In and Around
The best way to learn to paddle is to take lessons. There are three options: (a) have someone teach you informally; (b) take a class with a club; (c) take formal lessons at a paddling school. I think a mix of all three works well, because it exposes the student to different ways of approaching the same problems. There's no doubt in my mind, though, that (c) is the fastest way to become a solid paddler.
All that said, the paddling school where I took my first real lessons is the Riversport School of Paddling, PO Box 95, 213 Yough Street, Confluence Pennsylvania 15424; (814) 395-5744, (800) 216-6991. They're located on the Middle Youghiogheny River, about 90 minutes south of Pittsburgh. The school is run by Bob Ruppel with help from well-known paddlers like John Weld and Kara Ruppel Weld (1995,1997 National Champion, K-1 women). Its location is just about ideal, with access to whitewater ranging from easy (Middle Yough) to insane (Top Yough).
Tussey Mountain Outfitters, located near Penn State at 226 N. Water Street, Bellefonte, PA 16823, 814-355-5690 provides canoeing instruction including whitewater training; they also run the Red Moshannon downriver race each March and the Dog Days slalom race each August. And on top of all that, they have a great shop stocked with paddling and camping supplies.
Steve Swope has started Codorus Creek Outfitters, 650 W. Philadelphia Street, Apt. 1, York, PA 17404, phone 717-843-8698. He offers tubing trips and boat rentals, new and used equipment for sale, paddling and slalom racing clinics. Steve's a heck of a nice guy as well as a strong paddler with a lot of experience.
Keech and Ann LeClair run a small but extremely good school; as two-time National Open Boat Slalom Champions, they know their stuff! Contact them by dropping by Champaign Canoeing Whitewater Instruction with Ann & Keech LeClair, PO Box 173, Scarborough, NY, 10510-0673, 914-762-5121.
There's also a whitewater school in the Philadelphia area; Whitewater Challengers, Inc., up in the Poconos, at P.O. Box 8, White Haven, Pennsylvania 18661; (717) 443-9532 is mostly a rafting business, but they also teach kayaking. I don't really know much more about their teaching programs.
Should you find yourself down in West Virginia, get in touch with Mountain River Tours. Tell them that Rich from the GSPs sent you; if that doesn't send them away screaming, you're set. You can contact them at 800-822-1386, or 304-658-5817 if you're in West Virginia. MRT not only does instruction, they also run commercial trips on many rivers. They also operate a campground that's convenient to the New, Gauley, Meadow and other rivers: 304-658-4386.
If you're further up north, or just want to try to sharpen your paddling skills in New England, contact Zoar Outdoor, email@example.com, on the Mohawk Trail, Charlemont, Massachusetts 01339, (800) 532-7483. The school is run by former US national team member Bruce Lessels, with able assistance from Karen Blom, and offers instruction at all levels. Also up north, try the New England Outdoor Center in Maine, 800-766-7238 or the Outdoor Centre of New England on Pleasant Street in Millers Falls, Massachusetts, (413) 659-3926.
Or you could venture farther afield. There are some excellent whitewater paddling schools elsewhere in North America; perhaps you could combine a trip to one of them with a vacation. Among them are: Four Corners River Sports & Kayak School , where Nancy Wiley and Kent Ford hang out. They're at PO Box 379, Durango, Colorado 81302, (800) 426-7637. Madawaska Kanu Centre, Box 635, Barry's Bay, Ontario KOJ 1B0, (613) 756-3620 in summer, (416) 447-8845 in winter. I've spent a week at MKC, and besides (a) great food and (b) a *warm* river just outside their front door, they have terrific instructors. Nantahala Outdoor Center, US 19 W. Box 41, Bryson City, North Carolina 28713, (704) 488-6737 which has now become quite the center for outdoor sports. Sundance Expeditions, Inc., 14894 Galice Road, Merlin, Oregon 97532, (503) 479-8508. I haven't been to this one, but I've heard great reviews of it from friends who have.