The snow is melting before it even lands on me; I think I am radiating heat about two feet around. I should be cold- freezing, in fact- seeing as how I am wet and it is snowing and the wind, bitter. But I am burning up, breathing heavy. I have been hiking my boat along the riverside trail for about half a mile and I’m not done yet. It’s only been a few minutes but it’s been long enough, and my shoulder is starting to ache from hard plastic meeting bone. I glance down the steep embankment to my right, stealing glances at the rapid that I’m walking. That’s right: I’m walking a rapid. Actually, hiking… lugging, crawling, heaving… past a rapid. I can’t let my mind wander into the icy cold foam piles surging below me, though, or I’m never going to make the rest of this hike. I dust off some old memories of a sixteen year old girl carrying a backpack bigger than she is, and half as heavy, up and down the insides and outsides of Linville Gorge; my cave. I remember those days of sweat and pain with a grim smile and just concentrate on carrying the boat. Right step, left step, deep breath. Glance sideways to the river below. Snow falls a little harder. “You alright?” comes the leading voice just ahead. “I’m fine,” I reply, and trudge onwards. I was, too; I was fine.
So I walked a rapid- well, several, I guess, if you want to get technical. Late December and the alignment of the stars brought rain and snow and my personal first descent of the Big Laurel. I hadn’t been on a real river in over a month, but I didn’t really think about it that way. It was kind of cool, actually, getting on the river- a new, bigger, and scarier one (for me) at that- without any expectations. I had looked at a few pictures back in the summer when my boating first picked up, but other than that I didn’t know anything about the run other than the fact that it was a creek and that it would be pretty different than anything I had paddled thus far. Despite the nasty weather, I was pretty comfortable in my layers and the men’s large drysuit (it ain’t pretty, but it sure is dry!). I had butterflies but I was excited; I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I was excited. No expectations, just new experience. Every bend shed a little more light on what lie ahead, piece by piece unfolding and exposing, like headlights on a dark road.
There was some calculation before getting on the river, I will say that. It was a creek, steeper and rockier than I was used to, so I happily took advantage of a chance to break out my new full face. I also knew that there was a trail along side of the river the whole way down and, if it came down to it, rapids and entire sections of the river could be easily walked. For me, all these new(er) circumstances were considered but not dwelled upon. I was just excited to be on a new run. The cold weather made things more interesting and even in the grey fog and drear, the river scenery was still breathtaking. Dark, naked tree limbs against a milky sky; cold and barren rock beckoning crystal clear flow to come forward. No, I had no hesitations, and it was honestly liberating to get on a river and just paddle stroke to stroke, line to line, and not be overcome by anxiety and images of rapids downstream eating up at my present moment.
A new run: it brought about such a changed perspective for me. On something familiar, I have standards for myself. We’ve talked about this before, haven’t we? I’m working through it. But apart from necessary safety precautions, I had little frame of reference for myself when getting on Big Laurel the other day, and by that I mean I hadn’t poured over pictures and videos and user comments before heading down it for the first time. I was with a group that had great foreknowledge of the run and could show me lines, scout with me, and give a good heads up when necessary, but I hadn’t over analyzed the river before meeting it face to face. It felt good, and honest.
I had a healthy dose of nerves at the first significant rapid while scouting it. I watched someone flip midway through but was confident I could roll even if I found myself upside down. We talked about approach and lines, which eddies to catch and where to help break down the rapid into smaller, more manageable pieces. It was a longer rapid than I had experienced before, now that I’m thinking about it. Everything else I’ve done hitherto has been pretty cut and dry: drop, hole, eddy; wave, rock, eddy. This one had a bit more girth and duration. It was also one of the first times I realized the incredible disparity between shore scout perspective and boat level scouting perspective. I had obviously noticed the differences in experiences past, but this time the river was nearly unrecognizable from boat level compared to shore level. I got back in my boat and made it over to the first eddy still shocked that I could barely distinguish where I was in reference to all I had stared at from the river bank. It was here that I made one of those “learn by doing” errors. Simply dumbfounded by this new revelation and feeling exposed and vulnerable in a place I thought I had understood just a few minutes prior, I let adrenaline and anxiety take over. Plan: out the window. I was originally going to catch an eddy further downstream but suddenly I wasn’t sure I could do it anymore. I was looking at the water cresting on the rock face and the bubbly eddy behind it and could hear it mocking me, waiting to flip me over. Whereas not long ago I was certain rolling wouldn’t be a big deal, I was now petrified of the possibility. “I’m just going to run it direct. No eddies,” I said. New plan… and I quivered on out of the eddy and downstream.
I took a few important lessons out of my pfd of Big Laurel. The first is that planning a route through a rapid is important, especially when you are nervous. Not to dismiss improvisation or reactionary paddling, but in this instance I succumbed to nervous energy and just wanting to get the rapid- and the fear- over with and out of my system. Ah, fear… my old friend. Second, the thrill of a new run and new challenges trumped my expectations for myself, so my subsequent swim at the bottom of the rapid and the myriad of emotion that followed were moments of rich, pure learning. I felt every emotion on the river that day, true and hard. The swim, the combat rolls, the walking of the rapid downstream… sometimes that’s all in a day of kayaking, and maybe we shouldn’t try to take those aspects out of our experiences unduly. Man, I felt the river that day. I felt humble. I felt strong. I felt weak. I felt thankful. Isn’t that all in a day’s “work?” If we aren’t feeling along the way, taking in our surroundings and emotions… doesn’t that mean we’re missing out on something? I wasn’t sorry about my swim. Wasn’t disappointed, wasn’t mad I walked a rapid I may have been okay on or maybe would have struggled through… I was just grateful for the challenge.
It was all about decisions, choices. The perfectionist in me wanted to hike my boat back upstream and run the rapid again after I swam, but I had to consider the day, the elements, and the possibilities. The stack of chips, as a friend would say. I start my day with a full stack and maybe lose some along the way to discomfort, doubt or fear. Are my choices favoring the chips I still have or gambling for the ones I’ve lost? That day was hard… so much emotion, a rawness to the on river reality that I haven’t experienced before. I figured that in the face of adversity- and that’s what some days on the river are, aren’t they? Freezing temperatures, cumbersome gear, potentially fatal hazards standing in the way of natural communion, joy, camaraderie…- I had to take the triumphs that I could… I had to find them, extract them, and hang on to them. I ran some bigger, harder stuff than I had before, finding my way into the eddy below with dinner plate sized eyes and a stupid grin on my face. That water was cold and those rocks were hard, but when I found myself upside down, I found myself right side up again. And that time when I didn’t, I made a choice to get back in my boat anyway; my choice. And that rapid I walked? That was a damn tough hike in cold weather gear, snow, and the weight of the river I’d paddled behind me. That is a learned skill, too.
I would never know if I was ready for that river until I got on it. I can’t climb the proverbial ladder if I don’t reach for the rungs. I did something new, something harder than I had done before. And at the end of the day, tank completely empty, mind and body completely spent, I wanted to do it again… and I know that I will. How do you get ready for the next challenge? How do you progress “on to the next,” if you will?
I always get a little nervous when I get in my boat at the put in, usually an eddy of some sort, right? I slide off the rock or out of the mud into the water and, for a moment, there’s a balance, an equilibrium. I take a deep breath and relish in that brief safe harbor. And then, I stack up my chips and shove them out on to the table with the stroke that sends me over the eddy line.