Interview: Donald Calder

Donald CalderDonald Calder has been involved in the NZ Paddling Community since the Eighties, from a young freestyle paddler in the mid nineties to a kayak retailer, importer, manufacturer, designer, publisher and event organiser.

In late 2007 Donald ended an era with the hand over of Sunspots Kayakshop to Paul Tapper. We thought that this was great opportunity to catch up with Donald and take a look back at one of the most familiar faces in NZ Kayaking. We tracked him down in Wanaka where he was on paddling vacation with wife Nat, baby daughter Anna and friend Will Goer.

CM: After over 15 years in the kayak industry you’ve sold Sunspots, why the change and where are you heading now?

DC: I just felt like it was time, plus we have just had a baby so I wanted to be able to focus on being a full-time father.

CM: As a a freestyle competitor, boat designer, and kayak retailer you’ve been part of the constant development of freestyle kayaks. Where do you see the ‘Freestyle Side’ of paddling going in design and competition?

Donald CalderDC: I started boating before even a ‘Dancer’ was a playboat, so I have seen a great progression in design. I think people have definetely seen enough of Freestyle, and it’s not where kayaking is heading. The whole freestyle side of the sport has become too elitest. They called the Ottawa worlds a great progression for freestyle but in reality it is just shaping the sport to the big nations like the USA, Canada and some European nations. Down here in New Zealand, Australia and even Japan there aren’t the type of river features that they’re using for these events. It makes them all a little bit one sided.

Then there is the argument to use man-made sites as any country could build something, but you can’t really build a feature that is up to the standards required for a World Championships.

Overall it seems to be getting more difficult for a beginner to get involved in kayaking. Even with other sectors like Extreme Racing it is still very much a select group of paddlers willing and able to compete. Although slalom is definitly on the rise again and in Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty there are plenty of young paddlers getting involved in the sport.

I think that as a whole we need to take a look at how other sports have handled their growth e.g Wind-surfing. For awhile their boards got smaller and smaller, until it was too much of a learning progression for someone to get involved, now the boards have increased in size again, making it easier for a beginner to get out there and enjoy themselves. Because of this the sport is receiving an increase in popularity.

CM: As a kayaker you’ve visited many of the places that kayakers dream about visiting, where have you been and what’s you pick of places to visit?

DC: I would have to say right here, that’s why I’m holidaying in New Zealand. Sure I’ve been to heaps of place and we’re always adding to our list of places to visit. Last year I finally made it to Skookumchuck in British Columbia – it was awesome, but when it comes down to it New Zealand has it all; the rivers are always flowing (365 days a year) and I have one of the best runs in the country at the end of my driveway.

CM: The Kaituna River is on your backdoor step (literally it is about 200m). What’s it like living so close to one of the most exciting and easily accessable rivers in New Zealand?

DC: It’s great, I’m able to paddle the river on my own terms. I probably get out there about three times a week at the moment, the motivation comes and goes a little bit. Overall the river has everything you could want, head to the Slalom Course and do some gate training, run the river, go for a play in bottom hole, or head downstream to run the seriously gnarly stuff. In New Zealand there’s not really anything like it, except maybe Queenstown with the Kawarau (but it gets really cold down there).

CM: Rochfort Paddles is now your main tie to the kayak industry, where are they heading and do we have any new products coming out from Rochfort?

DC: I’ve had Rochfort on the backburner for the last few years, with having to concentrate on the store we didn’t have time to develop new designs or ideas. Now that we’ve had some extra time Will & myself have been able to concentrate on some new products, we’ve finally nailed down our one-piece crankshaft and have also got a new flat-blade paddle ready for production and diversified our range to include Sea Kayak and Wing-Blades paddles. Alongside the new designs we’ve been able to focus more on the business side of things as well, we’re going to be doing a lot more export work now too.

CM: You’ve been a strong campaigner against the Kaituna Dam proposals, do you feel that kayakers are treated fairly as river users.

DC: We need to make our voices heard to have an impact, plus it is only going to get harder with the goverment’s new Sustainable Energy Plan. Hydro-Electricity will be seen as the easy eco-friendly solution. In reality the NZRCA is the only group standing up for the kayakers, plus a few people standing up for their local rivers in particular areas. We really need to get in behind the groups that are fighting against the proposals.

Donald CalderCM: After researching the Kaituna Dam Proposal you took the time to modify your house to be more energy conscious. What changes did you make, and how do these changes effect your lifestyle?

DC: We were actually doing it anyway, but all our water is now 100% solar heated, it brought our power bill down to an average $50 a month. I don’t see why more people aren’t putting Solar in as it’s easy and cheap to do, and makes a huge difference. We are aiming to eventually get our entire house off the power grid, we just need to get some more solar panels and batteries. It would be great to be entirely self-sufficient in that way.

CM: Do you think that all kayakers should develop ways to live in a more sustainable manner?

DC: Lots of kayakers are already doing things, I think that the government really needs to step in and subsidise Solar Heating & Electricity. It doesn’t cost any more to put Solar heating into a new house than using conventional cylinders. Combine solar with other items like good insulation etc then the total run-on energy savings would exceed any new Hydro-Constructions.

CM: What’s your opinion on the recent DOC approval on the applications for the Kaituna Dam?

DC: DOC had a difficult decision to make there. When you look into the whole thing, DOC couldn’t actually consider the impact of the easement on the river, only on the reserve land. By the way they have worded their statements I still have faith that they will be one of the groups fighting against the proposal at the next stage.

CM: So how do we get involved and help the Kaituna now?

DC: It’s now moving into a drawn out process, which involves public consultations and legal arguments. We’re going to keep fighting but we really need to get some structure we’re forming a club of Friends of the Kaituna, this way we have a formalised opposition group. We then have to wait for the power company to put in their RMA (Resource Management Act) application. Once that is there we can form our arguments and make our position known, we’re not after mitigation we want to stop the dam. We have to remember that the Kaituna River is a significant place not just to kayakers; there is an eco-system unlike any other within its gorges.

We also have to realise that NZ doesn’t have a shortage of ability to generate electricity, just that our ability to deliver the energy is poorly done.

CM: Thanks Donald

This interview was originally published in CUMEC Magazine Issue #4, March 2008

All images courtesy of Donald Calder.

This article was first published in CUMEC Magazine Issue #4, March 2008