodeo out of a hole and then keep paddling a long rapid, or have to carry your boat alongside a river in rough terrain, or rescue me. All of these situations are also heavily skill dependent, but I'm seeing paddlers with good skills get worked for a few minutes and then have no energy left to continue dealing and swim or fall down because they're tired. Now, if you can't breathe then no amount of conditioning is going to help with that problem really, but that's actually kinda rare when kayaking--if you have a decent roll!
In climbing if you don't have the skill or fitness you usually can just stop and rest. Same with mountain biking and a lot of other sports. But in paddling it's possible to have the skill to flow with the river until all of a sudden you need the fitness backup and it's not there...
The first place I really noticed a direct improvement from doing Crossfit (which has a lot of HIT training in it) was on a real bitch of a river trip in BC. We were on the first descent of the upper Atnarko river, which would be an all-time classic run if weren't clogged with logs for most of its length. The banks were unstable, vegetated and steep. Due to video and camping gear and some other stuff my boat weighed at least 75 pounds. A 75-pound pack sucks, a boat is way worse. But, due to exercises like thrusters I felt reasonably strong doing battle; the connection was clear in a way it seldom is while climbing or just moving in the mountains. One of the other people on the trip was also reasonably fit, and strangely the two of us were generally having more fun than the other three... Not dissing them, we got down it as a team, but I think our relative fitness really helped the two of us.
Now, skill almost always trumps fitness in sports after a certain base level (Gladwell's "threshold" point where you're tall enough, smart enough, strong enough, whatever to be in the game). A highly skilled but unfit kayaker will be a lot safer than a highly fit but unskilled kayaker on a class V run. But skill and fitness aren't mutually exclusive; go kayaking a LOT for months, like four days a week for three months, and you'll likely develop the strength and skill necessary for that. But most of us don't paddle four or more days a week all year, or even if we do paddle regularly it's often not at a high enough intensity level enough of the time to develop the "flat-out gear" an emergency situation demands. Technical rock climbers routinely go as hard as they possibly can in their sports; redpointing or onsighting a hard route means going all-out. But kayakers don't, so when that output level is required while getting worked it's often not there.
Being aerobically fit isn't enough either; the ability to run slowly for an hour isn't effective when you're trying to muscle out of a situation on the river, totally different pathways and requirements. Done perfectly, kayaking demands mostly mental skill and good movement patterns, and not a lot of strength. But most of us aren't perfect; I need to be able to sort stuff out when I'm getting beat down, and then have the strength to continue dealing immediately. I think the ability to continue putting out power at a high level is more important than absolute power; for example, a small woman will do better than a strong man if she has the skill and fitness to rodeo out of a hole and then still keep functioning at 80 percent of her max for the next 30 seconds. The man could exert more one-move power maybe, but if he's finished after that and his heart-rate is at 90 percent of max and not coming down for a minute it's game over, he's swimming or slow as hell on the bank.
It's easy to fix this problem: do some form of strength and high-intensity training three days a week for an hour or so total (including the warmup). That'll make a huge improvement, plus it's fun. Many outdoor adventure types have an aversion to training; cool, but personally I have an aversion to getting beat down hard in the river. I'll train to help avoid that situation, plus high intensity training is just that: intense, like paddling can be, and I like it.
I generally like Crossfit and think it's a form of training that's appropriate for paddlers. It's also open-source, meaning that it's free (unless you want to join a Crossfit gym). The hype and posing among some Crossfitters is somewhere between comical and a complete turn-off to many individualistic outdoor types, but the workouts and ideas are unarguably effective, you don't have to buy the T-shirt to do the workouts.
Anyhow, time to go train, I've had a couple of days getting soft.... Might have to work on my roll a bit too.
PS--There's some stuff on the Crossfit site about Brad Ludden, a damn good paddler, but it's subscription only. This article is interesting.
PPS--I received a couple of emails on what roll is most effective. The short answer is the one that gets you back to the surface the most consistently in the least time. The longer answer is that I'm a firm believe in the full sweep, front tuck to coming up on the back deck roll. I've seen and taught many different rolls, but over the last 20 years the front sweep to almost lying on the back deck roll seems to be the most effective for the most people. It's basically a back-deck handroll when broken down into components, so add a paddle blade for leverage and it's the most powerful roll on the river. Some people will argue that it's dangerous because the paddler is laid out on the back deck, but the paddler is usually above the surface of the water by about 120 degrees from the initiation. The most dangerous roll is the one that doesn't work the first time.