Bite the Bullet

I’ve always taken comfort in knowing that, for the most part, the worst that can happen while I’m paddling is swimming; bottom line: when the going gets tough, I pop the spray skirt and BAM! Game over.

This musing is brought to you by the harsh reality of whitewater where bailing from your boat does not always mean a fluffy exodus from trouble. Result? Street cred.

Feo Hiking
In this case, walking… but back upstream for second helpings!

I wondered in retrospect how I could (finally) emerge from the ledge hole gasping for air and coughing up water and not have the same knee jerk reaction I’ve had so much of lately, “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. No more of that. I’m out.” As soon as I caught my breath, my voice was calm and steady and my head was clear. Since I’ve been doing so much walking and walking out and saying no in general in recent paddling, I had to think hard about why this experience- of all the more stressful experiences I’ve had on the water- this one was the one that didn’t leave me scrambling back up the river back with my boat on my shoulder headed back to my car. This one, I knew, had only one resolution: biting the bullet and getting back in my boat to head down stream.

To paraphrase a paddling friend of Chris’s: “You know, sometimes you walk. And sometimes you walk a lot… but there will come a day when if you walk it one more time, you might never get back on the water, and you’ll always be walking.”

It was time to change the status quo.

Let’s recap: ledge holes can be very retentive and difficult to exit whilst in your craft. After a few windowshades where I (proudly- thanks playboating!) managed to roll back up still in a surf, I realized just how deep in the seam I was: the aeration of the hole seemed to be closer to my head than my kayak. Another powerful windowshade and I realized I wasn’t coming up from this one. I tried changing my shape a few times by moving my paddle around but to no avail; I was going to have to swim. No problem! I’m not too proud to pop the skirt when need be, especially when there’s no other way out. I yank my grab loop and kick my boat off of me, waiting for that big, fresh gulp of air that, unfortunately, doesn’t come. And it still doesn’t come, and I’m still waiting to resurface as I continue to get throttled by the full force of the pour over that is refusing to let me go.

I finally get my head out of the water briefly enough to yell for help, just in case it were possible for someone to not notice I was stuck in the pour over out of my kayak. I catch someone’s boat from the corner of my eye as I am pummeled back down below the surface, swallowing more water. It is now that I realize I’m in more trouble than I originally thought and my mind quiets as I know I have to hang on for the ride. I think of the story of a friend who was stuck in a hydraulic on the Green and had to go deep to get out and I start shoving my body weight down in hopes of a flush… nothing. From somewhere in the cobwebby corners of my head, I remember advice to ball up and spread out, ball up and spread out when stuck in a feature and I grab my knees for a moment before spreading out like a starfish. I do this a few times hoping that I’ll at least get another chance at air until someone can get to me; after all, I was on the river on a busy day and I could at least take comfort in knowing there were plenty of other boaters to help me out if I could hang on for long enough. Something I did worked and my next breath of air was well downstream of the pourover- thankfully- and a local boater graciously gave me his stern to take me to shore. As soon as I caught my breath, I realized I wasn’t shaking or crying or paralyzed with fear; in fact, I was articulating clearly and, well, positively. “That was wicked!” I remember exclaiming. Was it my big water swim on the Futa that prepared me for such down time? Or something else?

I sat downstream with my gear which had been so wonderfully collected during my ass kicking and thought how easy it would be to hike out. I was a bit winded and this was early in the day; I knew what was waiting downstream. The exit was so clear and familiar… and tempting, since I could recognize the comfort of this option from past experience. And I thought about how I’ve battled with my confidence and my fears the past few months, clawing forward and slipping back so frequently and I remembered the advice from Chris’s buddy. I’ve walked out before. I know it’s the right choice sometimes… but I also feared what it would do to my paddling. If I throw in the towel now, will I ever get back on the water?

I tell students all the time, “Make a new reality for yourself.” So often these boaters are grappling with negative and sometimes even downright harrowing experiences they cannot help but carry with them from put in to take out everywhere they go. “Set a new precedent,” I say. Sitting on the river bank, I realize it is time for me to take a page out of my own book, to follow the strength and determination of the boaters I see triumph by choice, and create my own new reality. If not now, when? I feared never.

I get back in my boat and paddle around, feeling the power of the river beneath me. Throughout the day I’ll fall subject to its will and whim, but I make the choice to savor it with patience and understanding. I choose to remember all the strong, positive experiences I have had on the river instead of feeling weak and timid.

I don’t have to just let the river happen to me; I can be a part of the circumstance, I can savor and accept and embrace the reality, and make it mine. I can take ownership. Looking back, I realize that I set myself up for success that weekend. “Point positive,” is our mantra right now, twisting our tongues to spin positive, encouraging language even when we find it difficult to do so. It sets my mind, my energy in a different direction. I think back to my experience on the Futa and a handful of other really low days on the river and understand that I created a negative experience before it even began. There was no way I was going to have an encouraging time on the Futaleufu because I shot myself in the foot before I ever even got there by internet scouting and reading horror stories, so much so that when I inevitably crashed, I was shaken to the core. I’ve walked off the river before- the right choice- because of the wrong choices made long before I ever even got to the put in. I created a reality for myself that didn’t have to exist.

BL Creek Clinic
Photo credit: Joel McCune… capturing a joyful moment on the rio!

I didn’t have a perfect day moving down stream. I had a few rolls and missed a few eddies, but I was able to paddle the rest of the river not just hanging on for dear life but actually having fun and a few great  lines, too. The river taketh away… but the river also giveth back.

Sunning myself on an ancient stone that must have fought its way to a stand in such an awesome resting place, I slowly take in a juicy apple and squint against the diamonds bouncing off the water. I watch the flow carry from as far as I can see upstream until it disappears around the bend, not knowing direction but trusting it will go somewhere, somehow… this is how the river is to be enjoyed, I think. I know now that the river is to be savored, slowly and with much humility. It offers us a choice that we can take or leave, and we alone decide to be subject or participant… we alone can know if walking this one means walking always. We know the gifts downstream will dance without us, otherwise, so we choose to dip around the bend and soak in the reality we’ve created for ourselves this day.

cover photo credit: Sam Fulbright