What's your history of paddling and how did you develop your passion for kayaking specifically?

In 2001, one of my girlfriends struggled with healing a broken heart. What better way to help her, I thought, than connecting with the outdoors and meeting new people? I dragged her to a group camping event with a local adventure club. As we neared the parking lot, I saw a tandem kayak sitting on one of the cars and I knew what a hunter felt like looking a ten point rack on a buck. I met the owner and let him convince me to get the boat wet. As we sliced through the water, it reminded me of skiing – the wind blowing through my hair, a feeling of freedom – and it hooked me. It worked for my girlfriend, too. Not kayaking but healing. Six months later, she married one of the guys she met who happened to be an old childhood friend of hers!

I soon joined the Silent Otters, a kayaking group in North Central Florida, run by Gerry (The Prez) and Sandy (First Lady). We met monthly around a campfire, shared food and planned the next month’s paddles. I loved Gerry and Sandy’s kick back attitude and their only rule: There are no rules. What I learned during six years with the Silent Otters laid the foundation for the next chapter in my life.

How did you realize you could teach kayaking skills?

After moving to Nashville from Florida in 2007, I searched on the internet for local paddling groups. Coincidentally, one started a few days before my search by a man named Roy and I was the second member. Within a few months, I became the Organizer and changed the name of the group to Paddle Adventures Plus. The “Plus” was a double entendre: the symbol for the Plus sign is a cross and the group did more than kayak, like ride go carts, bowling, camping, ziplining and an Ugly Sweater Christmas party. To match the interests of the rapidly growing membership, people volunteered for special niche events such as a married couple who did couple events, someone who did singles only events, Tom, a dentist, taught roll lessons for beginner whitewater paddlers. I gave Indian-like nicknames to members. “Dryfoot” led indoor events during the winter, “McGuyver” could be relied on to fix things and bring chainsaws on the river, “Smiley” took selfies of himself long before they were popular. As many as forty people signed up for paddles. They were all enthusiasm but short on experience with as many as seven capsizes on one paddle. Not only did they need to learn how to paddle, rescuers needed to learn effective rescue techniques and no wonder they had so much trouble. They bought boats and gear unsuitable for Tennessee rivers. I wasn’t so sure about my teaching skills but no one else was doing it and the need was there.

I decided to add credentials to my years of kayaking experience and spent a week’s vacation in New Hampshire attaining an American Canoe Association Kayaking Instructor Certification. I handed the group to another member, started Nashville Kayak Lessons in 2009 and, to date, helped over 1,200 people become safer and more confident paddlers and savvy shoppers of kayaks and gear. I never forgot what it’s like to learn how to kayak and I think that’s important for any instructor.

What, if any, prerequisites do you have for people taking lessons from you?

The less experience, the better - no bad habits to break! Parents ask about teaching their child and the answer is, as long as the child is tall enough to hold a paddle and clear the deck of the boat, it’s a go. There’s people who either naively think, There’s nothing to it, go paddling and find out there’s more to it than they thought. Some of them have friends who take them on a river requiring a lot more than zero experience or kayaking muscles. A lot of those people never kayak again or show up in my class.

It amazes me that nonswimmers or weak swimmers sign up for a lesson. My hat’s off to them! I insist that after the lesson they take the opportunity to get their first flip out of the way. Not all, but most of them, do. I learned to offer that after intentionally flipping one of my nonswimmer students. When she didn’t come up from under the kayak, I grabbed her shoulders and yanked her out of the water. After she, her husband and I calmed down, I had to know, “Why did you stay under the water?” She raised her hands in the air and made fists. She said, “Because I needed something to hold on to.” She’d grabbed onto the rim encircling the cockpit (the coaming). I learned several important things from that experience: You never know how you’re going to react in an emergency; something that makes absolutely no sense makes sense when you panic. From leading group paddles I also learned that it’s critical for leaders keep calm during an emergency; do a safety huddle before a paddle and assign roles to rescuers; group think is a necessity on the river meaning we all look out for one another.

Do you do group and private lessons?

The ACA requires a certified instructor to teach no more than five students at a time. Most of the time, my students do not know each other and other times, friends or a family block the lesson. I can do groups larger five with another experienced paddler in attendance but the people in my classes say they prefer one-on-one instruction that small groups offer. It enhances comradery, everyone seems to feel more comfortable and they say they learn more, too. To help people with special needs, I attained an Adaptive Paddling Endorsement from ACA and last year I began teaching and testing Boy Scouts for their kayak badge. Fun!

What is your favorite place on earth to kayak?

I’ve paddled in Hawaii with flower petals floating on the water and on the ocean in Ireland. Also in Japan and Germany but no river compares to the Tuckaseegee. The Tuck’s fast flowing current with few obstacles is as close to skiing in a kayak as I’ll ever get. The Tuck’s a Yee Haw! river.


To schedule a private kayak lesson, visit Nashville Kayak Lessons

In Leslie's own words

Nashville Kayak Lessons opened in 2009 and has served over 1,200 new paddlers!

Leslie moved to Nashville, TN in 2007 from Gainesville, FL where she belonged to two kayaking groups. She helped recreational kayaking get off the ground in Nashville, eventually becoming an ACA Certified Kayak Instructor.


To schedule a private kayak lesson, visit
Nashville Kayak Lessons

299 Lake Road, Castalian Springs, TN 37031  |  615 461 0711  |  lesliedunnauthor@gmail.com

In Leslie's own words

Nashville Kayak Lessons

LeslieDunn.com