Whitewater Kayaker
Credit: Jordan Bastin

Too many people die kayaking—it’s time for a change.

"It was a really shitty year,” says Katrina Van Wijk. In 2014, the professional whitewater kayaker had been raging along—after competing on the World Cup slalom race circuit for Canada, she transitioned to paddling steep creek races, hard exploratory descents and huge waterfalls. The same year, she competed in the Elite Division of the illustrious North Fork Championship, the first woman to qualify for the extreme race. 

Often the only woman in competition with all the guys, she wondered why. So, along with her friend Louise Jull, a New Zealand paddler whose career paralleled Van Wijk’s, she founded TiTs Deep. They hoped a grassroots effort would encourage women to push their paddling to a higher level.

“It was about charging with other women,” says Van Wijk, 25. “It came from a young energy: don’t think about it, just do it.” However, everything changed last year—fundamentally altering the attitude of Van Wijk and of TiTs Deep.

The movement started as a simple meme. While training for one of her first downriver races in 2010, Van Wijk missed her line and sank up to her, well… “I just yelled out, ‘I’m tits deep!’” she remembers. 

It caught on with female paddlers everywhere, possibly because it resonated with a growing awareness of the “confidence gap.” From there, it became a video project, eventually morphing into a community aimed at encouraging female athletes to push their limits. They explored the idea that women’s lack of confidence, not competence, can hold them back from performing on par with men. While most books and articles on the topic focus on business-world manifestations of this gap, it reigns in the world of adventure sports even more. Beyond a few standout performances, men dominate every sport—pushing harder, bigger, further and faster. Many people believe it’s more a result of confidence than strength or skill. 

Van Wijk knows this better than most. TiTs Deep evolved into a revolving cast of female paddlers, pushing the sport all over the world. Meanwhile, though, paddlers kept dying. Whitewater kayaking is a tight community; many were friends. But none rattled her more than when Jull drowned in March of 2015. Van Wijk didn’t get in her boat for four months. She emerged a different person and paddler.

“I still want to push my own realm of what’s possible, and encourage other women to do the same, but I want to do it in a more conscious, safe way,” she says. “The underlying tone in the kayaking community can be a little too rowdy.”

Unlike backcountry skiing, where almost no one would travel without a beacon, probe and shovel, the “rules” for paddling are often loose and little followed. Even though they save lives, Van Wijk adds.

Shifting the sport’s mindset is her new mission with TiTs Deep. She will still encourage new paddlers—especially women—to get into the sport and push themselves. She’s running women and youth camps through the Madawaska Kanu Centre in Ontario, British Columbia and Ecuador. But the focus will venture away from the just huck it attitude of the past. 

“As a sport we need to be making more good decisions, rather than going out to get the GoPro shot,” Van Wijk says. “We need a stronger safety culture so we can continue doing the sport we love, without losing the people we love.”