Not quite a year ago I ran shuttle for my friends and family on a sweltering July day at the Ocoee. I had only been paddling for a few months and was not ready to join them by any stretch, but that didn’t stop my eyes from filling with stars as I looked downstream from atop the dam. I knew I wanted to run that river someday. I spent the majority of the day- about 4 hours, since there was so much raft traffic that day- turning the AC in the car on and off to keep my elderly dog from overheating as we waited at the takeout. Though I would never begrudge anyone shuttle, I swore to myself that I wouldn’t come back if I wasn’t running the river.
Last weekend we returned to the Ocoee and, to my great satisfaction, I was planning on running the river for the first time as I had promised myself the summer before. I floated in the cramped eddy below the ramp with much trepidation; I wasn’t totally convinced I was ready. I knew I would try: paddle aggressively, take chances, but stay in the moment and not be too proud to step back, if necessary. But in the back of my mind there was a little voice, nagging: “Should I really be doing this?”
I have to tell you, there is nothing more satisfying than working yourself up in frenzy of what ifs and maybes and even a bit of self-doubt only to discover that everything you thought about yourself and your abilities was wrong- in a good way. Working my way down that river I realized that I wasn’t just surviving my way down, I was experiencing it- totally present. I was catching eddies, making ferries and by the end of the weekend, I was hopping in little surf waves and picking apart rapids on my way down. I’ll be the first one to tell you, I was shocked. I had really hoped I would be capable enough just to survive, but I was actually having fun!
How did I get there?
I’ve given some thought about what the past year has taught me about pushing myself, and how that prepared me for a step up on the river, even if it was only perceived. Here’s a list- yep, another one!- of things that gave me some momentum to keep after the goal I had set nearly a year ago.
- Do it for yourself. Kayaking has been intensely personal for me. The swims, the tears, the combat rolls, the long list of firsts… those things are mine. There have been facilitators and supporters along the way, but at the end of the day I am the only one that has to decide when to press on and when to hang back, and that means everything from choosing to walk or run a rapid to simply not getting in my boat that day. This has allowed me to take ownership over something that is both scary and fulfilling, meaning that the only failures I have are the self-imposed ones. The opinions or pressures of others are drowned out by the roar of the current I’m about to peel into.
- Your crew makes a big difference. During my first summer paddling at the Whitewater Center, I remember sitting in an eddy with a friend when she asked, “Hey, did you know you can do this cool jet ferry right here? Let me show you.” She peeled out, zipped across the river into another eddy, and then came right back. She had a big, stupid grin on her face and said, “Now you try!” There wasn’t any pressure to do what she had done; she was just opening a door for me that I could go through if I wanted. But she was having fun doing it, and I wanted to have fun, too… so I tried it.
- Fear is your biggest opportunity. A few weeks before I got on the Ocoee, I kept wondering what I could do to get ready- whatever that meant. I figured that if I did the scarier, harder things on water that I was already comfortable on, I might be in better shape to handle the unexpected on the unfamiliar. I got in a playboat and started to learn how to surf and run the river in a smaller boat than I was used to. I went for the harder line on runs I was already comfortable on and I let myself be okay with the consequences: flips, rolls, and even a few swims. If you can seize fear before it seizes you, you might get to beat it to the punch when you’re doing something totally new.
- Try old things new ways. This goes hand in hand with #3. Get in different boats, take different lines, get sideways in current… you get the idea. I started flipping over above some of the drops at the Center so that I would wind up upside and sideways for a surf at the bottom. Obviously, all of this is always done with safety in mind and never attempted when consequences are high. I usually reserved this kind of thing for a slower day at the park when I had a paddling buddy with me.
- Let go of stigma. Swim? Walk a rapid? Let it go. Everyone has something to say about why or why not, but you’re the only one in your boat or out of it. The fact: swims happen. You get scared and walk a rapid. Only you know exactly what was going on in that moment. Were you trying something new? Was it a different run? Different level? Were you pushing yourself? Maybe some of you saw this video of me running Fayette Station on the New River for the first time. Pretty cool, huh? The level dropped out the next day and I got overconfident and swam at the bottom. You know what I took away from that? It was the first time I was ever able to hang on to all of my gear and get myself and my stuff to shore without any help. I put my ego back on the shelf and walked my boat and my humility back up the hill and ran it again.
- Be honest. This one might be the hardest. Honesty with myself about my fear and my skill level has allowed me to keep a level head about biting off more than I can chew or discovering that benefits of a new challenge outweigh cost. I’ve found this to be especially true when evaluating consequences of a potential run or rapid. When we first pulled up to Fayette Station and I got my first look at it, running at six feet, my stomach dropped to the ground. It was huge, and I was beginning to question my resolve; I really didn’t have to run it if I didn’t want to. But I asked an important question: if things go awry, what are my consequences? That particular rapid is super deep and it ends in a big, wide pool. If I’m upside down, it’s unlikely I will hit any rocks and even if I swim, I’m emptying out into a big, wide pool. So while I was really nervous and contemplating skipping the adventure altogether, honesty about the situation separated the fear from the reality. There really wasn’t any reason not to run it, other than the fact I was scared.
- Have fun. Seriously, though… do it. Are you so scared you’re forgetting where you are? Take a look around. Rivers are incredible: current, biology… clear sky, grey sky, wind, rain- the river is still just as beautiful, just as content. Don’t forget to enjoy your environment, too. I paddle with these crazy guys sometimes who slide their boats all over concrete and look stupid doing weird things in weird boats, but I’m far less aware of ego and self-imposed expectations when I’m relaxed and goofing around on the water with them; in fact, those have been some of my best days boating because I’m more willing to try new things and less afraid of failure.
- Keep learning. I’m realizing that this is a never ending process with kayaking. There is always something new or harder to try if I’m up for it. For example, I just bought a Wavesport Siren. Not only am I pretty nervous to take that bad boy out for real whitewater run, I’ve also become aware of some work I can do on my roll as it’s not as friendly to my habits as some other boats I’ve paddled. I’m looking at it as a new challenge.
I’m sure the list could go on but as I look back on what got me to this point- the reaching of a set goal, that is- these are the few things that stuck out the most. I realize that everybody’s learning and progression is different so obviously this list is subjective. In my short time as a paddler, however, I’ve found there to be some stock in these points.
What is more is that I think whitewater can offer immense opportunity for goal setting and reaching as you work through progression. A year of paddling to get to the Ocoee may be ambitious for some and too generous for others but for me, it was a great fit. I’ve got some goals in mind for this next year, too, which I will have a great time working towards along the way even if things don’t unfold as I plan. The river, it seems, has its own plan for us anyway. Happy paddling!